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An Overview of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library


The Africana Library was founded along with the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC) in the fall of 1969. Its budget and resources came directly from ASRC until 1986, when it came under the management of Cornell University Library. That year, the first professional librarian, Thomas Weissinger, was hired and the library was renamed the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library. The renaming of the library was significant because it connected it with a prominent scholar who epitomized Africana Studies, Dr. John Henrik Clarke. Dr. Clarke was most known and highly regarded for his lifelong devotion to studying and documenting the histories and contributions of African peoples in Africa and the diaspora. He is also often quoted for the following statement:  


“History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass that people use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they have been and what they have been. But most importantly history tells a people where they still must go and what they still must be.”


In essence, this quote is the foundation of the Clarke Africana Library. It is also a reflection of the Black Studies Movement of the 1960s, which, in part, helped birth the ASRC. A key aspect of this movement was that there were Black students on college campuses across the United States who demanded the formation of a program that would include them in the study of history, rebuff racist stereotypes, and challenge the notion that Blacks were minor players in history.


One of the tipping points of the Black Studies Movement at Cornell University took place in the spring of 1968, when a group of Black students from the Afro-American Society, led by Bert Cooper, Marshall John Garner, and Robert D. Rowe, disrupted a class taught by a visiting economics professor from the Philippines, Micheal McPhelin, who had said that people of African descent never contributed anything worthwhile to history or the sciences. The disruption of McPhelin’s class by Black students was an expression of outrage and can been seen as a catalyst of protests on Cornell’s campus. Cooper, Garner, and Rowe had been in McPhelin’s class and had experienced what they considered as racist remarks directed at Blacks throughout the semester. They and other Black students later made a series of demands and pushed the Cornell administration to take progressive steps toward acknowledging the contributions of Black peoples in world history. The creation of ASRC would eventually be the response against Father McPhelin (and others), and the Clarke Africana Library would play a major role in collecting resources to dislodge myths about peoples of African descent.


It is worth emphasizing that the leadership of ASRC understood the importance of the library. In an essay published in 1973, the founder of the ASRC, James Turner, wrote:


“One of the most important references or indicators used to assess the quality of institutions for college education, after the quality of the faculty, is the size of the library. The library is an indivisible factor in the equation determining the pride, prestige, and success of most colleges and universities in this country. But libraries seldom receive the second honored position when it comes to making financial appropriations. In these matters libraries are treated as if they are only marginally important to the quality of learning a student receives.”


When Dr. Turner is referring to the size of the library, he is speaking to its content and the importance of building a collection to support the educational aims of its programs. One can say that a strong library in an academic setting will attract scholars to teach and students to study. Thankfully, today, institutions have invested more financial resources in libraries than they did in the 1970s and have a better understanding of the role that they play in the educating of their citizens.


For the Clarke Africana Library, it has always seen itself as a center in the learning experience at Cornell. Another way of looking at it is seeing the library as a lab where students and researchers do self-directed study to expand on what was learned in the classroom. For the original Africana Library to meet the pedagogical needs of faculty and the educational needs of students and researchers, pragmatic planning had to take place. Given its limited staff size and budget, the library needed not only to be connected to the ASRC, but also to support the educational goals, objectives, and curricula of the university.


The Clarke Africana Library has two key partners in helping it build a library that provides a specialized collection concentrating on the history, culture, and social and political dimensions of peoples of African descent. The first and maybe the most important one is the faculty of the ASRC. The library needs to have a clear understanding of the research interest of the faculty of ASRC and what is taught by them. In part, this is so that resources can be attained to help them reach their goals and objectives. But perhaps most important with a limited budget and staff is gaining focus on what items to attain. The other partner is the expertise of subject librarians within Cornell University Library. The reason why this is so important is because this allows the Africana Librarian to collaborate with other librarians in the selection and acquiring of resources. As we are now in the Digital Age, this collaboration has added even more important aspects to collection development in helping the Clarke Africana Library address its mission.


The mission of the Clarke Africana Library is not only to build a special collection, but also to address the demands of those earlier Black students who wanted higher education to break from its Eurocentric approach to teaching that places European, or White, history and culture at the center of the learning experience while marginalizing all others. In the spirit of Dr. Clarke, the library is making sure that its clock is running correctly so that people can know “what time it is.”



