Edmonia Lewis
Edmonia Lewis. Smithsonian.

This era witnessed the mainstream recognition of black women in the visual arts, and inventions. In 1885 Sara E. Goode was the first black woman to receive a U.S. patent, for her “Folding Cabinet Bed.” Mary Edmonia Lewis was the first black woman to gain recognition as a sculptress.  She was the only black artist to exhibit in Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876. In 1907 Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was the first black woman artist to receive a federal commission to create several dioramas of African American historical events for the Jamestown Tercentennial Celebration.

In the sacred community, black women continued to push against obstacles within leadership. In 1886 Louise “Lulu” Fleming became the first black woman to be commissioned for career missionary service by the Women’s Baptist Foreign Missionary Society of the West.  In 1888 Sarah E. Gorham became the first woman missionary of the African Methodist Episcopal Church appointed to a foreign field. In 1894 Julia A. J. Foote became the first female ordained deacon in the AME Zion Church.

Business and professional women experienced firsts during this period in American history. In 1891 Minnie M. Geddings Cox became the first black postmistress of the United States. In 1903 The Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank opened in Richmond, Virginia, with Maggie Lena Mitchell Walker as president, the first African American woman to direct a bank and probably the first U.S. woman to do so, other than through inheritance from her husband.

Maggie Walker
Maggie Walker. National Park Service.

Community betterment and uplift propelled black women to greater heights. The formation of regional and national clubs secured a level of vigilance that would ensure everyone a voice and opportunity to receive assistance.  In 1876 Harriet Purvis was the first African American woman to be elected vice president of the National Woman Suffrage Association. That NWSA, founded in 1869, fought for ratification of the 15th Amendment provided it included women. The amendment passed, but women were not granted the right to vote until 1920. In 1890 The Locust Street Settlement House was established in Hampton, Virginia, by Janie Porter BarrettLocust Street was one of the first African American settlement houses. A settlement house provided poor people in urban settings with housing. These houses worked as social service agents, empowering their residents with skills, advice and opportunities to better their chances of urban survival.  In 1896 the National Association of Colored Women was organized. Mary Church Terrell served as the first president. The NACW grew out of the merger of two nationally representative organizations: The Colored Women's League of Washington and the National Federation of Afro-American Women.  This organization was responsible for aiding the black community, from historic preservation to providing scholarships, to lobbying within local and state governments on behalf of the poor, women, and children. Of note, the NACW during the presidency of Mary Talbert from 1916-1921 was responsible for securing the Frederick Douglass Home in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC.  In 1962, the NACW lobbied Congress and had the Douglass home declared a national shrine contributing to it becoming a National Park Service property. The rise of historically black colleges contributed to the formation of women’s clubs. On the campus of Howard University, three of the four black Greek-lettered sororities were established. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, in 1908, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in 1913, and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority in 1920. In 1922 Sigma Gamma Rho was founded at Butler University in Indiana completing the early black collegiate sorority era. These sororities sought to provide community service, sisterhood and racial uplift.


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