The African American and Diaspora Studies Program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, recently renamed its research arm the Callie House Research Center for the Study of Black Cultures and Politics. The center was founded in 2012 and sponsors lectures, conferences, working groups, professional development and academic seminars.
Callie House was born a slave in Rutherford County, Tennessee, in 1861. After she was freed, she worked as a seamstress and washerwoman in Nashville. She became interested in social justice and politics and led the first mass slave reparations movement in the United States. In 1898, she helped found the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association.
As with Black History Month, the focus on already well-known figures has been an ongoing criticism of Woman’s History Month. When it comes to black women, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and Rosa Parks are on repeat. What makes these much-needed theme months thrive, however, is the spirit of discovery. It’s doubtful that the names Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman, Callie House, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin or Johnnie Tillmon even draw a glint of recognition but they should. In their own ways, each of these women made important contributions to the ongoing struggle for freedom and justice.
Even as a slave, Elizabeth Freeman, known as Mum Bett most of her life, had the audacity to sue for her freedom. Born into slavery in Claverack, New York around 1742, Freeman, at a reported six months old, was sold, along with her sister, to John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, a judge in the Massachusetts Court of Common Pleas. Enslaved to Ashley until she was almost 40, Freeman was spurred to action when the mistress of the house Hannah Ashley tried to hit her sister with a heated kitchen shovel. Freeman intervened and was hit instead, leaving the house, vowing to never come back.