Webcast Recap

Author Bettye Collier-Thomas, Professor of History, Temple University; Patricia Sullivan, Associate Professor of History, University of South Carolina, Daryl Scott, Professor of History, Howard University

The intersection between religion, civil rights and women's rights in American history has traditionally received scant attention in academic scholarship, but with the release of her new book, Jesus, Jobs and Justice: African American Women and Religion, Bettye Collier-Thomas has made an enormous effort to correct this oversight. In a discussion of the book on February 25, 2010, Collier-Thomas and two commentators, historians Patricia Sullivan and Daryl Scott, described her findings and their implications for the broader study of American history.

Collier-Thomas sketched out the sweeping scope of her book, which narrates the religious commitment and community activism of African American women from the time of slavery up to the present. Her research, she explained, took more than a decade since it required digging for primary documents in dozens of different archives. As Scott noted, the book stands in sharp contrast to the works of other scholars, who "talk big, think small, and write fast."

Drawing on documents from religious institutions made sense, Collier-Thomas contended, because the history of African American women and religion are so deeply intertwined as to be inseparable. Much of the book focuses on the National Association of Colored Women, an ostensibly secular organization. But her research revealed that it served as an intermediary for women from many different traditionally black denominations. Sullivan reinforced the view that religion was central, noting that W.E.B. du Bois had called the church a "home" for African Americans.

Although the church served as a "bulwark against racism," it provided little protection against sexism for doubly-disadvantaged African American women. Much of the effort to mobilize for change centered around all-female organizations like the National Association of Colored Women. However, Collier-Thomas noted, African American women also sought to "infiltrate" majority-white women's rights organizations to garner support for their own civil rights. In doing so they frequently encountered open racism, even from women who considered themselves "progressive."

Both commentators agreed that the book opens new avenues for research based on previously unexamined sources and offers a wealth of detail in examining the interplay of race and gender in American history. The discussion also made clear that religion must be part of any comprehensive account of African American women's history, and raises questions for scholars working in other fields as well.

By Richard Iserman
Sonya Michel, Director of United States Studies