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We've Come a Long Way from the Effort to Memorialize the Slave Mammy

As Washington D.C. prepares for the rescheduled October 16 unveiling of the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is worth reflecting that nine decades ago a very different national monument depicting a person of color was contemplated for the nation’s capital.  In 1923, backed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Senator John Sharp Williams (D-Mississippi) introduced a bill mandating  a monument to the southern “Negro Mammy” in the District of Columbia.  Numerous designs from hopeful sculptors and architects were submitted.  One proposal depicts a large black woman holding a white baby near her bosom.  A white boy and girl clutch her skirts.  Many expected the monument would grace the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

The proposal was the culmination of the so-called “Mammy memorial movement.” Arising out of the late nineteenth century’s post-reconstruction “Redemption” period, the movement emphasized nostalgic accounts of the antebellum South.  These centered on the benevolent mythic image of the Mammy, ostensibly the source of unconditional love and support for her white charges.  A fundraising pamphlet for the Mammy Memorial Institute in Athens, Georgia, asked local whites, “Did you not have an ‘Old Black Mammy’ who loved and cared for you in the days of your youth whose memory and spirit you want perpetuated?”

The 1923 bill outraged African American commentators.  Civil rights pioneer Mary Beth Terrell wrote that if the statue were constructed, “there are thousands of colored men and women who will fervently pray that on some stormy night the lightning will strike it and the heavenly elements will send it crashing to the ground.”  Many noted the irony that those supporting the memorial firmly opposed federal anti-lynching or national voting rights legislation.

Although the national Mammy memorial was never built, scores of local monuments across America were raised to “loyal” African American women, who served white families in slavery and freedom.  For instance, in 1939 wealthy Atlanta segregationist H.W. McCord erected a stone tablet to the enslaved woman Kitty in the cemetery of Oxford, Georgia, birthplace of Emory University.  According to McCord, “Mammy Kitty,“ as property of Methodist Bishop James Osgood Andrew, refused emancipation in 1841 out of loyalty to her white master and was thus allowed to live “as free as the laws of Georgia would allow.”  The subsequent schism of the national Methodist Church over Bishop Andrew’s slave-owning was, in the eyes of McCord and his segregationist allies, due solely to Northern failure to understand the benevolent nature of  Southern race relations before the Civil War.  Not surprisingly, the tablet gives no voice to African American rejoinders that Miss Kitty was never really given a true choice of freedom and that her children remained enslaved after her death.

In 2011, it is a curious irony that just as our nation prepares to unveil the Dr. King’s statue, we are transfixed by arguments over The Help, the latest entry in a long history of white sentimental accounts of African American domestic workers.  Once again, many ask if our society is overly eager to honor women of color only when they are reduced to a subordinate position, in the interest of plot lines that privilege white protagonists.  How far, some ask, have we really come since 1923?

Mercifully, few today would advocate a modern Mammy memorial.  Yet as we quite properly celebrate Dr. King’s memorial, we should ask why there still are no monuments to women of color on the national mall.  It is no denigration of Dr. King’s courage and vision to note that so many of the civil rights movement’s foot soldiers and leaders were African American women, drawn from all walks of life.  The movement’s extraordinary accomplishments are inconceivable without their vision, strategic sense and unshakable determination to move the struggle forward.  In the words of civil rights activist Ella Baker, “Martin didn’t lead the movement, the movement led Martin.”

During the 1963 March on Washington, at which Dr. King delivered his “I have a Dream” speech, only one woman, the singer Josephine Baker, was allowed to speak.  None of the struggle’s women activists were on the program.  One year later,  Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman from the Mississippi Delta, electrified the nation as she represented the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party in its struggle before the credentials committee at the Democratic National Convention.  Isn’t it high time a national memorial honors her, Mary Church Terrell, Septima Poinsette Clark, Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Charlayne Hunter Gault, and the thousands of other women of color who, against all odds, demanded America honor its founding promise of freedom and equality for all?