Celebrating African American Women

The Amistad Research Center highlights the lives and legacies of eight African American women

Annabelle Bernard headshot by Heidelberg-RohrbachAmistad Research Center

Annabelle Bernard

A Shining Star in the International World of Opera

Annabelle Bernard (1935-2005) was a New Orleans-born opera singer who spent four decades with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Her love of music started at an early age; she began performing publicly at New Orleans’ Fisk Elementary School and at the Fourth Baptist Church as a child. She studied music education with a concentration in voice at Xavier University of Louisiana from 1952 to 1956.

Annabelle Bernard in performance costume posing in front of a harp by unknown photographerAmistad Research Center

While performing in Xavier University productions, Annabelle Bernard attracted the attention of Edith Rosenwald Stern, philanthropist and daughter of wealthy businessman Julius Rosenwald. After graduating from Xavier, and with support from Stern, Bernard continued her studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, the Mozarteum University in Salzburg and the Stuttgart (Germany) Conservatory of Music.

Annabelle Bernard in performanceAmistad Research Center

In 1962, Bernard debuted with the Deutsche Oper Berlin (Berlin Opera), performing the title role in Aida. For nearly forty years, she performed with the Deutsche Oper Berlin in countless operas. One critic said in 1965, “her tiny appearance stands in stark contrast to her near impossible ability to develop and impassion resounding vocal strength.”

Letter from Edith Stern to Annabelle Bernard page 1 of letter, From the collection of: Amistad Research Center
Letter from Edith Stern to Annabelle Bernard page 2 of letter, From the collection of: Amistad Research Center
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Congratulatory letter from Edith Stern to Annabelle Bernard following her performance in "Andre Chenier" with the New Orleans opera and New Orleans symphony, 1976.

Bernard retired from the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1998 and returned to New Orleans to teach at Xavier, her alma mater. She wanted to return to her roots “where I received an abundance of support—mentally, vocally, financially, and spiritually; with the hope of being able to instill in the students that the classic music industry for singers is a God-sent profession which is to be taken seriously with love, dedication, and self-discipline.”

Alexis De Veaux publicity photo by Alexis De VeauxAmistad Research Center

Alexis De Veaux

A Voice for Black Feminism and LGBTQ Equality

Born in Harlem in 1948, Alexis De Veaux received a bachelor of arts degree from the State University of New York Empire State College. She continued her education in creative writing at the University of Buffalo, where she attained a master of arts and doctor of philosophy degrees. De Veaux is the former chair of the women's studies department at State University of New York at Buffalo.

Ephemera from Alexis De Veaux papersAmistad Research Center

Collection of ephemera from Dr. Alexis De Veaux's travels to conferences, rallies and social justice movements

As an artist and lecturer, Alexis De Veaux has traveled extensively. She was a freelance writer and contributing editor for Essence magazine (1979-1991); during her time there Essence sent her to South Africa in 1990. De Veaux was the first North American to interview Nelson Mandela after his release from prison. This collection of ephemera from her papers at the Amistad Research Center reflects some of the movements, issues and conferences in which she was involved.

De Veaux’s writing reflects the experiences of black female characters. Her published work includes books (Na-Ni; Spirits in the Street; Don’t Explain: A Song of Billie Holiday; Blue Heat: Poems and Drawings; An Enchanted Hair Tale; The Woolu Hat; Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde; and Yabo); plays; short fiction; articles and essays. Awards include the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, two Lambda Literary Awards and the Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award, Nonfiction.

Alexis De Veaux letter to Evelyn C. White Alexis De Veaux letter to Evelyn C. White, Alexis De Veaux, 1996-06-18, From the collection of: Amistad Research Center
Alexis De Veaux letter to Evelyn C. White page 2 of letter, From the collection of: Amistad Research Center
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Alexis De Veaux writes to Evelyn C. White about working on a biography of Audre Lorde.

Alexis De Veaux’s papers are rich in manuscript drafts and notebooks of poetry, novels and biographies, as well as correspondence documenting her speaking engagements, publishing and her academic career. This 1996 letter to fellow biographer Evelyn C. White explores her writing process; De Veaux was writing Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde at the time, and White was writing Alice Walker: A Life.

