The Road to Kamala A Historic View

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The HistoryMakers

This week Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden selected U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California for the U.S. vice presidency. It is important at times like this that we consider the past as a correct way to view the present.

Among the earliest of black women in politics was Minnie Buckingham Harper, who became the first black woman legislator in the U.S. during the Great Depression in 1928, after being appointed by Governor Howard M. Gore to the West Virginia House of Delegates to fill the vacancy left by her deceased husband, Ebenezer Howard Harper. The McDowell County Republican Executive Committee unanimously agreed she should take her husband’s seat, although she did not run for re-election. While Harper was the first black woman to serve in a state legislature, the first black woman elected to a state legislature was ten years later when Crystal Bird Fauset was elected to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1938. She would serve for two years before being tapped as the assistant director of education and recreation programs for the Works Progress Administration.

Rep. Minnie Buckingham Harper (1886 – 1978)
Rep. Crystal Bird Fauset (1893 – 1965)

It would be over another decade before Cora Mae Brown was elected in 1952 to the Michigan State Senate after having two unsuccessful runs for office in 1950 and 1951. This made Brown the first black woman in the country elected to a state senate where she served two terms. She was later appointed in 1957 as special associate general counsel to the U.S. Post Office, which is also in the news these days surrounding our 2020 presidential election. More stunningly relevant is Kamala Harris is not the first black woman to run as vice president, although she is the first to run for a major political party. In 1952, the first one to run for vice president was none other than Charlotta Bass, who served as the running mate of lawyer Vincent Hallinan on the Progressive Party’s ticket. Notably, Bass was also the first black woman in the U.S. to own and operate a newspaper, the California Eagle, which she ran from 1912 to 1951.

Senator Cora Mae Brown (1914 – 1972)
Charlotta Bass (1874 – 1969)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Verda Freeman Welcome, six years later in Maryland, would become the second black woman to be elected as a state representative in the country, holding that position until 1962 when she became the second black woman state senator in the United States. Welcome held this position for twenty years. In fact, Maryland State delegate Howard “Pete” Rawlings (1937 – 2003), recalled working with Welcome: “Verda Welcome is a clubwoman… husband is a doctor… very middle class. She came out of a group of women… they meet in their basements… they contribute to the black hospital, Providence… they give scholarship balls… she was a woman who I knew had integrity. She was committed to do these things, to improve our community… But she was in an environment where she was the only woman. She was disrespected by a lot of white men, because she was a woman, first. And the system in this state… was much cruder… and the blacks before me I will acknowledge created an environment which a guy like me could work better… in terms of sitting at the table when decisions are made. And when I sit at the table, I am mindful of the sacrifices–And I am also mindful of the kind of character… she was a person with a great deal of integrity; a person who was always impeccably dressed… she treated people with respect.”[1]

Representative Senator Verda Freeman Welcome (1907 – 1990)

Then we cannot forget the role that Yvonne Braithwaite Burke played in 1966, two years before the death of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., when she became the first black woman in the California State Assembly. She served in that capacity until 1973. In her 2001 interview, Burke explained how she came to run for Assemblywoman: “Governor [Pat Brown] appointed a commission to investigate it [the Watts Riots, Los Angeles, California] called the McCone Commission and [Director of the CIA] John McCone headed it up… and I went to work as an attorney on the staff of the McCone Commission… I wrote the Criminal Justice and the Housing Report… And in the course of that they said we really have to find younger people to run for office… Right in the middle of this, as the report’s coming out, the Assemblyman in the district that I live [sixty-third] says he’s not going to run… and I let him talk me into it, just like that… I was able to put together a coalition of people and I won by a huge margin, the Primary, then I ran against the John Birch Society member, in the general election.”[2]

Assemblywoman Yvonne Braithwaite Burke riding in a parade, Watts, Los Angeles, California, c.1967

