Lessons Retrieved from History Remain Relevant Today

The overlay of past and present quite often astounds.

One hundred years ago on August 18th, America ratified the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. A century later, a woman – a Black woman – is poised to accept her party’s vice presidential nomination for the November election.
 
This week’s historic confluence reminded us of twins Katie and Megan Woods, who we first met last winter at the National Parks of Boston. Both were SCA public history interns; Katie focused on African American women in the suffrage movement while Megan studied the Great Migration and the Charlestown Navy Yard. Since then, they have each renewed their internships to assemble their findings in digital form and afford greater public access. 
 
 
Thew twins at the USS Constitution (Charlestown Navy Yard, Boston, MA)
 
Katie’s topic, Suffrage in Black and White, addresses the prevalence of racism in the movement. She dug through “archives and libraries for what I consider the ‘buried treasure’ – the voices and names who have been forgotten by history, the people who enrich or further complicate the stories we already know or thought we knew.”
 
Through this process, she encountered Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, who in 1893 founded the Woman’s Era Club, the first Black women’s club in Boston. In an article for the National Park Service, Katie wrote “the Woman’s Era Club had two purposes: to offer its members opportunities for self-improvement and to address issues that directly affected the African American community, from local politics and education to the debilitating discrimination and terrorism against Blacks in the South.”
 
 
A club publication, The Woman’s Era, soon gained national influence and, in 1895, Josephine used the platform to convene the first National Conference of Colored Women in America at which, Katie notes “Josephine announced the launch of a new movement, one in which women of color were ‘coming to the front, willing to join any others in the same work and cordially inviting and welcoming any others to join us’…on the final day of the conference, these clubwomen formed the National Federation of Afro-American Women, which served as a precursor to the National Association of Colored Women.”
 
Megan also worked to eliminate the shadows of history that tend to shroud African American women. “Throughout my SCA service,” she says, “I had been researching Helen Lee Franklin, who worked at the Charlestown Navy Yard and submitted a discrimination case against the Yard in 1943. Fascinated by her story, I spent many hours looking through archival collections.”
 
 
Megan’s investigations led her to one of Helen’s nieces. “It was very rewarding to be able to share documents and newspaper articles about her aunt…She shared with me that my work helped her find a new appreciation for her aunt’s work as an activist and community organizer.”
 
As public historians, the Woods sisters see themselves as “the gatekeepers between historical research and the public.” And they continue their service so others will see the vivid connections between yesterday and today.