Historical Georgia Women’s Narratives: “Marginalized, Dismissed, and Misunderstood”
By: Missy DeVelvis
Most Georgians are hard-pressed to name five influential Georgia women of the twentieth century. Dr. Ann Short Chirhart and Dr. Kathleen Ann Clark, however, can tell you two volumes’ worth of names. The two editors of Georgia Women: Their Lives and Times Volume II held a discussion on November 11th in which they both described the latest addition to the series and elaborated upon a single event, the Atlanta “Race Riot” of 1906, that tied three very different women together.
On September 22, 1906, a large mob of angry white Atlantans swarmed Atlanta’s Five Points, destroying the homes and businesses of its African-American residents. By September 24th, 25 African-American residents had been killed. This mob violence was attributed to public anger from black men assaulting white women, but the four most recent assaults reported in the news had no substance or evidence. In Atlanta, the Jim Crow laws were not only established but spreading, and tensions were high.
In times of violence, many turn to writing to help understand and compartmentalize chaos. Lugenia Burns Hope, who once hoped for interracial compromise, wrote that the black community’s “white friends planned to destroy them” as the riot reached her front door. She then focused on reform within the black neighborhoods, founding the Neighborhood Union in 1908, which she would then manage until 1935. The Union was pivotal in establishing health education, better school systems, and youth activities. It became a model for the future Civil Rights Movement.
Famous author Margaret Mitchell was only five-years-old when the riot took place, but she could remember her father anxiously guarding their wealthy home from potential attackers. It was young Mitchell that suggested her father use their sword, a family heirloom. The Mitchells feared mob rule. As she grew older, Mitchell delighted in practicing her independence, refusing to marry multiple beaus. In her novella Lost Laysen, heroine Courtenay Ross is attracted to the “half breeds” aboard the ship, rather than her gallant, white, and elite suitor. Perhaps her intrigue was due to the myth of assault from black men that circulated the South; these false rumors generated fear but also a certain amount of intrigue. In the presentation, Dr. Clark argued that as more women practiced their independence and were seen walking the streets, more white men were obsessed with discussing their “protection,” as a response to their fears both of race and gender equality.
Vara Majette was one of the first women lawyers to be admitted to the Georgia Bar Association. Before that, however, she was a social worker, helping to better the living condition of white and black Georgians alike. In her reaction to the 1906 Riot, she wrote that “[at times] the cry of rape is started by some hysterical woman when there has never been a shadow of such, only in a frenzied imagination.” She then wrote a piece called “The White Man to Blame” in which she declared that white men were unfit guardians of the South’s honor and these patriarchs damaged white women’s potential. Despite some racist criticism, her main arguments were repeated in many black newspapers.
I myself had only heard of Margaret Mitchell. As a history major, I am ashamed to say I had also never heard of the Atlanta Riot of 1906. My mother, Meg DeVelvis, came along for the ride, and she said the talk was “like nothing I’d ever heard before. I’d definitely never seen that in my school curriculum.” Nor did Claire Frost, a senior at UGA. “We should be taught more about this in school,” she asserted, laughingly adding that all she knew about Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was what her mother, who first read the novel as a sixteen-year-old Irish girl, could tell her. The Southern context, therefore, was not considered. Is the problem, then, our lack of knowledge or our schools’ curriculums, which still heavily feature the white, male, European perspective?
“It’s important for us to know where information comes from,” said my fellow discussion member, Barbara Mclaughlin. When she was studying to be a chaplain forty years ago, she found that all her sources were from white men. While she said that didn’t necessarily mean they were inaccurate, it reveals a certain one-sidedness that can be seen through all historical study. As a history major, I encounter many instances in which the woman’s role, more passive and “behind the scenes” due to political or social constraint, was entirely written out of history books. Even primary sources, when written by white males in times of great sexism and racism, are subject to bias and inaccurate storytelling. It is incredibly frustrating to be a historian of women.
So what can we do? In the twenty-first century, historians with a greater appreciation for gender and racial equality are reexamining history and no longer dismissing women’s roles. “It has been difficult to dislodge the notion that events like the Civil War–probably the most significant field of historical study in the U.S.– were all-male arenas,” Dr. Clark notes. In editing this second volume on Georgia women in merely one century, Clark and Chirhart lead the way for gender equality in historiography. After fourteen years of teaching at UGA, Dr. Clark can see a difference: “I do think that at least some students are learning more women’s history as middle and high school students than they were when I first arrived.” The problem, she thinks, is that “a lot of what people think counts as history focuses on things like war and politics…and the way these events are presented in popular culture (think of the history channel, which is very popular) and some textbooks is in terms of “‘great men.'”
At the heart of this discussion is another issue that still plagues feminists today: the different struggles that white and black women face. Though white women were certainly oppressed—this riot took place before women’s suffrage—black women had to face both gendered and racial oppression, a good part of it from white women as well. Personally, I have tried to expand my views on feminism beyond my white, middle-class sphere. When looking at white feminists, Claire Frost observed, “I know the black feminists had been doing that for years and didn’t get the credit that they deserved.” Dr. Clark definitely sees that “there is a lot more recognition today of multiple, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting approaches to the cause of gender equality, as well as the links between and among different movements,” like racial justice and LGBTQ rights. While they might conflict at times, it is very encouraging that these dialogues are happening.
In Clark and Chirhart’s edited volume, women of all colors, ages, and talents are featured. Women from big cities like Savannah and Atlanta are featured in equal measure with those in Brunswick, or Jessup. Expect to learn more about women you had never heard mentioned, but also enjoy reading more about Coretta Scott King and Rosalynn Carter. Go learn something, and add more female role models to list. There can never be enough.