From First Lady Michelle Obama to political mastermind Stacy Abrams to Vice President Kamala Harris, Black women have left their stamp on 21st-century politics and grassroots organizing. But, as historian Martha S. Jones (and many others) has shown, Black women have always been at the “vanguard” of affecting positive change in American society. This course sets out to look back to the 20th century to examine conditions under which Black women lived in the early days of Jim Crow and the role that Black women and non-binary people have played in shaping politics, grassroots organizing, the legal bar, and higher education during Jim (Jane) Crow and beyond. Through the archive and the personal papers of Pauli Murray, June Jordan, Angela Davis, and Flo Kennedy, we will see the human side of these themes and the Black Freedom Struggle. What did life look like for Black women during the Nadir? How did these people navigate gender and sexuality while pushing for civil rights? How did gender, sexuality, and intersectionality impact their political ideologies?

Though many scholars argue that the law is autonomous, Critical Legal Studies scholars and Critical Race theorists argue that the law is subjective. In “Race, Gender, and the Law through the Archive,” students will see the subjectivity of the Black women and non-binary people who helped push for social and legal reform. Some of these women/people shaped the law as attorneys (Pauli Murray and Flo Kennedy). In contrast, others shaped the law and visions of freedom through their activism (Murray, Kennedy, Angela Y. Davis, and June Jordan), teaching (Davis), and art (Jordan). Through their avenues of influence, all of these women/people, whose papers are housed at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, wielded the law or helped shape it in the twentieth century.