Film: Agents of Change.

Film: John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk.

Clarke, John Henrik Clarke, My Life in Search of Africa.

Turner, James. “The Library in the Life of Black People.”

Altschuler, Glenn C. and Kramnick, Isaac. “Race at Cornell,” Cornell: A History, 1940-2015. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2014. Pp. 155-203.

Shapiro, Seth. “Movement for Academic Freedom Stirs Campus.” Cornell Daily Sun. April 9, 2009.


–Kofi Acree

Khalil Bey, local griot, leaves his mark

One of the missions of a library is to collect materials that speak to a certain ethos. For the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library, this mission is to provide a specialized collection concentrating on the history, culture, and social and political dimensions of peoples of African descent. The library can do this in several different ways. One is through the collection of books. But a library can also collect maps, films, manuscripts, and artwork. In 2014, I asked Ithaca artist Khalil Bey to come up with a painting to reflect the contributions made by Black women. He eventually came up with a portrait titled The Sistahs. This painting highlights 17 prominent African American women, with Michelle Obama as the centerpiece.



The artwork by Khalil Bey fits into the ethos of the library and addresses a very important curriculum aspect of the Africana Studies and Research Center, and that is the engagement with gender and sexuality in areas such as Africana women’s studies. We can also look at the women in the portrait as champions of social justice. Kahlil Bey, who passed away on July 5, 2023, had incredible insight in identifying these women.


It may have been easy for Kahlil to identify the women in his painting as champions of social justice because he was one himself. He was involved in numerous organizations in Ithaca. There was the Southside Community Center, GIAC (the Greater Ithaca Activity Center), Civic Ensemble, Shared Journeys, The Men’s Group, No Mas Lagrimas (No More Tears) and AFJ (Alliance of Families for Justice).



One of the amazing things about Khalil is that he rose from the ashes as a person who was incarcerated for 22 years to one who helped shape the lives of others for the better. Retired Ithaca City Judge Marjorie Olds wrote this about Khalil in “Khalil is known throughout Ithaca and beyond for his mentorship of young people, creating murals at local sites, producing sought-after portraits during the Ithaca Festival, and exhibiting his art throughout the New York, from the Jacob Javits Center in NYC to Southside Community Center here in Ithaca.” Not bad for a self-trained artist. At his funeral, Dr. Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, director of GIAC spoke about him and the mural he painted at the pool of GIAC: “Khalil, GIAC will continue to shine bright and be a beacon of the promise of equity and social justice because of your work in the paintings on our facilities. You made legacies of Alex Haley and Muhammad Ali come alive with the generosity of your talent.” Without question, Khalil fits in as a community person who in essence served as an ambassador for so many Black folk who were not able to speak for themselves, and with his storytelling he could have been referred to as a griot. It is an honor for us to have his portrait of The Sistahs in the Clarke Africana Library. Thank you, Brother Khalil. People will continue to learn from you as time moves on.


–Kofi Acree

Pieces of Ithaca: A Celebration of Quilting in the Ithaca Community



Andrea Campbell Gibbs excitement about the West African adinkra symbol shows by the glint in her eyes as she describes why she focuses on this African symbol in her quilt making. West African adinkra symbols, which represent important life events, proverbs, and cultural attitudes, take center stage in the quilts loaned by Andrea and displayed in the exhibit Pieces of Ithaca: A Celebration of Quilting in the Ithaca Community at the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library. The adinkra symbol is usually printed on instruments and cloth in West Africa and translates beautifully to quilts. This symbol represents a spiritual connection that Andrea feels with Africa, which she strives to present in her art, especially in her quilts that celebrate the voices and experiences of Black, Caribbean, and African people in America and abroad.


Born in Chicago, Illinois, Andrea traveled to Ithaca, New York, to reside with family as she convalesced from back surgery, and never left. She quickly found herself busy in the Ithaca art world, focusing on a part of herself that had taken a backseat while she raised her two sons. She delved into different sides of her art—weaving, drawing, print making, and graphic design—but soon found that quilt making combined many sides of her art making interests. Quilt making grabbed her heart, and she now focuses primarily on producing quilts to be seen as artwork, as well as to be used practically as quilts.


