Hyde Park OWL program celebrates Black Women’s History in Chicago

As long-time OWL (Older Women’s League) member and discussion moderator Kennie James listens, author Essence McDowell says, “We want people to see their history and what remains of their history; we want to start conversations about that,” during a discussion of the book, “Lifting as They Climbed: Mapping a History of Black Women on Chicago’s South Side.” (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Contributing writer

After being locked inside their houses to avoid the worst of the recent the Polar Vortex’s frigid temperatures, the women of Hyde Park’s Older Women League (OWL) were excited to have a meeting on a warm Saturday afternoon. As the day started at Augustana Lutheran Church, women – and a few men – gathered around snacks and hot cider to talk about the cold weather, enduring ‘Cabin Fever’, and going outside to get some fresh air before the start of the meeting.

To start Black History Month, OWL wanted to celebrate the lives and work of African American women in Chicago’s history. The speaker of the day was Essence McDowell, one of the co-authors of “Lifting as They Climbed: Mapping a History of Black Women on Chicago’s South Side.” McDowell was invited to speak at the OWL meeting to talk about the book and a few of the Black women who were mentioned in the book and their legacy on the South Side of Chicago.

‘Lifting as they Climbed’ is a self-published book by McDowell and Mariame Kaba, who is an activist and educator who founded Project NIA in Chicago. The book is small, around 70 pages. It features 48 women from the mid-19th century to the present, 33 main locations that are mostly centered on the South Side and 10 additional sites of interests. The book was created to be used as a self-guided tour book, so the descriptions of people and places are brief to keep the book accessible to people of all ages.

“One of the difficult parts of writing this book is to decide who we include and who we don’t include. We had to make sure that this was something that people can carry around,’ McDowell explained about the size of the book. “Essentially, this is not a historical text. It’s not covering all of the Black women who touched Chicago and helped to build neighborhoods. It’s just a snapshot.”

The book includes a few familiar people and institutions in Chicago, like Ida B. Wells-Barnett and The Chicago Defender office. However, many names are not known in mainstream history and places that have been removed or renamed.

When uncovering African American history, especially history about African American women, it is a constant battle against erasure. There are a limited number of archives that have pictures or information about African American women. McDowell remembers having a hard time finding a photo of Carrie E. Bullock, a nurse who was trained at Provident Hospital and Training School. It was not until Kaba reached out to her 100,000 followers on Twitter that they were able to find a photo of Bullock before the book was printed.

McDowell notes that she did not know about many of the Black women that were placed in the book prior to doing research for the book.

“In classrooms, they teach history in a way that erases Black women’s contributions. This is our attempt to infuse Black history with Black women’s stories, legacies and institutions, what they built and what they left for us,” McDowell said.

The authors hope that ‘Lifting as They Climbed’ will give readers enough context to conduct their own research on Black women and their contribution to Chicago’s history. Also, once the weather is warmer, readers use the book to guide their own tours. McDowell hopes to work on more projects that discovers and teachers Chicagoans about Black women’s history and to expand outside of the South Side of Chicago.