[dropcap sid=”dropcap-1453741944″]P[/dropcap]rofessor Martia G. Goodson began her 33-year career at Baruch in 1974 as an instructor and retired in 2007 as an associate professor in the Department of Black and Hispanic Studies. Citing her fondest memories of these decades, she says, “I remain proud of the work that my students did in exploring the African presence in Old New York. They remember their wonderful scrapbooks, I’m sure.” Also among her greatest professional accomplishments during her tenure was authorship of Chronicles of Faith: The Autobiography of Frederick D. Patterson, the story of a former president of Tuskegee Institute and a founder of the United Negro College Fund; Chronicles was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1988.
Dr. Goodson took time out to share news of her latest book, Church Ladies: Untold Stories of Harlem Women in the Powell Era (Author House, February 2016), with BCAM and alumni readers.
[divider sid=”divider-1453742488″ type=”dashed”]Tell us a little about your most recent book, Church Ladies: Untold Stories of Harlem Women in the Powell Era.
Church Ladies is an oral history based on interviews with 15 black women, members of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, N.Y. The book is a rare glimpse into the world of women’s leadership in the black church and gives voice to Harlem women and their activism during the tumultuous mid-20th century.
How did this project begin?
I began the interviews with the women in the 1990s and continued for a decade. My original intent was to record reminiscences of the Abyssinian Church from some its oldest members. Over time, and because women responded most enthusiastically, I decided to focus on their stories of the dynamic roles they played in the church when Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. were pastors there. My book focuses on 1920 to the 1970s.
You write that the women were “more than simply ushers and Sunday school teachers.” What do you mean by that?
The book rejects the popular stereotypes of the women of the black church and focuses on their militancy in protesting Jim Crow in Harlem and in New York.
They describe picketing stores on Harlem’s main artery—125th Street—that would not hire black employees. They offer rich testimony about boycotting bus companies that refused to hire black drivers. They developed a controversial summer program to create exchanges with white families in Vermont during the 1940s, when such “race mixing” was considered politically suspicious. These were working women who fought for decent jobs and opportunities for black people in New York. At the same time, they worked in the church, teaching Sunday school, singing in choirs, and ushering during Sunday service. And finally, they were core supporters of their fiery Congressman Powell, “Mr. Civil Rights.”
What surprised you most during the book’s production?
I never knew how to answer the question, “What happened to Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.?” When I finished speaking to these “Church Ladies,” I had the shocking answers to that question. The Church Ladies trace Powell’s trajectory and give their views on the political rise and fall of their pastor, congressperson, and confidant. An added benefit was that one of the women I interviewed, Estelle Noble, is a Baruch alumna who went on to a career as an investment banker at Chase Manhattan.
I was also surprised by the absence of the voices of these informed women in existing histories of the period. They are the unheralded movers and shakers of a central institution of the black world—the black church. Church Ladies adds their voices to the historical record of the post–Harlem Renaissance.
About Professor Martia G. Goodson
Martia G. Goodson, PhD, is an American historian specializing in African American oral history. She authored Chronicles of Faith: The Autobiography of Frederick D. Patterson, and she has published numerous articles for academic and professional journals and magazines on black oral history. She is the author of New York’s African Burial Ground, an official guide to the Lower Manhattan burial place of 15,000 enslaved Africans of New York’s colonial era. She most recently published Church Ladies: Untold Stories of Harlem Women in the Powell Era. She is at work on two books currently: on the burial ground and on stories from the formerly enslaved in Tennessee and Kentucky. Dr. Goodson enjoys interviewing and photography. She lives in The Bronx, New York.
Alumni: Professor Goodson welcomes notes from her former students. You can reach her at email@example.com.