Jessie Covington Dent (1920) by D. GlennAmistad Research Center

Jessie Covington Dent

Making Sound, Making Change

Ernestine Jessie Covington Dent (1904-2001) was a concert pianist, educator and community leader. Born in Houston, Texas, she showed signs of musical talent at age 2 and began piano and violin lessons at 5. Her first music teacher was Madame Corilla Rochon; she also studied violin with Willie Nickerson, brother of the famed musician Camille Nickerson. Jessie graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in 1924.

The Dent family by unknownAmistad Research Center

The Dent Family

Jessie married Albert Dent, who later became president of Dillard University in New Orleans. As a member of the Flint-Goodridge Hospital Women's Auxiliary, Jessie Dent helped create the Ebony Fashion Fair as a fundraiser; Ebony Fashion Fair became a major annual event.

Jessie Covington Dent letter to New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony Society (1954) by Jessie Covington DentAmistad Research Center

Jessie C. Dent letter to New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony

Jessie Dent writes to the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony Society, protesting their treatment of a Black awardee. Dent later served as an orchestra board member (1971-1976) and was instrumental in integrating orchestra concerts in New Orleans.

She also supported the effort to increase the number of minority classical musicians in major symphony orchestras and teaching positions. In 1998, the Jessie Covington Dent Music Festival was created at Dillard University in her honor.

Antoinette Harrell (2004)Amistad Research Center

Antoinette Harrell

A History Finder and Keeper

Antoinette Harrell at workAmistad Research Center

Historian Antoinette Harrell compiled more than twenty years of research on illegal peonage (debt slavery) in sixteen states in the South. Although peonage was outlawed in 1867, some African Americans were still enslaved well into the 1960s. Harrell’s research also uncovered child labor and peonage at the Arthur G. Dozier School for boys in Marianna, Florida, revealing horrific abuse suffered by African American boys there.

DVD cover, The Untold Story: Slavery in the 20th Century (2008) by Antoinette HarrellAmistad Research Center

During her research, Harrell unearthed many accounts of peonage; she produced a DVD, The Untold Story: Slavery in the 20th Century, as documentation of peonage cases in several Mississippi counties.

Harrell examines the lives of African American families and provides perspective on their collective past while disclosing the untold stories deeply embedded in the shadows of history. She is a producer of the television program Nurturing Our Roots, and her books include Department of Justice: Slavery, Involuntary Servitude and Peonage (2014), Images of America: African Americans in Tangipahoa and St. Helena Parishes (2019) and Nurturing My Family Tree: Genealogy for Children (2010).

Sybil MorialAmistad Research Center

Sybil Haydel Morial

Educator, Activist and New Orleans Civic Leader

Born in New Orleans in 1932, Sybil Haydel earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Boston University; she taught in Massachussetts, Maryland and Louisiana. In 1954 she married attorney Ernest “Dutch” Morial, who would become the first African American mayor of New Orleans in 1977. As First Lady, Sybil Morial focused on fighting illiteracy, infant mortality and equal rights for women; she also worked tirelessly for women’s professional advocacy, education and civic engagement.

Louisiana League of Good Government flyer by Sybil MorialAmistad Research Center

Sybil Morial founded the Louisiana League of Good Government (LLOGG) in 1963 when she couldn’t join the League of Women Voters due to Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation. The LLOGG was a nonprofit created to help African Americans overcome deterrents to voting such as literacy tests. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the LLOGG continued its efforts to promote good government “through an informed and participating citizenry,” and to encourage voting.

Sybil Morial and John T. Scott (1983-10-15) by Spectator News JournalAmistad Research Center

A community activist, Morial has worked with many organizations, such as the International Women’s Forum Leadership Foundation and the affiliated Louisiana Women’s Forum; The Links, Inc.; Advocates for Science and Mathematics Foundation; and the Southern Institute for Education and Research, among others. Morial also served as president and chair of the I’ve Known Rivers Afro-American Pavilion at the Louisiana World Exposition (1982-1985).

Maida Springer-Kemp at union meetingAmistad Research Center

Maida Springer Kemp

Breaking Barriers in Labor Organizing

Maida Springer-KempAmistad Research Center

Born in 1910 in Panama and raised in Harlem, New York, Maida Springer Kemp often held summer jobs in the garment industry, one of the limited jobs available to Black women.

