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The social impact of Philadelphia’s Black women leaders

Alicia Colombo

By Constance Garcia-Barrio

One of the best ways to recognize the accomplishments of women, especially those of color, is to tell their stories. For that reason, the recently published book “They Carried Us: The Social Impact of Philadelphia’s Black Women Leaders” has critical importance. It details the life stories of Black women from Philadelphia’s earliest days into the 2000s. “In order to be included (in the book), the women had to have a social impact,” said co-author Allener M. Baker-Rogers. “We identified almost 2,000 women, but we knew a publisher wouldn’t let us include that many.”

Teach for American-Greater Philadelphia, a nonprofit devoted to educational equity and excellence, presented a virtual discussion in February inspired by the book. Panelists included attorney and businesswoman Charisse Lillie; founder of real estate developers group, The Collective, Sandra Dungee Glenn; principal of Girard Academic Music Program Jovan Moore; and Haverford College professor Asali Solomon.

Much of the proud history of Black women remains untold. For example, few people knew about the role of Black female mathematicians in the early years of NASA’s space program until 2017. That’s when the movie “Hidden Figures” revealed the group of brilliant Black women who served as the brains behind the flight of astronaut John Glenn.

In the same vein, few people know that Gladys West, a Black mathematician and engineer made key contributions to the development of global positioning systems (GPS).

Silencing such history hurts in several ways, panelists noted. Black women have made enormous intellectual contributions around the globe, and this should be noted and learned. Otherwise, Black and other children are robbed of these stellar female Black role models.

Among the book’s profiles is that of Alice of Dunks Ferry, who is said to have lived to 116. In 1684, her parents arrived in the United States from Barbadas on the Isabella, the first slave ship to reach Philadelphia. By 5, Alice began serving drinks and oysters in a tavern and lighting pipes for its patrons, including Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn.

Years later, Alice apparently was forced to move 17 miles upriver to Dunk’s Ferry, where she operated a horse boat. A savvy, business-minded woman by all accounts, she calmed skittish horses, handled rowdy passengers and collected tolls for 40 years. Alice never gained her freedom, but she may have used the ferry to help fugitives escape from slavery. She never fled herself, maybe, because she had at least one child in Dunk’s Ferry. Alice is said to have ridden a mule to Philadelphia to attend Christ Church on Sundays. She became an esteemed oral historian and storyteller who recalled Philadelphia as an outpost of bears, bobcats and endless trees. Visitors can learn from Alice in a life-sized video kiosk at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch St.

“They Carried Us” also shares the story of Caroline LeCount. This teacher and activist was the beloved of fellow activist Octavius Catto. Decades before Rosa Parks’ 1955 arrest for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, LeCount fought in the 1860s and 1870s so that Black people could ride Philadelphia’s streetcars and railway lines. LeCount and fellow Black women protestors sometimes sustained injuries when they were thrown off streetcars, but they persisted. In 1867, a law was passed that gave Black Philadelphians the right to ride streetcars. Yet, when LeCount tried to board a streetcar after the law had passed, the conductor still would not allow it. LeCount persevered and had him arrested. Word got around and the conductor had to pay a $100 fine. That penalty put Philadelphians on notice that segregation on streetcars was illegal.

This important book should have a place on the bookshelves of grandparents of any race, panelists said. It can help people of all races and backgrounds understand the obstacles Black women have faced and serves as a good source of stories for grandchildren to learn about the historic achievements of local Black women.

Co-author Fasaha Traylor said the book can serve to remind Black grandparents “… of all we’ve accomplished, and to show our grandchildren the possibilities.”

CAPTION: Alice of Dunks Ferry reportedly lived to 116. (Photo courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Native Philadelphian Constance Garcia-Barrio writes about many topics, including Black history.

Categories: Education Milestones eNews


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