Black Women’s Activism in Early 20th Century America
“A lot of people wanted to throw me in the Delaware River, but they knew I could swim.”
— Ruth L. Bennett, 1947“Ruth L. Bennett Dies; Founded Home for Girls: Social Worker was Acclaimed Noted Leader of her Race,” Chester Times, February 24, 1947: 2, and Ruth L. Bennett Clipping File #3207, Delaware County … Continue reading
As with many American cities, Chester’s past and present is very much defined by struggles for racial justice that challenge deep-seated inequalities in the areas of education, housing, and employment – to name but just a few. Unlike other medium to small cities, however, Chester’s part in such struggles is incredibly pronounced, as evidenced by its outsized roles in 1960s-era Civil Rights activism (earning the city the reputation as the “Birmingham of the North”) and path-breaking grassroots struggles against environmental racism unfolding today. Unsurprisingly, the recorded history of Chester’s past struggles is shaped by so-called ‘authoritative’ voices (in the media and academia) and such efforts to document (including those more reflective of voices within Chester) tend to focus on male Black leaders — Rev. J. Pius Barbour, George Raymond, Stanley Branche, among others – with one notable exception: Ruth L. Bennett, who worked tirelessly on behalf of Black women and girls in Chester up until her death in 1947.
Within the city, the name Ruth Bennett immediately calls to mind the large (261 unit) public housing development that stands on West 9th Street near Tilghman Street. Named in recognition of her contributions to Chester’s social welfare, the Ruth L. Bennett Homes – or, as locals prefer, simply “The Bennett” – was constructed to house Black families in 1940, when institutionalized racial residential segregation was standard practice in private as well as public housing.
For older residents, local history buffs and, especially, those involved in any number of community organizations in the city, the name Ruth Bennett is the most recognizable among a long list of women activists and organizers who tackled poverty, inequalities in housing and education, and other issues of social justice in Chester.
In that spirit, this digital presentation fully explores the work of Ruth Bennett, her impressive achievements against all odds in the era of Jim Crow racism, and her legacy of inspiration for women involved in Chester’s betterment since her passing and up to the present day. In addition, this presentation contributes to a much-needed focus on gendered activism in racial justice efforts in the 20th century United States – specifically, the often overlooked and routine social action of women leaders whose resilience, past and present, benefited the many.
By exploring this digital presentation, our hope is viewers and readers – especially those of younger generations – appreciate a thread of continuity of Ruth Bennett’s efforts in the activism of today and the importance — indeed, the requirement – to turn to history to better understand the social and political conditions of the present and what to do about them. As activists and concerned persons everywhere work to challenge and undo racism it is important to make ourselves aware of the far-reaching accomplishments of women leaders who continue to carry on in the tradition of Ruth L. Bennett.
Ruth Bennett lived in Chester from her arrival in 1913 until her death on the 24th of February 1947. During her time in Chester, her accomplishments were notable: she founded the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as its first president, ran a jobs training program for young women, raised funds and erected a home for Black women and girls who had migrated to Chester from the South, served as president of the Pennsylvania State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs for over a decade, and opened a nursery for children of working mothers.
Ruth L. Bennett: Courageous Change Agent
Before we delve into the details of each of her accomplishments, we wish to make note of three important points for readers to keep in mind.
1. Ruth Bennett’s successes must be understood within the context of place and time in which she lived and worked: racially-segregated Chester and the prevalence of Jim Crow racism in the first-half of the twentieth century. By doing so, we appreciate her work as a heroic, if not radical, as she tackled head-on racial injustices that defined all aspects of everyday life for Chester’s Black residents, especially new arrivals from the South. Her work brought relief to the pressing human toll of the Great Migration on Black women and girls who faced racial injustices, particularly in employment and housing.
2. Ruth Bennett’s impact and reputation extended far beyond Chester’s city limits and her accomplishments received statewide, national and international acclaim during her lifetime.
3. Ruth Bennett promoted ‘everyday activism’, by quietly and effectively transforming the practical work assigned to women at the time – namely, tending home and children – into social causes meant to improve the lot of Black women and girls confronting racial prejudice and discrimination.
Bennett’s efforts should be considered anything but small or modest; within this context of systemic discrimination that shaped most aspects of everyday life of Chester’s Black community, her focus on Black women and girls has far-reaching implications –both at the time and as evidenced by her legacy.
|↑1||“Ruth L. Bennett Dies; Founded Home for Girls: Social Worker was Acclaimed Noted Leader of her Race,” Chester Times, February 24, 1947: 2, and Ruth L. Bennett Clipping File #3207, Delaware County Historical Society, Chester, Pennsylvania, Folder 3207.|