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Amistad Awarded IMLS Grant to Organize Collections on African American Women Leaders

by Laura J. Thomson, Director of the Archives Division

Left to right: Celestine Cook, Lindy Boggs, and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, 1980.
Left to right: Celestine Cook, Lindy Boggs, and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, 1980.

A Range of Experiences: Documenting African American Women's History and Achievements is a project to complete the archival processing (arrangement, description and preservation) of the personal papers of sixteen (16) African American women leaders active in a variety of fields, including the arts, social justice activism, labor activism, civic leadership, politics, and business.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services has awarded to the Amistad Research Center $159,148 of this $318,368 two-year project assisting Amistad with its goal to illustrate the agency of African American women and their contributions and influences through these sixteen prioritized collections.

As historian Darlene Clark Hine wrote in Black Women in America, “Too many Black women had been lost to, marginalized within, or excluded from the historical record of the American civilization…we [lack] an understanding of their contributions and the appropriate historical context that shaped their deeds and thoughts.” Yet, as Hine emphasized, the history of African American women possesses elements shared by people of all colors and national origins and their history must “reach and speak to a global audience, across divides of race, class, gender, and region.”

This two year project will open for research and public the following collections:

Celestine Strode Cook: educator, businesswoman, banking leader and political campaign supporter in Houston, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Alexis De Veaux: award-winning writer and activist whose work encompasses multiple genres, including fiction, poetry, playwriting, biography and children’s literature.

Jessie Covington Dent, circa 1931. Photo by A.P. Bedou.
Jessie Covington Dent, circa 1931. Photo by A.P. Bedou.

Jessie Covington Dent: concert pianist, educator and community leader in Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana; among the first fellowship students to enter the Juilliard Musical Foundation when it was inaugurated in 1924; one of the founders of the Ebony Fashion Fair.

Mildred Katharine Ellis: pianist, music educator and musicologist; recognized for contributions as a music composer in Washington, D.C., instrumental in reorganizing the D.C. Branch of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc.

Antoinette Harrell: prolific community activist in Louisiana who has become a leading historian of sharecropping and peonage research throughout the Mississippi Delta.

Elsie Lewis: part of the first coterie of formally-trained black women historians of the 1940s; served as chair of the History Department at Howard University (1964-1969); first African American contributor to the Journal of Southern History.

Sybil Morial: educator and community activist in New Orleans; wife of the first African American mayor of the City of New Orleans; served on numerous boards and committees that focus on women’s professional advocacy.

Artist Senga Nengudi with her artwork Nuki Nuki – Across 18th Street, 1981.
Artist Senga Nengudi with her artwork Nuki Nuki – Across 18th Street, 1981.

Senga Nengudi: visual and installation artist known for her abstract sculptures combining found objects and choreographed performance; named one of the most influential living African American artists by in 2019.

Marian Hamilton Spotts: teacher, civic leader and federated club woman in Cincinnati, Ohio; graduated from Wilberforce University and later taught there in the school’s Teacher College; active on the local and state level of the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.

Maida Springer Kemp: international labor/trade union activist; traveled throughout Africa, assisting with emergence of trade unions through work with the AFL-CIO.

Dorothy Yepez: artist, gallery owner and teacher of violin and piano; owner of Dorothy Yepez Galleries for fifteen years in Saranac Lake, New York; also worked in the area of children’s theater in New York City during the mid-1960s.

Annabelle Bernard: leading opera singer in Europe; earned master of arts degree from the New England Conservatory of Music before studying at the Stuttgart Conservatory of Music; made debut in the role of Verdi’s Aida at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1961.

Reber Simpkins Cann: Cincinnati, Ohio social worker and civic leader, and the national secretary and vice president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Anne Logan-Pruitt: leading educator and college administrator at several universities; first African American female president of the American College Personnel Association; referred to as the “Godmother of Minority Graduate Education.”

Mary M. Richardson, undated.
Mary M. Richardson, undated.

Mary M. Richardson: successful New York modiste with an elite Park Avenue clientele in the mid-1930s; editor of a women’s fashion column in The Louisville Defender.

Dorothy Mae Taylor: authoritative political figure in Louisiana; the first African American woman elected to serve in the Louisiana state House of Representatives and the first woman elected to New Orleans’ City Council.

These collections provide a view into African American women’s contributions to and accomplishments within multiple fields of interest. They illustrate engagement by these women on the local, national and international levels and provide a global and intergenerational view of African American women’s history. The organization of these sixteen collections, the digitization of relevant audiovisual content, the creation of online collection guides and the creation or enhancement of Wikipedia pages and a blog series will serve to increase access to scholars and the public and assist the Amistad Research Center in fulfilling its mission as a community-facing archival and library repository open to all.


This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services [MH-245560-OMS-20]. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

If you would like to support the funding of ARC’s Women’s Project please donate via Amistad’s Network for Good.


Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.


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