ILGWU Committee on Education (1947-06-16/1947-06-27) by International Ladies' Garment Workers' UnionAmistad Research Center

Committee on Education at the ILGWU 26th convention, 1947

Maida Springer Kemp (back row, third from right) began her labor union career in 1933 when she joined the Dressmaker’s Union, Local 22 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).

Maida Springer Kemp performing Tacamba dance at Timbuktu, Mali (1973) by Photo Moderne TombouctouAmistad Research Center

At a special meal held in her honor, Maida Springer Kemp performs Tacamba dance with Malian man at Timbuctu (sic), Mali

Following World War II, Springer Kemp’s activism turned towards the international arena, particularly in the new labor unions emerging in Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, and other African nations. She served as the International Representative for Africa for the AFL-CIO and continued her work as a general organizer for the ILGWU, then as a consultant with the African American Labor Center and the Asian-American Free Labor Institute.

Senga Nengudi posing with her work by Adam AvilaAmistad Research Center

Senga Nengudi

Painter, Photographer, Sculptor, Avant-garde Artist

Senga Nengudi working in studio, Senga Nengudi, From the collection of: Amistad Research Center
Senga Nengudi art work, Senga Nengudi (artist), Doug Harris (photographer), From the collection of: Amistad Research Center
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Senga Nengudi was part of a group of radical, avant-garde black artists working in New York City and Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s. She was a member of the Studio Z Collective, also known as LA Rebellion and collaborated frequently with the collective’s artists David Hammons and Maren Hassinger. She also worked in the Los Angeles and New York galleries, Pearl C. Woods and Just Above Midtown.

Senga Nengudi in front of 3D art, Senga Nengudi, 1976, From the collection of: Amistad Research Center
Artist Statement, Senga Nengudi, 1976, From the collection of: Amistad Research Center
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Thematically, her works highlight issues around gender, race, culture, and ethnicity. Nengudi is best known for her R.S.V.P. “responsez sïlvous plait” series created in 1975 after the birth of her first child. Having an interest in movement and sculpture, her work reflects this focus through the use of found objects and choreographed live or filmed performances. She is also a painter and photographer, as well as a poet writing under the pseudonyms Harriet Chin, Propecia Lee, and Lily B. Moor.

Senga Nengudi art work by Senga NengudiAmistad Research Center

Nengudi’s work can be found in many museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Hammer Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Studio Museum of Harlem, and the Brooklyn Art Museum.

A.L. Davis, Dorothy Mae Taylor, and Avery AlexanderAmistad Research Center

Dorothy Mae Taylor

Political Activist, "First Lady of 1300 Perdido Street"

Dorothy Mae (Delavallade) Taylor (1928-2000) was a political activist in New Orleans. Her career in public service began as a member of her children's school's Parent Teacher Association. One of her first initiatives was fighting for equal supplies for African American children in the local public schools. Taylor also fought for desegregation of the New Orleans Recreation Department and pushed for a recreation budget that allowed residents to fund their own programs.

Ernest "Dutch" Morial discussing strategy with Dorothy Mae Taylor, 1967, From the collection of: Amistad Research Center
Dorothy Taylor campaign poster, 1971, From the collection of: Amistad Research Center
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Taylor's historic election to the state congress in 1971 marked the first time an African American woman held a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives and was symbolic of changing attitudes in local politics. She left office after nine years to serve as an administrator for the New Orleans Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation and the Central City Neighborhood Health Center. She remained active in local politics and, in 1986, became the first woman elected to New Orleans City Council.

Dorothy Mae Taylor (1987)Amistad Research Center

Dorothy Mae Taylor is remembered most for introducing a city ordinance desegregating the city's Mardi Gras krewes. She stood strong in her belief that if public funds were to be used to subsidize or support a public project, parade, or program, then no one should be barred from participation through discrimination.

Credits: Story

Digital exhibition curated by Lisa Moore and Phillip Cunningham.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services [MH-245560-OMS-20]. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Amistad Research Center is committed to collecting, preserving, and providing open access to original materials that reference the social and cultural importance of America's ethnic and racial history, the African Diaspora, and global social justice movements. As the nation's oldest, largest and most comprehensive independent archive, the Amistad's holds 900 manuscript collections which include over ten million documents from the 1780s to present, 250,000 original photographs dating from 1859, 8,000 audiovisual recordings, 40,000 book titles, 2000 periodicals titles, and over 600 pieces of fine art dating from the 19th century.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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