On Thursday, November 19th, 2020, at 6:30 pm, The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture held a one-hour event with guest speakers Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, Matrice Ellis-Kirk, and Jerry Hawkins. The discussion was centered on Hunt’s book, And the Spirit Moved Them: The Lost Radical History of America’s First Feminists.
Larry Allums, Executive Director of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, welcomed viewers and discussed the auspiciousness of the event, given that this year is the Centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. He described Helen LaKelly Hunt as an important “discoverer and chronicler of the connection between abolitionist and women’s rights movements in American history.” He acknowledged Hunt as a “dear friend” to the Dallas Institute and recognized her contributions as part of an early group of women donors funding gender equality, noting that Hunt co-founded the Texas Women’s Foundation, the New York Women’s Foundation, the Women’s Funding Network, and Women Moving Millions.
Why Hunt Needed to Write The Lost History
Hunt discussed how she had always been curious about the secular nature of feminist movements and wondered if the women’s movement was more spiritual at the beginning. She began exploring the religious roots of women in Seneca Falls, and discovered the proceedings of another conference that was 13 years earlier called the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, and it was held on May 9–12, 1837.
“Scholars call them abolitionist feminists,” said Hunt. “They called themselves anti-slavery women.” Hunt described how these women rose up in the 1830’s as the institution of slavery was growing at a “frightening rate.”
“Women got together with their husbands and discussed organizing into a group,” said Hunt, and detailed how the women called the meetings and managed the initial organizing, but then when it came time to be official, the men had some bad news for them: they would not be allowed to belong. .
Hunt quoted Samuel May, who was among the men at the time, and wrote of the event as a “mortifying fact, that we men were so blind, so obtuse, that we did not recognize women as members of our convention.”
Obtuse or not, the women were excluded, and therefore decided to start their own anti-slavery societies, which quickly expanded over 5 years to 140 different women’s groups across the country.
“Their faith was a major catalyst,” said Hunt. “Even though the government and the church discouraged women being out in public and speaking, these women felt that God was telling them, to ‘shout it out.’”
With 174 women attending the 1837 conference in New York City, this was one very powerful meeting. “They took their scripture very seriously,” said Hunt, and used the Bible to justify their cause. They did things decidedly differently than the men in anti-slavery societies, as well. They admitted women of color into their societies.
They created petitions to submit to the U.S. government in order for women to be allowed to speak in public. Angelina Grimke’s resolution began: “The time has come for women to move in that sphere which Providence has assigned her and no longer remain satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt custom and a perverted application of Scripture have encircled her.” These petitions were later burned by the government.
Another vital aspects of the Anti-slavery women’s groups was the practice of empathy. Hunt described how feminist abolitionist Elizabeth Chandler introduced the technique of coming together in sewing circles to imagine the cruelty of black men, women and children being sold as slaves. A mantra came to be known in the groups of “Let’s practice sympathy for our sisters in the south.” Sometimes in the groups, one member would stand and read a slave narrative while they worked.
The Convention in 1837 went so well that the Anti-slavery women planned to meet again, but their second meeting would prove so traumatic that the movement would be thrown into a decade-long setback.
“As women began their meetings, a mob gathered outside,” said Hunt, and described the mob that began to harass the women, yelling to them from outside the building. As the mob of men got larger, they began “throwing sticks and rocks, breaking the glass.”
“They decided to link arm in arm and walk out of the hall and leave,” said Hunt. The hall was later set on fire and burned to the ground.
Here, Hunt quoted Frederick Douglass, who observed how the feminist abolitionists were treated at the time and said, “When the true history of anti-slavery is written, women will occupy a large space in its pages.”
Hunt said that at the next big abolitionist meeting, the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840, held in London, the men spent the entire first day of the convention arguing about whether women could participate or not. Ultimately, they decided the women would be allowed to come in, but they had to sit in the balcony, could not talk or participate, and needed to have a veil in front of them, so they could only listen and not see the proceedings. Frederick Douglass, said Hunt, went and sat with women in solidarity.
