We Speak Your Names

Joshua Bryant
Joshua Bryant

We speak your namesMary McCloud Bethune, Mary Church Terrell, Constance Baker Motley, Daisy Lee Bates, Vivian Malone, Anna J. Cooper, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Lucille Spence, and Willie B. Player…We speak your names.

On Thursday, February 19, 2015, Dr. Muriel Beth Hopkins rendered an awe-inspiring Lunch-and-Learn lecture. Hopkins, a professor of Practice in the Law School, history professor and alumna of Wake Forest University, chronicled the powerful women whose voices shook the nation and sparked change on the road to the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case. These women, some born into slavery and others only a couple of generations removed, utilized their undeniable will power to make the world better for young African-American women like me. I was amazed that some of these women were invisible to the pages of our history books and most women in my generation had no knowledge of their existence, let alone their impact. But it was in that very setting that I uttered a word of thanks to Dr. Hopkins for unveiling their presence. She spoke their names.

Dr. Hopkins took us through a lunch presentation documenting the road from the Roberts vs. Boston Supreme Court case, all the way to the ground-breaking formulation of Brown, speaking the names of influential women who were important to that movement. “It wasn’t always easy,” Hopkins said. Reading and writing, two very essential tools, were prohibited from African-Americans. “It was around 1740, the state of South Carolina began the onset of states that prohibited the teaching of slaves to read and write…if any free person should teach or attempt to teach a slave, there were penalties,” Hopkins explained. “If you were white, you were subject to a $100-$200 fine. If you were a free person of color, you were subject to a fine, prison, or up to 39 lashes. If you were a slave teaching another slave, you would be stripped bare and receive 39 lashes.”

Fast forward 150 years and the struggle for educational equality continued. African-American students were taught in unsuitable school houses with inadequate books and materials under the “separate but equal” laws. “There was no running water, no bathrooms, no cafeterias, no gyms, holes in the ceilings, and buckets to catch the water. The students had to have umbrellas when it rained.” Hopkins said. That was only the beginning. The strength of the female leaders mentioned above emerged to put an end to those horrible conditions. Separate was not equal; therefore, schools had to be integrated. Daisy Bates, the motivator behind the Little Rock 9, endeavored to integrate Little Rock Central High School. Vivian Malone’s determination garnered her the title of the first African-American to graduate from the University of Alabama. And right here in Winston-Salem, Annie B. Hairston became the first African-American superintendent of Forsythe County Public Schools. Hairston was instrumental in the 1970s transition into integration for the school system. These women helped to shape the Brown case. We speak your names.

Hopkins made it clear that the Brown case was a consolidation of so many cases that came before it. Roberts vs. Boston, Plessy vs. Ferguson, Gaines vs. State of Missouri, Davis vs. Prince Edward County, Bolling vs. Sharpe, and so many other Supreme Court cases were a part of Brown. It was a long journey to educational equality, but women and so many other pioneers fought tirelessly to get us there. Hopkins reaffirmed, “Education is paramount for all of us. Extrapolate something from this presentation and pass it on to your children and then ask your children to pass it on to your grandchildren so that they will understand the great road that was traveled before Brown and all that has happened after Brown.”

And that’s when the chills began – as her presentation ended. That’s when I was reminded of the strength that lies inside of not only me, but my generation. We are products of great women and men whose names are rarely spoken, but whose work lie in the bricks and mortar of the educational institutions that we are so fortunate to attend today. We speak your names. It is our responsibility to never forget.

As an African-American woman who has studied my history, I know how important it is to succeed. 400 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, we struggled. During slavery, we were only but mere property forced away from reading and writing, but summoned for only menial tasks and inhumane entertainment. But those days are long gone. We have a voice and we will continue to use it. We are brilliant, beautiful women who have found our rightful place. Our resilience has catapulted us to positions of renowned educators, CEO’s, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, novelists, activists, and so much more. That is why I have no other choice but to succeed. I owe it to the millions of African and African-American women who proceeded me. With my head lifted high and heart filled with gratitude, I humbly say “thank you” to my ancestors and all of those powerful women who came before me. They all paid the price and it is my duty to ensure a return on their investment.

We speak your names.
Because we are strong women,
born of strong women,
who are born of strong women,
we celebrate your strength.”

-Pearl Cleage