1968 proved a groundbreaking year when New York’s Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. By then, there had been over 200 white women who had served in the U.S. Congress, starting in 1917. Director of the ACLU’s Washington, D.C. office Laura Murphy described her former boss: “Shirley Chisholm always had her makeup on and she wore wigs and she always had matching suits with matching purses and shoes and sometimes hats. And she was a prim little lady… But don’t get her started. She was one of the best orators in the [U.S.] House of Representatives. She could pound the table. She could make a point… black women were being sterilized. She just raised hell about that. She raised heck on behalf of domestic workers. She was a big proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment… she became a legend in expanding the food stamp program… she could flutter those lashes and giggle and the guys would tell her everything in [U.S.] Congress. They would give her their socks. But she knew who was having affairs. She knew what marriages were breaking up, who had a drinking problem, who was frustrated politically. And so she could play these guys and get her legislation throughshe was one of the women who taught me that, you don’t have to lose your femininity to be tough.”[3] Serving as Congresswoman until 1983, Chisholm, in 1972, would be the first black candidate to run for U.S. President from a major party, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. This would precede Hillary Clinton’s run for president.

“First Black Woman In U.S. Congress,” Shirley Chisholm (1924 – 2005) on the cover of Jet, November 21, 1968

The same year Chisholm ran for president, Barbara Jordan and Yvonne Braithwaite Burke joined the U.S. House of Representatives. Jordan was the first black senator elected to represent Texas since Reconstruction, the first black woman Texas state senator, and the first black woman in the country to preside over a legislative body as president pro tempore. Burke recalled her time with Jordan as Congresswomen: “The difference between us, interestingly enough was that she was a conventional politician. She was a person who worked within the system and came up through the system. I was a person who came up outside of the system and worked outside of the system and we got along very, very well, we were always very friendly, stayed in touch until her death [1996]… Barbara never sat with the rest of us, you know, she always sat with Texas, she was a Texan. And she was proud to be a Texan… I always felt that her loyalty was never repaid.”[4] Reverend Constance Jackson added: “I think you will find that Barbara Jordan carried the weight of her gender, of her race, of the political timeline that she found herself in… So, to carry all of those banners for people, I think, maybe made you a bit more cautious about letting your hair down. I can remember her saying that you had to make a choice of whether you wanted to be popular and make popular decisions that satisfied… some of the people or the power base, or whether you wanted to sleep well at night… I think for her, and I think for myself, for other women who are in high profile careers—the stories that we would tell you is that maybe we don’t smile as much. Maybe we don’t cut up as much. Maybe there isn’t a big enough peer group for us to let our hair down and, and really be ourselves because you never know who’s expecting you to be this image that they concocted in their minds… I think maybe there was, you know, a more jovial Barbara Jordan. But I think for the public’s sake, there was a need to be serious and a need to always be on point.”[5]

Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (1936 – 1996)
Congresswoman Yvonne Braithwaite Burke

On the heels of Burke and Jordan, Cardiss Collins (1931 – 2013) was then elected to represent the State of Illinois in a special election held in July of 1973 following the death of her husband, former U.S. Congressman George W. Collins, on December 8, 1972. In her 2010 interview Collins described how her election came to be: “Well, there were other people who wanted to run for his unexpired term… at his funeral, Mayor Daley [Richard J. Daley] stopped by and said to me, ‘I want to see you in about a week’… But somewhere in between that time, I know that Reverend Hall [HistoryMaker Reverend Dr. Shelvin Jerome Hall] and his group had gone to see the mayor because it was in the newspapers. And they had suggested that I be the chosen person to fill the unexpired term and run for election. So when I got to Mayor Daley’s office, he said that if I would do that for a year he would appreciate it because they wanted to keep the ward together.”[6] After much deliberation with her mother, she decided she would do it, and there she served eleven terms until 1997, during which time she also became the first black and the first woman Democratic whip-at-large.