Pieces of Ithaca showcases four of Andrea’s quilts, including Drum, which is central to the exhibit. The quilt was created using a pattern of the adinkra drum symbol of the Akan people of Ghana. Andrea notes that the drum is a symbol of “appellation, praise, goodwill and rhythm.” Like the rhythms of the drum, quilting is an art form that usually brings people together.


Andrea is currently active in the Tompkins County Quilters Guild, where she continues to create masterfully done quilts, and she is a part of numerous quilt organizations in Ithaca, often collaborating with other artists and quilt makers.


Throughout the city of Ithaca, quilt making is seen as an art form that effectively works to build community around an artistic passion for numerous Ithaca residents, as well as Cornell University faculty and staff. Quilting holds strong as a part of Ithaca’s history and culture and can be seen in various art and cultural events, and in libraries and museums around Tompkins County. For example, during the COVID pandemic in 2021, Cornell University participated in a university-wide initiative for members of the Cornell and Ithaca communities and abroad to create and produce quilt squares, as well as quilts, in honor of Cornell alumna and famed author Toni Morrison. The History Center in Tompkins County in Ithaca is a treasure trove with numerous boxes of newspaper clippings, quilt journals with inked designs, and historical quilt texts collected by generations of committed Ithaca-based quilters. Andrea credits Ithaca with being a space that allows her to focus on her art and showcase her creativity. Ithaca has been a space that allowed her to find community around her art.


Pieces of Ithaca’s second contributor, Leanora Mims, is no stranger to the art world of Ithaca, as well. A coworker and friend of Andrea, she met the author while researching Dave the Potter for her work as an art teacher with Dewitt Middle School in Ithaca and went on to introduce her to Andrea Gibbs. Her quilting and art have taken her on a path of working with numerous Ithaca community organizations and schools such as the Tompkins County Public Library Poetry Speaks program, the Lansing Community Afterschool Anti-Bullying Quilting Program, various events and programs with the Southside Community Center, and a program with the national organization Beyond Differences. She also worked with students in the Ithaca Junior English Honors Class, where they collaboratively produced quilts to honor Toni Morrison and enslaved artist Dave the Potter. Leanora has two pieces in the Pieces of Ithaca exhibit, primarily located on the online companion website connected to the library display, and she is gearing up to teach an hour-long art seminar in Ithaca at the Lansing Community Center in April 2023. Both Andrea and Leanora show commitment to their art, and they work tirelessly to educate students and collaborate across racial and cultural lines, spreading the joy of art throughout the city of Ithaca.


The Clarke Africana Library is excited to join with artists of the Ithaca community to specifically showcase and highlight quilts that celebrate Black artistry and culture. See the artwork of Andrea Campbell Gibbs and Leanora Mims displayed at Clarke Africana Library and online, running concurrently with Precious Scraps: Toni Morrison and the African American Quilting Experience until June 12, 2023. — Patricia Abraham




Andrea Campbell Gibbs: Drum

Andera Gibbs: Drum


Library in the Life of Black People

The staff at the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library mourns the passing of Dr. James E. Turner, who joined the ancestors on August 6, 2022.



Dr. Turner founded the Africana Studies and Research Center in the fall of 1969. With the founding of the Center, he also created the Africana Library and played a key role in building its collection. Additionally, he was responsible for hiring Africana Library’s first professional librarian, Thomas Weissinger. It is safe to say that Dr. Turner built an institution at Cornell University.



Dr. Turner  wrote the following essay, “The Library in the Life of Black People,” in 1973:



One of the most important references or indicators used to assess the quality of institutions for college education, after the quality of the faculty, is the size of the library. The library is an indivisible factor in the equation determining the pride, prestige, and success of most colleges and universities in this country. But libraries seldom receive the second honored position when it comes to making financial appropriations. In these matters libraries are treated as if they are only marginally important to the quality of learning a student receives. At more than a few institutions the student union center is almost comparable in size and cost to the best library facility on campus.



Nowhere is the status of libraries more tragic than on many campuses of Black colleges, and it is even worse in terms of public libraries in Black communities. Libraries are heavily dependent upon donation/gifts and grants from very rich individuals and foundations. There is comparatively less government subsidy available than there is for student dormitories, classroom buildings, research laboratories, etc. Needless to say the great foundations in America are white institutions, and so are the people who are wealthy contributors to the great libraries in this country; few of them are concerned with providing outstanding reference and reading collections for the scholarly development of Black people. Even when Black schools receive such support the funds are meager in comparison to the resources made available to comparable white institutions. There are many Black communities which do not even have a public library in the immediate neighborhood.



