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HERstory: Leaders from Alabama

Frances McNeal, Urban Avenues' Marketing and Program Manager, reflects on Women's History Month and the trailblazing women that pioneered change in our city and Alabama.

In our small yet significant city of Birmingham, we are often just a small step away from a person or landmark that played a notable part in history. For me, I grew up just five minutes away from the McNair residence, and on some Saturday mornings we would often pass by their home on the way to Brookwood Mall. Occasionally, we'd catch a glimpse of the matriarch in the family, Maxine McNair, tending to the yard. At the time, I knew only that the family had a tragedy but didn't know they had lost their daughter. I didn't learn the full story until I was twelve, just one year older than her daughter Denise was when she lost her life in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. Upon learning what happened I was inspired to learn more about the history of Birmingham, and to my surprise, women were the backbone of the reformation that took place in the Magic City. Although Denise McNair unwillingly became a symbol for change in Birmingham, there are so many other people, women in particular, who have left their mark in history. As a young African American woman who grew up in Birmingham I find great joy to see just how many women from Alabama have altered the course of history and are continuing to change the narrative.

The women who pivoted

When you hear about Women’s History Month, Anne Frank, Malala Yousafazai, and Helen Keller may be some of the faces that come to mind. But there are so many other wonderful women that have changed the course of history, many of whom were born and raised in the state of Alabama. Here are a few women whose stories are inspirational to me. . .

First is Virginia Foster Durr, she was born and raised in Jefferson County. She spent her early life learning how to behave as a “southern lady,” and was also taught to be tolerant to the ideas of racial segregation. Durr studied at Wellesley College where she was challenged to change her ideas on segregation due to the schools “rotating table” policy. In her career Durr played a vital role in Birmingham politics and the movement for civil rights. She and her husband also spent years working to abolish the poll tax to end segregation, and they were involved with a number of civil rights cases. {Click here to learn more about Durr}. I find Virginia’s legacy to be really touching because although she was raised to behave and tolerate the intolerable, she dedicated decades of her life fighting against societal norms, it’s really amazing to see how she chose to find the humanity in people who were different than her and worked diligently to create a society that would someday be equitable for all persons.

Next is, Julia S. Tutwiler. Julia is another notable woman who greatly influenced Alabama. Tutwiler was born in Tuscaloosa County; Tutwiler’s father believed that women were intellectually equal to men and should be educated as such; she was sent to a boarding school in Philadelphia where she was educated on modern languages, culture, art and music. During the Civil War, Tutwiler returned to Alabama to teach at her father’s school. Although Tutwiler was not opposed to educational segregation and social segregation she did advocate for the University of Alabama to accept white women into their institution. Her petition was accepted in 1897, and by 1899 the number of women students rose from five to 26 among a student body of 180. In later parts of her career, Tutwiler worked with Booker T. Washington to help establish a reform school for African American boys which opened in 1911. {Click here to learn more about Tutwiler}. Just like Julia I value the importance of education and I am grateful that Tutwiler used her career to advocate for women to be educated just as their male counterparts. I also loved that Tutwiler extended her privilege to help members of the African American community by partnering with African American leaders of that time.

Last is Angela Y. Davis, Angela is another Alabama native that worked extensively to change the nature of civil rights not just in the south but also across the nation. I find a lot of parallels between Angela and myself being that we both grew up in Birmingham, and we both experienced the realities of racism at a young age. When Davis was little, her family moved from an all black neighborhood to a white neighborhood. Upon moving white supremacists who were opposed to integration bombed the home neighbors of the Davis family. Eager to leave Birmingham, Davis won a scholarship in 1959 to study at Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York City. Upon graduating she attended Brandies University to study French literature and spent her junior year abroad at the junior year of Paris. In 1968 Davis became a member of the Che-Lumumba Club of the Communist Party in the USA and made many friends among the Black Panthers; at the time both organizations were calling for radical change in the United States and were feared by mainstream America. In her professional career Davis worked as a professor in the philosophy department at the University of California in Los Angeles. In the 1970s she taught black philosophy and women’s studies in the Ethnic Studies Department at San Francisco State University. Davis currently works as tenured Professor at Santa Cruz. {Click here to learn more about Davis}.

What does this mean to me?

It’s really inspiring to see how women of Alabama have challenged the status quo, and broke the glass ceiling of what was expected of a woman at that time. I felt so inspired learning about these hidden figures because I see myself in a lot of these women and I hope to create a legacy just as rich as theirs. Virginia Durr, Julia Tutiwiler, and Angela Davis are just a few women who have overcome obstacles and have used their knowledge to give back to society and their contributions have made way for women to continue to achieve. As of now, there are so many businesses in Birmingham that are owned by women, and there are so many working professionals that are women. It is my hope that Birmingham continues this trend of allowing women to be pioneers and raise up a new generation that trust women in leadership just as much as they trust men. After all, the possibilities are endless.

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