Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Frances E.W. Harper: Black, Feminist, UU

This has all happened before and it will all happen again. --Battlestar Galactica 
[I delivered this sermon on September 4, 2016, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans.]


In May 1866 Frances Ellen Watkins Harper addressed the Eleventh National Women's Rights Convention in New York City, where she sat on the platform with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Today’s reading is some excerpts from that speech.

I FEEL I AM SOMETHING of a novice upon this platform. Born of a race whose inheritance has been outrage and wrong, most of my life had been spent in battling against those wrongs. But I did not feel as keenly as others, that I had these rights, in common with other women, which are now demanded. About two years ago, I stood within the shadows of my home. A great sorrow had fallen upon my life. My husband had died suddenly, leaving me a widow, with four children, one my own, and the others stepchildren. I tried to keep my children together. But my husband died in debt; and before he had been in his grave three months, the administrator had swept the very milk-crocks and wash tubs from my hands. I was a farmer's wife and made butter for the Columbus market; but what could I do, when they had swept all away? They left me one thing--and that was a looking glass! Had I died instead of my husband, how different would have been the result! By this time he would have had another wife, it is likely; and no administrator would have gone into his house, broken up his home, and sold his bed, and taken away his means of support. . . . I say, then, that justice is not fulfilled so long as woman is unequal before the law.

We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the Negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society cannot afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members. . . .

This grand and glorious revolution which has commenced, will fail to reach its climax of success, until throughout the length and breadth of the American Republic, the nation shall be so color-blind, as to know no man by the color of his skin or the curl of his hair. It will then have no privileged class, trampling upon and outraging the unprivileged classes, but will be then one great privileged nation, whose privilege will be to produce the loftiest manhood and womanhood that humanity can attain.

I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The good would vote according to their convictions and principles; the bad, as dictated by prejudice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, with the winning party.

You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man's hand against me. Let me go to-morrow morning and take my seat in one of your street cars--I do not know that they will do it in New York, but they will in Philadelphia--and the conductor will put up his hand and stop the car rather than let me ride. . . . Today I am puzzled where to make my home. I would like to make it in Philadelphia, near my own friends and relations. But if I want to ride [a streetcar] in the streets of Philadelphia, they send me to ride on the platform with the driver. Have women nothing to do with this?

Here ends the reading.

The story goes, “In the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the year 1858, a young black woman entered a streetcar and sat down. The conductor came to her and insisted she leave, but she stayed quietly in her seat. A passenger intervened, asking if the woman in question might be permitted to sit in a corner. She did not move. When she reached her destination, the woman got up and tried to pay the fare, but the conductor refused to take her money. She threw it down on the floor and left.”

At that time her name was Frances Ellen Watkins. Two years later she married a man named Fenton Harper. Six years after that, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper gave that speech at the Eleventh National Women's Rights Convention from which you have just heard some excerpts.

In fact, she goes on at length – longer than what I quoted – about her experience of not being allowed to ride the streetcar and being segregated in the train. She also says that Harriet Tubman, who was still alive in 1866, was not allowed to ride the streetcars in the city where she lived. Harriet Tubman.

In 1858 black people were not allowed to use public transportation. In 1958, they had to sit in the back of the bus. Rosa Parks famously refused to do that, 100 years after Frances Watkins insisted on her right to ride the streetcar.

And here we are, not even one hundred years later. To us it seems perfectly obvious that black people should be able to pay their fare, and ride the streetcar, and sit next to white people. What’s the problem with that? How could that be a big deal?

I’m bringing this up because when we look back at history, we tend to assume that things were always simple. But when you’re right in the middle of it, it’s not simple at all, and change seems scary and impossible.