However, as in all other spheres of Black life, we must struggle to break the syndrome of dependency related to our important needs and vital provisions for our welfare. The pattern of looking to others to do for us, and then perpetually bemoaning the neglect of us by those whom we look to as the custodians of our possibilities in life, has and continues to ruin our development and self-control as a people. There are many in our community who can afford to assume a greater responsibility for the development and maintenance of library resources available for the education of our people. The fundamentality of our Blackness is a reality and commitment that cannot be ignored. Ultimately our reliance must be on ourselves and each other.


The creation of the library at the Africana Studies & Research Center was perceived as an inextricable component of the program from its inception. Our goal is to develop a specialized collection concentrating on the history, culture and life-conditions of African people which will serve as a valuable complement for our students and faculty. Its establishment is of both symbolic and concrete significance. The Africana library provides a model of quality standards, and an example to other programs to take more seriously the relationship of a viable Black library collection to their success. The existence of the library will expose students to the knowledge of a rich Black legacy of scholarships, and creative/cultural tradition. Though we have serious constraints in terms of limited financial resources, we are dedicated to the importance of library collections focusing on African people, and controlled by Black people. Our library is provided principally for our students, since its ultimate value is in its maximum use.



It is a general truism that Black people need more and better library facilities wherever they are. Therefore, our basic point is that a commitment to support the expansion of African/African American library collections is a good investment in our people, particularly our students. Libraries are vital links in the history of all people; they appreciate in value over time, and are always a source of relevance and reference in the education of future generations. If it is true that wisdom is garnered from experience, then the serious study of African people will reveal much of the substance of future wisdom. The Africana Studies and Research Center Library is devoted to inspiring young, Black men and women to assume professional careers as Black teachers and research scholars.


John Henrik Clarke and COVID-19

History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day, it is also a compass people use to find themselves on the map of human geography. History tells a people where they have been, what they have been, where they are and what they are. Most importantly history tells people where they still must go and what they still must be.” –John Henrik Clarke



The namesake of Cornell University’s Africana Library, John Henrik Clarke, reminds us of the important role that studying history plays in the shaping of our reality.  In this COVID-19 environment many of us wear a mask as a means of protecting each other, and in too many cases going to work or the grocery store seems like a life-and-death decision. Dr. Clarke may very well want us to understand how people of African descent in the United States have been disproportionately affected by this virus, as recently reported by The Annals of Epidemiology (July 2020). Having access to information like this report is important to researchers, or anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of how COVID-19 impacts the Black community. The report says the following:


“Emerging evidence suggests that black Americans are at increased risk for COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. Although it may be counterintuitive that a newly identified virus that can infect anyone would rapidly manifest pronounced racial disparities, a consistent pattern has been reported across multiple states, showing that black Americans comprise a disproportionately greater number of reported COVID-19 cases and deaths compared with other Americans.”


Providing people with direction to various aspects of how COVID-19 is affecting the Black community is in part why I see my role as the Director of the Africana Library, and Curator, Africana Collections, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections as so important. I see my role as not only collecting resources about Black folk in Africa and the African Diaspora, but also providing a space where we can have discussions on important topics of the day.


For example, Margaret Washington, Marie Underhill Noll Professor of American History at Cornell, wrote an opinion piece for the Cornell Daily Sun, COVID-19 Since 1619. This is an eye-opening essay where Professor Washington connects the George Floyd killing with the historical narrative of racism that Blacks have endured in America for centuries. One of my favorite lines in Professor Washington’s essay is when she made reference to what Malcolm X said to a Black audience, “We did not land on Plymouth Rock … Plymouth Rock landed on us.” In other words, Black folk have been catching hell from the very beginning when their ancestors first arrived on the shores of America. Professor Washington further makes her point on the racist treatment of Blacks by saying:


“In Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Thomas Jefferson proclaimed Blacks physically, biologically and intellectually inferior.” She continues and writes, “The Constitution, as the ‘law of the land,’ codified institutional racism and white supremacy. African Americans counted as 3/5 of a person to increase slaveholders’ representation; the Atlantic slave trade continued for another 20 years; federal authority put down enslaved insurrection and returned ‘fugitives;’ the Second Amendment empowered states to create slave patrol militias and permitted individuals to bear arms so slave masters could protect themselves. From the nation’s beginning, seeking Black freedom was a federal crime.”


