African-American Women on Screen and in Court

Center for American History and Culture Programs
Women and Gender Seminar
Friday, March 14, 2014

101

“Race, Gender, and the Legal Profession: The Life and Career of Ida Platt, Illinois’s First African American Woman Lawyer”
Gwen Jordan, University of Illinois at Springfield

In 1894, Ida Platt became the first African-American woman lawyer in Illinois. She was one of only five black women lawyers in the country and the only one able to maintain a law practice. She employed a fluid racial identity, passing as white in her professional life, and by avoiding the dominant gender roles that excluded women from the masculine legal profession. Platt’s fluid racial identity allowed her to pursue her career as a lawyer amidst a racist and sexist society that particularly discriminated against black women. Platt’s story offers insight into how law and the legal profession responded to the complexities of race as it tenders a new story of the lived experience of race as it intersects with gender. It suggests that Platt’s pragmatic strategy of changing her racial identity both contested and shaped the ways in which race, gender, and identity were constructed and represented in American society, but failed to contribute to a collectivist consciousness that fought against structural racism.

“Crossing Over as Aunt Jemima: Edith Wilson and the Question of Dignity”
Rhaisa Williams, Northwestern University

In 1948 the Quaker Oats Company hired Edith Wilson—a popular blues singer who had successfully “crossed-over” to Broadway—to make radio and personal appearances as Aunt Jemima. With her tenure lasting until 1966, Wilson’s performances as the most ubiquitous and (in)famous black mother figure of the 20th century coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. Defending her choice against critiques from the NAACP, Wilson declared that she would bring “dignity” to the role. Using this defense as a launching point, this chapter explores the issues of black female choice, moral ambiguity, and pleasure as it inhered within Wilson’s embodiment of Aunt Jemima.

Commentator: Darlene Clark Hine, Northwestern University

Cost and registration information: 

Scholl Center Seminar papers are pre-circulated electronically.  For a copy of the paper, email the Scholl Center at scholl@newberry.org.  Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.