Black women in Baltimore were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, but have received little recognition for their contributions.
Women of the Movement — a free virtual program that will be hosted by the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Tuesday — looks at the Black women who desegregated a number of industries in Baltimore during the civil rights era. The discussion is part of the museum’s efforts to honor Women’s History Month, which runs through March 31.
Alexis Ojeda-Brown, a diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion specialist for the museum, will lead the discussion. She became inspired by the topic a couple years ago when she led a tour of the museum for the staff of the Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum, which is located in the late Baltimorean’s former home in Madison Park. In return, Ojeda-Brown and her colleagues toured the Lillie Carroll Jackson museum, or LCJM, which is part of Morgan State University.
Lillie Carroll Jackson was a Baltimore-based civil rights leader who led the fight against segregation in the early to mid-20th century. The former teacher helped turn the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People into one of the country’s largest branches and achieved many legal victories in the fight for racial equality. She died in 1975.
“That was the first time I heard of Lillie Carroll Jackson, Carl Murphy, and so many other Baltimore activists,” Ojeda-Brown said. “I was shocked I didn’t hear about them earlier considering these people had influence with celebrities, businessmen, big politicians — governors, and even presidents.”
Ojeda-Brown, who received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Maryland and has a certificate in African American studies, wound up working for several years for the Lillie Carroll Jackson museum. She said she couldn’t help but find so many connections to the exhibits at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.
“These connections existed but weren’t explored or showcased,” she said. “It made me want to dig deeper, and to be honest, I didn’t have to dig deep to learn about any of these people. Their legacy can be seen throughout the city in murals on buildings, memorials in parks, and heritage trail markers.”
Ojeda-Brown added: “The key is knowing the names. There is power in knowing a name — and you shouldn’t have to go to college to have access to this information, it needs to be more advertised and more accessible.”
The Baltimore Banner asked Ojeda-Brown a series of questions in advance of Tuesday’s virtual discussion, which runs from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. What follows are her responses.
What role did Baltimore play in the civil rights movement?
Baltimore was home to many important figures in the civil rights movement like Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Mitchell Jr. and home to transformative Black media outlets such as the AFRO American Newspapers. While it might not be well known, much of the work done by Baltimore activists played a crucial role in the civil rights movement locally and nationally. From things like fundraising to helping pass civil rights legislation.
Name two lesser-known Black women leaders in Baltimore during the civil rights movement.
Lillie Carroll Jackson, who was the NAACP Baltimore chapter president from 1935 until 1969 , and her middle daughter Juanita Jackson-Mitchell, whose early activism work with the City-Wide Young People’s Forum inspired the creation of the NAACP Youth & College division. I might be biased since I worked for LCJM, so I know the most about them — but you can’t deny how impressive these women were as well as the legacy they left behind.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Black women in Baltimore during the civil rights movement?
I think the most affirming thing I discovered was to know how crucial Black women were in the civil rights movement, how they made up most of the foot soldiers, were the game-changers, did most of the heavy lifting — even if a lot of their work was behind the scenes.
For example, Black churches were pillars in the civil rights movement. And while you see mostly male pastors giving sermons and serving as the face of the congregation, it’s mostly the women of the congregation who are going door to door to rally their neighbors, cooking and baking for meetings, organizing, fundraising, and literally raising the next generation of activists.
I was surprised at how many of these women were teachers. I come from a family of educators and I have so much respect for them. Teachers do so much with so little, and these women not only were teachers, but they also ran for office in local and statewide elections (and won), opened businesses, and advocated for their community during a time where they are fighting a war on two fronts — for gender equality and racial equality.
What happened to these women after the civil rights movement ended?
I don’t think the civil rights movement ever ended for these women. Sure, many people see the end of the movement in 1968 after Dr. [Martin Luther} King’s assassination, but the work never stopped for many of these women. Even after some retired they continued volunteering. These women dedicated their entire lives to supporting their communities.
Are any of these women alive today?
No. All of the women I feature in the program have passed. But I am pleased to say all of them lived into their older years — a couple even hitting their 90s. There still are women alive, though, who played their part in the civil rights movement, like Dr. Helena Hicks, who was a Morgan State University student who participated in the Read’s drugstore lunch counter sit-in in 1955. And Sharon Langley, who was the first Black child to ride on the carousel at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park when it desegregated in 1963. That just shows you how important youth were in the civil rights movement too.
Want to go? You may register for the free event here.