I can almost see Dr. Clarke asking his audience, where do you think the above passage places Blacks on the map of human geography?


Over the summer, we lost two giants who lived their lives addressing the ills that Professor Washington wrote about. The two giants are John Lewis and C.T. Vivian. They were most noted for their work during the civil rights movement. This was an era in which they fought for the desegregation of buses and lunch counters, not to mention voting rights for Blacks. An era in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, so we could all stand tall. Her mindful act launched a movement in which Blacks demanded to be treated with dignity and respect.


For me one of the most impactful parts of my job is creating a space where people can learn about the resources that will teach them different aspects of history as John Henrik Clarke would say. Recently I authored two library guides: Black Lives Matter and How to Be An Antiracist. Hopefully they will help guide people in these ongoing discussions of race, prompted by the national and global outcry that followed the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. In these times we need the Africana Library more than ever. — Kofi Acree

The John Henrik Clarke Africana Library as an Agent of Change

In January of 1973, the founding director of the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC) at Cornell University, Dr. James Turner, wrote an essay titled, “Library in the Life of Black People.” He directly connected the success of an academic institution to the quality of its faculty and library. He wrote, “The library is an indivisible factor in the equation determining the pride, prestige, and success of most colleges and universities in this country.” He understood that the building of a specialized distinct collection concentrating on the history, culture and life-conditions of people of African descent would aid in expanding teaching beyond the Eurocentric model. The Eurocentric model viewed the world from a western perspective and those of African descent were seen as never contributing to world civilization.

So in talking about the building of a specialized distinct Africana-centered library collection, Turner is challenging long-standing misconceptions of Black inferiority and bringing to the table the demands that Blacks made during the civil rights and Black student movements. Those demands included being treated with dignity and a demand for racial justice and equality. Turner understood that the field of Black Studies and its Africana- centered library stood for much more than the collection of resources.

A big part of the library’s mission was to give voice or empowerment to those of African descent, and allow them to curate a collection that was significant to them and their place in world history. This was part of the call of “education for liberation.” In the book Discourse on Africana Studies: James Turner and Paradigms of Knowledge, Rod Daniels wrote, “A central focus of Black Studies was to address the ‘mis-education’ of students of African descent by providing a critical understanding of their history and  culture, an African-centered framework for examining the world, and the knowledge and tools to become change agents for an oppressed people.”

African American journalist Carl Rowan expanded on Daniels’s approach to Black Studies when he captured the role that the library has played throughout time. Rowan wrote: “[The] library is the temple of learning, and learning has liberated more people than all the wars in human history. A Black person who wants to be liberated first needs to get learning. If he does, it will make him a formidable force against a would-be oppressor.” This concept ties directly in to the library being “an agent of change,” or for what many would argue, for “social justice.”

The ongoing vision of the Africana Library is to continue in the rich tradition of Dr. Turner and inspire students, especially Black students, to not only assume professional careers such as the next teachers/professors and research scholars, but be able to speak to the ills of society. An outstanding example is Cornell University/Africana alumna Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, ‘81, a noted law professor and a leading scholar of critical race theory who has gained much recognition in the theory of intersectionality. This is so apparent in the book she co-edited, Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement.

As I write this the protests are still going on in the streets of Minneapolis after the recorded lynching of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis police officers Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane. There are calls throughout this country for social justice and police reform. I believe that it is important for libraries to understand the role that they have in the fight for social justice. For example, we can look not only to the mission of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library, which call for the building of an African and African diaspora collection, but libraries like the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, Minnesota, who see its mission “to inspire solidarity, advocate for justice and work toward equity for all.” We indeed are “agents of change.”

Bobo, Jacqueline, et al. “Introduction.” In The Black Studies Reader. Jacqueline Bobo, Cynthia Hudley, and Claudine Michel, eds. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Daniels, Ron. “Foreword: Reflections on the Life and Legacy of Dr. James Turner.” In Discourse on Africana: James Turner and Paradigms of Knowledge. Scot Brown, ed. New York: Diasporic Africa Press, Inc., 2016.