Cardiss Collins button, 1973
Congresswoman Cardiss Collins (1931 – 2013)

The year 1973 also brought about the first black female mayors, with the election of Lelia Foley in Taft, Oklahoma and Doris A. Davis in Compton, California. So, by the 1970s, black women were serving in state legislatures, as mayors, in city councils and holding ambassadorships. But, it would be not be until twenty years later with the election of Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, that a black woman would serve in the U.S. Senate. Braun spoke of her candidacy in her 2002 interview with The HistoryMakers: “As Anita Hill’s testimony went on, the women, as you know, became more and more enraged really about not just what had happened to her… but the fact that the members of the committee just didn’t seem to get it that this was a major economic issue for women… so the fact that the Senate was 98 percent rich, white, and male… really infuriated a lot of people… And so at that point, I was still recorder of deeds and I got a letter from a man in Murphysboro, Illinois… ten people who had worked in that office had gone to jail under federal indictments for taking bribes. So it was an office that had been rife with corruption… Anyway, so this guy wrote and he said, basically, ‘I’ve used your office many times over the years and I have to tell you I’ve never seen it work as nicely as it does now. The people are actually friendly and they are nice and they won’t take tips and dat, dat, dat’… he says, ‘I think you should run for Senate’… The letter became a real comment because it was like, wait a minute, I got people down in Murphysboro, Illinois, saying I should run for the Senate. There must be something to this… I was a person already in an elective office, I had the constituency base from which to move immediately into a campaign. And so… we started our little campaign and that was the beginning of it.”[7]

Mayor Lelia Foley outside town hall, Taft, Oklahoma, 1980
Doris A. Davis campaigning for Mayor, Compton, California, 1973

Now, in 2020, there are twenty-two black women in the U.S. House of Representatives, six in statewide elective executive office, 72 state senators, 232 state representatives, and one U.S. Senator, who is also now the democratic nominee for vice president. Gloria Travis Tanner, the first black woman elected as a Colorado state senator, reflected on the long road black women have worked to pave in politics: “The most important thing for me, when I walked through that senate door every morning, was to realize how many shoulders I came in on, and how many people are going to be looking at my shoulders to see, can I climb on them?… you got to do something to make it… a lot less troublesome for women than it has been before… And people always say, ‘Aren’t you proud of being the being the first black woman elected to the senate [Colorado State Senate].’ I say, ‘No, I’m not, I’m honored because they finally opened the door, and let one in’… so it just shows how many have been denied… I’m not so carried away with just being the first black woman, but what am I going to do with that? I’m going to make sure that I’m not the last one, that’s for sure.”[8] Many have traveled the road to Kamala Harris’s run for U.S. vice president. But let’s not stop there.

Harris’s parents, Shyamala Gopalan & Donald J. Harris
Kamala Harris with husband Doulgas Emhoff (left), sister Maya (middle), niece Meena, and brother-in-law Tony West

[1] Howard “Pete” Rawlings (The HistoryMakers A2001.063), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, February 25, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 1, Howard Rawlings details his election to the Maryland House of Delegates.

[2] The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke (The HistoryMakers A2001.005), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 23, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke speaks on how she came to run for office.

[3] Laura Murphy (The HistoryMakers A2001.051), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, January 18, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 8, Laura Murphy remembers Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.

[4] The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke (The HistoryMakers A2001.005), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 23, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 8, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke talks about Barbara Jordan.

[5] Reverend Constance Jackson (The HistoryMakers A2005.147), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 23, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 1, Reverend Constance Jackson describes Barbara Jordan’s personality.

[6] The Honorable Cardiss Collins (The HistoryMakers A2010.059), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 28, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 12, The Honorable Cardiss Collins recalls being asked to run for U.S. Congress.

[7] The Honorable Carol Moseley Braun (The HistoryMakers A2002.024), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 19, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 2, Carol Moseley Braun explains her decision to run for the Senate.

[8] The Honorable Gloria Travis Tanner (The HistoryMakers A2008.131), interviewed by Denise Gines, November 6, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 2, The Honorable Gloria Travis Tanner describes her hopes for women in politics.

Favorite Quote

It Is Not Enough To Know, One Must Act To Humanize The World.
Molefi Kete Asante
Professor & Author

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