Hunt’s lecture ended with her long-view perspective on feminism in America. Hunt described first wave feminists as “fused with men.” Through the first and second waves of feminism, Hunt sees women differentiating themselves, growing in the diversity of their identity. Now, in what is bring called the Third Wave of feminism, Hunt sees women “being at a place where they can potentially connect again” with men in a more powerful and equal way, with increased focus on healthy relationships and mutual empathy.
Jerry Hawkins on Racial Healing in Dallas
Jerry Hawkins, Executive Director of Dallas Truth Racial Healing and Transformation, spoke next. He discussed the importance of recognizing other parts of the history of the United States such as the illegal execution of Jane Elkins, a slave who lived in the area of Dallas that he grew up in. “It is the most gerrymandered part of our city, and a very sacred place,” said Hawkins.
Hawkins said that the origins of commerce in Dallas are very much linked to the atrocity of slavery. He discussed the sale of Jane Elkins, a black enslaved woman and mother, whose sale was the first recorded bill of sale in Dallas County on August 9, 1846. Elkins was sold for $400 to John Young, and later loaned out to another owner, whom she was accused of murdering, and was hung in public for the crime. After her execution, said Hawkins, her body was dug up and used for experimentation for early Dallas doctors.
“I don’t think we can talk about the hx of where we are going without talking about that,” said Hawkins. He discussed the chronic lack of economic mobility that Dallas residents of color have experienced and as well as other issues of inequality in the city.
Matrice Ellis-Kirk on the “Illuminating” Lost History
Matrice Ellis-Kirk, community leader and Managing Director of RSR Partners Executive Search, responded to Hawkins’ comments by recognizing that there was a lot to unpack in the issues he brought up. “So much of who we are today is steeped in all of these elements that have been a part of our history,” said Ellis-Kirk. “Selling individuals, not accepting the rights of others.”
Ellis-Kirk noted that, historically, Dallas has one of the highest rates of Ku Klux Klan members. “Talks about the fact that the bible was written by men.
“I’m still challenged by some of the aspects of how we came to be. When they wrote all are created equal [in the Constitution], that should be all, that includes people of color as well, blacks.”
Ellis-Kirk observed that in looking at the history of Dallas, “there is an aspect of [Dallas] that is based on commerce. […] And it created the situation that all of us continue to be oppressed by and to live in.”
“At some stage if there were to be a reconciliation, a transmigration, be empathetic, it begins with understanding, accepting, apologizing, but also learning and being aware of the history,” said Ellis-Kirk.
She described Hunt’s book as illuminating, especially in terms of how the book discussed education as the road to a better life for the young Black anti-slavery feminists. “They thought they were going to be okay because they were educated, but a new law was passed where they had to walk around with their papers saying that they were allowed to be in society freely.”
Helen asked “What can the city of Dallas do?” in terms of repairing and moving toward equality, and spoke about her own appreciation and her family’s appreciation of and participation in the Black Lives Matter protests.
Hawkins brought the conversation back to how difficult it was for Black people in Dallas in the early history of the city. In Dallas, in 1920, Hawkins described Dallas as “the most racist city in America” with the highest population of Klu Klux Klan members of any U.S. city. He also referenced the 1931 Dallas Charter, which specified that “people of the caucasian race have to be separated from people of the colored race.” Hawkins noted that the 1931 Dallas Charter was not removed until 1968.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We need to do the political educating that we’re doing now.”
Hawkins also discussed how important it is for men to understand their role in the work of gender equality. “We are still paying women less than men for the same job,” he said, and referenced Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectional frame as an important strategy for cities like Dallas to take in order to improve both racial and gender equality.
“We are still having big gaps,” said Hawkins. “A man killed like George Floyd gets more attention than a woman like Breonna Taylor.” He suggested that men “have to step out of the way” and “highlight more women from history.”