Shoge Ruth C. “The Library as Place in the Lives of African Americans.” ACRL Eleventh National Conference, April 10-13, 2003, Charlotte, North Carolina. Web

–Kofi Acree

The Sistahs

The Sistahs

Top: Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Condoleezza Rice, Maxine Waters, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Gwendolyn Brooks

Middle: Sojourner Truth, Madame C. J. Walker, Michelle Obama, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Maya Angelou

Bottom: Toni Morrison, Fanny Lou Hamer, Mae Jemison, Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis, Harriet Tubman.

In the United States the month of March is recognized as “Women’s History Month.” The establishment of this month dates back to 1978 when a school district in Sonoma, California had a weeklong celebration on the accomplishments of women. In 1981, Congress passed a bill that proclaimed the week of March 7 as “Women’s History Week.” In 1987, after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress passed a bill that designated the entire month of March as “Women’s History Month.”


In recognition of Women’s History Month the Africana Library would like to highlight the portrait created by African American Ithacan artist, Khalil Bey. In 2014, inspired by the need for some female representation amongst the male portraits on display at Africana Library (John Henrik Clarke and Black cowboys Isom Dart, Nat Love and Bill Pickett), I asked Khalil to depict Black women that made significant contributions to American History. Khalil later told me, that when he began his research, he felt overwhelmed, as there were so many women to choose from. As a sports fan, I liken it to picking your favorite players from a team sport for an all-star game. Khalil ended up choosing 17 prominent women, and called the painting The Sistahs. I have to admit, Khalil picked a winning team.


In the painting Khalil has Michelle Obama, the first African American First Lady of the United States, in the center surrounded by a who’s who of women that contributed to politics and the arts. He even has three Cornelians in the painting: Jessie Redmon Fauset, Toni Morrison and Mae Jemison.  Jessie Fauset, known as the “Midwife of the Harlem Renaissance,” was the literary editor for The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Toni Morrison was a Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, editor, professor and one of the best writers that America has ever produced. Former astronaut Mae Jemison became the first African American woman in space.


Some women in the painting are easy to identify, such as Rosa Parks. Parks is consider the spark that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott and in some circles, was nicked named the “mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 13 months was lead by a 26-year-old minister, Martin Luther King, Jr. The boycott led to a United States Supreme Court ruling that stated segregation on public buses is unconstitutional. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., is situated to the left of Parks. Coretta Scott King was dedicated to the civil rights movement and continued to fight for social justice long after MLK’s assassination.


Others portrayed in the painting are Condoleezza Rice, the first Black woman to serve as the United States National Security Adviser, as well as the first Black woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State. Congresswoman Maxine Waters who is to the left of Rice, and is currently serving as the U.S. Representative for California’s 43rd congressional district. Waters is a member of the Democratic Party, is currently in her 15th term in the House. Gwendolyn Brooks rounds out the top row; it is as if she is watching over the other women in the painting. Brooks was a poet, author, and teacher. Her work often dealt with the plight of African Americans in her community. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950, for the book Annie Allen. This made her the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize.


Sojourner Truth is the first woman in row two. Truth a former enslaved person from Ulster County, New York, is best known for being an abolitionist whose contemporaries were Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Tubman bookends Truth on the third row. In the words of historian Margaret Washington; “Harriet Tubman was the most daring, legendary, and courageous conductor on the human network of self-freed Blacks called the ‘Underground Railroad.’ A Civil War freedom fighter and woman suffrage advocate, African Americans called Tubman, Moses,’ symbolizing her premier leadership, and ‘Old Chariot,’ a term taken from spirituals she sang to alert the enslaved of her presence.”


Madame C. J. Walker who is positioned next to Sojourner Truth in the painting, is known as the first Black woman millionaire in the United States. She made her fortune from hair care products for Black women. Walker is also known as being a philanthropist and a political and social activist. In the same row next to Michelle Obama is Ida B. Wells-Barnett. I have to admit, Wells-Barnett is the person who first came to mind when I charged Khalil with doing the painting.  She has so many accomplishments. Besides being an investigative journalist, educator and activist, she took up the led in the anti-lynching movement in the United States in the 1890s. She was a big inspiration to the NAACP in its fight to end lynching. It amazes me that it has taken almost 130 years since Well-Barnett first took up this fight, for the U.S. government to finally pass an anti-lynching bill in February 2020.


