Notable Black American Women

Edited by: Jessie Carney Smith
Review by: Janet Sims-Wood, Ph.D.

Notable Black American Women edited by Jessie Carney Smith, who received the 1992 Anna Julia Cooper Award for Distinguished Scholarly Achievement, is the culmination of twenty years of collecting biographical information on African American women. Starting with a thousand names, the editor eventually reduced that number to five hundred, after a thorough search of obscure and well-known sources, both published and unpublished, and upon the advice of the editorial board. The criteria for selection included whether the woman was a pioneer in a particular field, an important entrepreneur, a distinguished educator, an advocate for social or human justice, a leading businesswoman, noted scholar, a major governmental or organizational official, a creative figure of stature, or a leader, a pioneer or a contributor in other fields.

Arranged alphabetically by surname, some of the entries are familiar women, such as Phillis Wheatley, who lived in the 1700s, and Harriet Tubman, who lived in the 1800s. The book highlights the risks taken by ordinary women to accomplish extraordinary deeds. Some women were overshadowed by husbands, sons, brothers or uncles; these include physician Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson (sister of painter Henry O. Tanner) and freedom fighter Anna Murray Douglass (first wife of orator Frederick Douglass). Also included are the lesser profiled women who were only known in a particular region of the country, but whose work was representative of women across the country. The index gives a significant names, places, and events, while it guides the reader to other important subjects in the volume. Photographs from private donors and various collections offer powerful visual images of women, while extensive quotations permit the women to speak in their own voices. To aid researchers, the biographies include references and the location of archival material.

The list of women is historically, professionally and geographically representative. These women fought for issues such as education, voting rights, housing, health care, employment, and family issues, even as they struggled against sexism, racism, and the economic oppression that was a daily peril to their lives. They came from every occupational group; they were educators, directors, scientists, clubwomen, artists, political scientists, businesswomen, librarians, philanthropists, entertainers, sociologists, and suffragists.

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August 1999