Commentary: The hidden history of black women

HIDDEN FIGURES
Octavia Spencer stars in "Hidden Figures" as Dorothy Vaughan, one of the previously unknown black women at the heart of NASA’s early success.

THE LAST TIME I walked through the Philadelphia International Airport, I ambled from Concourse A to Concourse F. I had about 90 minutes between flights, wanted to put some steps in, so I decided to enjoy an airport walk. Walking between Concourse E and Concourse F, I encountered a riveting surprise. The exhibit featuring "Philadelphia's 100 History Makers of the 20th Century," produced in partnership with the African American Museum, was simply absorbing and made me wish I'd dawdled less on my walk.

I didn't know that sculptor Meta Fuller was a Philadelphian; nor was I aware that singer Billie Holliday had Philly roots (I thought she was from Baltimore). I smiled at some of the familiar names, like that of my Delta sorority sister and former district Superintendent Constance Clayton, and another Delta woman, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in economics. The poet Sonia Sanchez, a friend and fellow Virgo, has been an outstanding poet and figure in the black arts movement, and it was good to see her listed. So, too, was it great to be reminded of C. Delores Tucker, who once served as Pennsylvania's secretary of state and was a founder of the National Political Congress of Black Women.

The airport exhibit was all the more impressive. All too often, women are barely visible during Black History Month and similarly missing during Women's History Month. The title of Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott and Barbara Smith's book, All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies (1982), makes it plain. Too often, African American women's contributions are sidelined. It was refreshing to see that about a third of those highlighted in the Philadelphia exhibit were women (although I'd have preferred half).

I don't envy the curator who had to choose to include or exclude Philadelphia luminaries and produce a group of people who are well balanced by occupation and by decade of achievement. When I recently interviewed Lonnie Bunch, the curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he shared how difficult it was to sort through the some 30,000 items he and his team had collected to choose some 4,000 to exhibit. So I'm sure that next year's exhibit will be far more expansive and will include, proportionately, even more women.

The airport exhibit will be available for viewing until July, which is important. Some folks think that Black History Month is a February thing, and that women's history should be lifted up only in March. But black and women's history are woven into the fabric of our nation's history and must be presented as part of the whole - not just part of the year, but year-round. Our youngsters must learn that people who looked like them were people of great accomplishment and that they can aspire to greatness, too. Additionally, they must be encouraged to write their own history, since history belongs to the person who holds the pen. How few of us knew anything about the scientists featured in the film Hidden Figures - Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. As grateful as we are to Margot Lee Shetterly for writing the book on which the movie is based, the popular film makes us wonder how much black women's history has been swallowed because those who wrote the history have been white, or male, and myopic.

As an example, people often tout the courage of four young men from North Carolina A&T State University who sat at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter and braved the anger of segregationist whites on Feb. 1, 1960. Few lift up the courage of the Bennett College women who were also there, and few note that the sit-ins also were planned on the Bennett College campus. Dr. Linda Bernice Brown, a member of the class of '61 and a Bennett professor, wrote this history in her book, Belles of Liberty (2013), but until she wrote it, the Bennett contribution to the civil rights movement was largely ignored.

I revel in our black history, and was excited enough about the airport exhibit to consider making another connection through Philly before July. Even as I enjoy our history, I must remind our historians that black women's history is black history, too, and is women's history, too. Some of this history is hidden, but some of it is simply ignored. We can do better in ensuring that black women's history is highlighted.

Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author and host of the podcast "It's Personal," available on iTunes. Her more recent book is Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy. She will visit the South Restaurant in Philadelphia to kick off its Conversations series on Tuesday at

5:30 p.m.