By Patsy Baker Blackshear
What do Kamala Harris, Shirley Chisholm, Madam C.J. Walker and Gwendolyn Brooks have in common? They were the first African American females to accomplish the highest distinction in their field.
These women have the distinctions of being the first African American female U.S. vice president, the first U.S. congresswoman, the first millionaire and the first Pulitzer Prize winner. However, the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation has made note that here in Anne Arundel County there are many African American females firsts who have gone unrecognized for their accomplishments.
Beyond the single accomplishment of an African American woman, periodically, it is not often the public hears about the accomplishments of a large number of African American women. This under-reporting can easily give the appearance of a lack of accomplishment. Furthermore, for African American women, this appearance should definitely be corrected, given that unlike men and even other women, African American women often had to break the glass ceiling without help, with low expectations and while serving as the backbone of their communities.
As a result, during Women’s History Month, the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation has unveiled its research and published a book identifying 34 local women as “African American Female Pioneers.” These women are the first women of color in Annapolis to attain significant achievement in their respective areas.
Yes, the foundation is the local organization most readily known for its work in envisioning, funding and creating the Alex Haley Memorial located at the City Dock in Annapolis. This memorial, the largest and most-visited public art installation and memorial in Anne Arundel County, is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.
However, the foundation is also known for the work it continues to do in sponsoring educational and historical programs, providing genealogy research, stimulating a greater interest in African American history and culture, and encouraging people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take pride in their own “roots.” Included in its work, the foundation created a documentary film of the teachers at the historic Bates High School.
The foundation has also held genealogy training and community history days to capture the stories of African American communities throughout the county. Further, since 1987, the foundation continues to hold an annual “arrival ceremony” that commemorates the arrival of Kunta Kinte and other ancestors to Annapolis to honor their efforts in helping to shape this state and this country.
But this current history and heritage work is remarkable by honoring 34 African American women “trailblazers.” These remarkable women, some living and some deceased, helped make a difference in our community. Individually they made and continue to make a difference. Collectively, they make a statement because of the accomplishments made by this critical mass of achievers.
What is also significant about this effort is that these women are not only highlighted on the foundation’s website, but their lives have been captured in book form and will be placed in libraries throughout the county. The intent of the book project is to ensure a permanent record is created and shared of their work and accomplishments.
Most important, during Women’s History Month, the foundation will be celebrating these women with an event on March 26 at the Busch Library on West Street. This 2 p.m. event will include not only honorees from the list of 34 women, but it will include as a special guest Adrienne A, Jones, speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. These honorees and Del. Jones are all African American Female Pioneers. Jones is the first female speaker of the house, and other pioneers within Anne Arundel County include the first superintendent of schools, the first city council member, the first physician with her own practice, the first county police chief, the first circuit court judge, among other “firsts.”
Although research by the foundation identifies 34 African American Female Pioneers in this first group, just 14 are still alive. In addition, the 34 does not capture all of the “firsts” within the county. Therefore, the foundation approaches the project as an ongoing research endeavor that will be expanded to capture other pioneers based on recommendations for additional research from the public. The foundation envisions this book will have a second edition identifying other pioneers.
Attend the celebratory event to meet some of these women, purchase a book and obtain autographs. Again, the event is March 26 at the Busch Annapolis Library. To make recommendations on other African American female “firsts” for additional research by the foundation, please send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patsy Baker Blackshear is president of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation.