A couple of years ago, I was in the office of Attorney Janice Mathis, Executive Director of the Rainbow Push in Atlanta and saw this quote on the wall. “I am but one, but I am one. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. What I can do. What I ought to do, with God helping me, I will do.” After reading it twice, I remember telling her I would give her credit three times and then claim it my own. Janice responded, “That’s alright, there is a lot more of that in me, so I will just come up with something else.”
Her response is significant to the life and struggle so many of our foremothers who throughout the history of America, always came up with something else in order to survive despite the many barriers of color, poverty, hate and despair. These courageous women saved lives, opened doors, cleaned floors, educated, graduated, raised children, lost children and husbands, worked, cooked and slaved in the hot sun for hours and days. They endured many roadblocks, but remained steadfast always managing to come up with something else, another way to survive.
In honor of National Women’s History Month, I am particularly reminiscence of the great African American women whose accomplishments have inspired me on my journey. Some famous with stories written in history like Harriet Tubman, one of the greatest conductors on the Underground Railroad who reportedly led over five hundred slaves to freedom and later said, “ I could have saved thousands more if they had only realized they were slaves.” Madam CJ Walker is recognized as the first self-made woman entrepreneur in America and was a pioneer in the hair care business creating wealth for thousands of African American women and men who were part of her prestigious sales team. Madam Walker remarked about her career progression in July, 1912 at the National Negro Business League Convention, “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations….I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
Many African American women fought tirelessly for civil rights in the fifties and sixties. Among them was Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist and instrumental figure in championing the right to vote and eliminating pervasive poverty in the African American community. While Fannie Lou is sometimes credited with coining, “I Have a Dream” which was the prelude to what remains the most famous speech in the world by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she is probably best known for saying, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” which later became her epitaph. The most famous woman of the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, once remarked in response to why she did not give up her seat on the bus to a white man, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” I marvel at the strength of these great women in history and having had the pleasure of being in the presence of Ms. Parks on a few occasions, the energy I felt was likened to turning on a switch to a lamp. She made a room light up.
As we travel on the journey of life, each of us will find our own heroes. Someone will carve a place in your life history to inspire you. I remember the first time hearing a Black woman give a motivational speech in the late 1970’s at a business function. Her name was C. Delores Tucker, an activist for women’s and civil rights. Later she became an outspoken anti-rap activist, challenging lyrics that degraded women. Her speech captivated me and I had never heard anything so compelling. I kept these words from that dynamic presentation with me for life, “we must stand tall like a cypress and walk like a stallion.” At the passing of my late grandmother, Vivian R. Brown, I used these words in her eulogy to describe how she lived her life.
Another significant inspiration for me was the first motivational note I received in 1979. One of my business professors in college invited entrepreneurs from the community to speak to the class. Maryellen Thomas was the public relations director for Proctor and Gardner Advertising, the first advertising agency owned and managed by a Black woman, Barbara Proctor. Maryellen’s thirty-minute presentation left me inspired about my future. Her voice was low in pitch but powerful in substance. I was so moved that I wrote her a thank you note stating that I hoped to meet her on the road to success. Surprisingly, I received a reply I have kept in my possession throughout the years. “You are already there….We cannot achieve every goal or vision. But, as long as you envision new dimensions of those goals and exercise the energy needed to make them reality, the lull or storm in between is not failure, even though some wish to interpret it as such. Also, success isn’t always standing, it’s falling down but never forgetting the magnificence of your goal’s skyline… until you are able to stand and touch the sky.” Many times I have failed. Many times I find the letter, read it again encouraging me to stay on the road and I still stand. I often wonder what became of Maryellen and what she would think if she knew that a brief note to a student became a part of her life history.
During National Women’s History month, take a stroll through your journey and discover or reconnect with some of the beautiful, courageous African American women who made it possible for us to head major corporations, become leaders in politics, travel in outer space and make decisions that shape the fabric of the world. Most important, share this history with girls and young women so they too will know their foremothers and perhaps carve a place in history, their school, workplace and communities.