The person who rounds out the second row is Maya Angelou. She was an author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet and civil rights activist. Her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, stands out as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was first banned in 1996 for its profanity, violence, and sexual content. In the last row is Fannie Lou Hamer who is to the left of Toni Morrison in the painting. A former sharecropper, civil rights activist who is best known for the saying, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” But this active member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was a key leader in the civil rights movement. One of the best examples of her leadership came in 1964 when she took part in the founding of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), becoming vice chairperson and a member of its delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In the last row Shirley Chisholm sits across from Hamer. Chisholm was a trailblazer in American politics. This Brooklynite was the first Black woman in Congress (1968) and the first woman and Black to seek the nomination for President of the United States from one of the two major political parties (1972). She ran as a Democrat.


Angela Davis is the final woman to be highlighted. Biographer Bettina Aptheker writes that “Davis has been internationally recognized as a leader in movements for peace, social justice, national liberation, and women’s equality. A scholar and prolific writer, Davis has published [12] books and scores of essays, commentaries, and reviews. Since the 1970s she has persevered in struggles to free political prisoners and to dismantle what she was the first to call the prison-industrial complex.”

The women depicted in this painting is an example of those who have achieved great things. They serve as an inspiration to us all. Which women would you choose to be recognized?


Sources:, Women’s History Month.

Library of Congress, Women’s History Month.

Washington, Margaret. Harriet Tubman.

Aptheker, Bettina. Angela Davis, Oxford African American Studies Center.

Additional Resources:

Angela Davis Resource Guide

Civil Rights Movement, Women

Edwidge Danticat Resources

Harriet Tubman Library Guide

Toni Morrison: Literary Icon

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Guide

–Kofi Acree

Black History is More Than a Month

Kofi Acree:

A few years ago, I did a Black History Month presentation for 5 and 12 year old children at the Greater Ithaca Activity Center (GIAC) in Ithaca, N.Y. In part, I wanted to share my passion for history and show the kids how important it is for them to learn about the past. I believe that it is important to establish for young children that people of African descent had a history beyond the slavery experience in the United States. I shared the origins of Black History Month, and showed a trailer to the film, More Than a Month. I also shared with the students the books that interested me when I was their age: Famous American Negroes by Langston Hughes; I Am Third by Gale Sayers; and African Heroes and Heroines by Carter G. Woodson.

Black History Month can be traced back to 1926, when Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian and whose parents were enslaved, wanted to set aside a time to honor the achievements of African Americans. Woodson saw a growing number of weeklong celebrations during the early 1900s. He saw “Boy Scout Week,” “Clean-up Week,” “Music Week,” “Education Week,” and “Better Health Week.” He felt that a “Negro History Week” was in order. Woodson was also influenced by Omega Psi Phi, one of the oldest African-American fraternities. The Omegas strongly believed that the culture and heritage of African Americans should be celebrated. He chose the week that included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14). The celebration of Negro History Week became so popular in the 1940s that Woodson sold Negro History Week kits, posters, and photos depicting periods of African-American history. By 1976, the year of America’s Bicentennial, Negro History Week had become Black History Month.

As the Africana Librarian, and an overall enthusiast for Black History, I recognize it all year, and encourage others to do the same. To find out more about Black History see these online guides that I created: Ancient African Civilizations, Toni Morrison: Literary Icon, Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Reparations, and Willard Straight Occupation. Other rich materials about people of African descent can be found on the Africana Library web site. Black History is certainly more than a month. I believe that I left the kids at GIAC with some food for thought. They not only asked questions, but eagerly shared what they knew about Black History. One thing that I walked away with that day is that it is paramount to see Black people with dignity and a past that matters.


White, Alvin. “Godfather of Black History.” Sepia. vol. 25, no. 2, February 1976, p. 58-66.
Goggin, Jacqueline. Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
Goggin, Jacqueline. “Black History Month/Negro History Week.” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Edited by Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, and Cornel West. New York: Simon & Schuster and Prentice-Hall, 1996. 352-353.
L. D. Reddick, “Twenty-Five Negro History Weeks,” The Negro History Bulletin, volume 13, no. 8, May, 1950, p. 178.