Women's History Month: Four unsung black women you should know

As with Black History Month, the focus on already well-known figures has been an ongoing criticism of Woman’s History Month. When it comes to black women, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and Rosa Parks are on repeat. What makes these much-needed theme months thrive, however, is the spirit of discovery. It’s doubtful that the names Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman, Callie House, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin or Johnnie Tillmon even draw a glint of recognition but they should. In their own ways, each of these women made important contributions to the ongoing struggle for freedom and justice.

Even as a slave, Elizabeth Freeman, known as Mum Bett most of her life, had the audacity to sue for her freedom. Born into slavery in Claverack, New York around 1742, Freeman, at a reported six months old, was sold, along with her sister, to John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, a judge in the Massachusetts Court of Common Pleas. Enslaved to Ashley until she was almost 40, Freeman was spurred to action when the mistress of the house Hannah Ashley tried to hit her sister with a heated kitchen shovel. Freeman intervened and was hit instead, leaving the house, vowing to never come back.

Aware of the 1780 Massachusetts state constitution and its declaration of all men being free and equal from Sheffield’s many conversations, Freeman sought the services of Theodore Sedgwick, an attorney with anti-slavery sentiments. In 1781, a Massachusetts court awarded Freeman and another of Ashley’s slaves named Brom their freedom in Brom and Bett v. J. Ashley, Esq., even requiring Ashley to pay damages.

This set a major civil rights precedent. W.E.B. DuBois even claimed Freeman, who adopted the name after her legal victory, as his maternal great-grandmother – even though this connection was by marriage – as she was such an important figure to him. Freeman passed away in 1829.

Born into privilege in Boston in 1842, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin used her education and background to uplift black women. Married at age sixteen to George Lewis Ruffin (who would later become Harvard Law School’s first black male graduate, the first African-American elected to the Massachusetts state legislature and to the Boston City Council, and the first African-American municipal judge in Boston), Ruffin, a suffragist, helped Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone form the American Woman Suffrage Association in Boston in 1869. After her husband’s death in 1884, Ruffin, also a journalist and early member of the New England Women’s Press Association, became even more active, launching Women’s Era, believed to be the nation’s first newspaper published by and for black women, serving as editor and publisher from 1890 to 1897.

With her daughter, Florida Ruffin Ridley, and Boston principal, Maria Baldwin, she launched the New Era Club for black women in either 1893 or 1894 depending on the source. In 1895, Ruffin helped organize the National Federation of Afro-American Women, convening its first national conference in Boston attended by 100 women representing 20 clubs in 10 states. A year later, in 1896, the organization merged with the Colored Women’s League to form the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.

Although a member of several white women’s clubs, Ruffin advocated for black women as a suffragist. She rejected recognition as a delegate at a major conference in 1900, for example, because organizers only sought to confer the role due to her membership in several prominent white women’s clubs. Instead, Ruffin chose to stand up for the validity of black women’s clubs like her own New Era.

Active in other areas, Ruffin was also a founding member of the Boston branch of the NAACP. She passed away in 1924 at age 81.