Today and all this month of February we celebrate the remarkable contributions and the hard won accomplishments of several generations of African American leaders. Black History month invites us to renew our cherished memories of inspiring leaders from years past. This special time also seems incomplete without some mention of the unsung Black leaders who offer us a glimpse of the leadership traits and talents they embodied even under the press of the 1860s civil war period and the brutal years following emancipation in January, 1863. We can learn much about leadership for today from these courageous leaders who toiled for others while risking life and limb.
Our most admired leaders of today sometimes prove themselves in times of stress or crisis. We look for the very best when corporations, government programs or political campaigns fall into trouble. Similarly, the stark reality of civil war style racism that included prohibitions on the most basic freedoms like reading and writing or owning property certainly represented unfriendly circumstances for leadership development.
Nevertheless, Isaiah T. Montgomery, Mary Smith Peake, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper are a few of the African American Leaders we should applaud today ,this month and always. They symbolize the many unacknowledged African American leaders forged by a time of immense opposition to people of color. Their work was in the trenches with black slaves who had recently been freed. With no models of best practices for leaders they drew upon their natural gifts to carve out places in history they never really sought. I doubt that the concepts of strategic planning or organization transformation existed then. What did exist deep within these unsung leaders was a vision of an entire race of people moving swiftly from bondage to true freedom. A word about them seems merited.
ISAIAH T. MONTGOMERY; Born in 1847 on a plantation just below Vicksburg, Mississippi. By age 12 or so he was the valet and personal assistant to Joseph Davis the older brother— and social advocate for slaves— of Jefferson Davis. Years later Jefferson Davis served as President of the confederate states. After the civil war ended this enterprising African American man and his family purchased a large plantation from the Davis family at a price of $300,000. That deal made them one of that region’s largest cotton producers. Further after numerous glory years and some tough times they were driven into bankruptcy. Undaunted, in 1887 Isaiah showcased his leadership skill by founding the town of Mound Bayou , as a commercial center for a large independent black community of farmers. Isaiah led over 800 farmers who owned about 30,000 acres at the time. Notables Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington saluted his work. Today , Mound Bayou remains as a predominantly African American Farming town in the state of Mississippi.
MARY SMITH PEAKE; Born in 1823 as a free woman in Norfolk , Virginia. At the young age of 6, this remarkable African American woman had been educated in Alexandria, Virginia then a part of the District of Columbia. Years later Congress passed legislation banning the education of free people of color. Back in Virginia, she undertook the high risk venture of covertly teaching slaves and free blacks to read and write which was against the law of that day. However with her vision firmly planted and her leadership brilliance now emerging the American Missionary Society paid Mary to teach the children of former slaves near Fort Monroe just outside Hampton,Virginia. Her teaching began in 1861 under a large tree . That tree was the site of a gathering in 1863 where the surrounding community heard the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Known as Emancipation Oak the tree still stands on the campus of Hampton University an outgrowth of Mary Smith Peake’s classes and her school which had attracted support from the federal government’s Freedmen’s Bureau .Mary Smith Peake is legitimately credited by some as leading the first formal education of freed slaves in this country and spurring the establishment of a prominent institution of higher learning standing proudly today as Hampton University.
FRANCES ELLEN WALKER HARPER; Born in 1825 as a free woman in Baltimore, Maryland. Frances Harper was so multi talented that her leadership traits seem somewhat buried beneath her work as a writer, publisher, poet and seamstress. She somehow found the time and the calling to assist escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad as they scurried to Canada. Frances let her leadership show further when she joined the American Anti Slavery Society in 1853. That was 10 years prior to President Lincoln’s proclamation. By 1873 Frances as a true leader was on full display as she assumed the position of superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania National Association of Colored Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
20 years later she was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women and she served as that organization’s first vice president. To some she is called the mother of African American journalism. Frances Harper was a most uncommon leader endowed with boundless gifts and talents.
These 3 towering examples of unsung heroes from the Black History journey leave us some distinctly valuable leadership lessons that can be applied today.
* No fear. When faced with compelling risks and daunting odds these leaders stepped up and brushed aside the paralyzing uncertainty that can undermine any leader’s agenda.
* A deep level of devotion to the cause. Clearly these leaders put their safety and any financial stability or social status ahead of the chosen missions they undertook.
* Authenticity. The work these 3 did attracted followers when all they could offer was a vision and a hope of better times. Raw commitment like that on the part of a leader is transformative.
* Encourager and Supporter. When faced with the types of obstacles these leaders encountered they had to transfer their vision , courage , focus and energy to doubting and fearful followers. They did not have the luxury of selecting a team or a band of believers to be their followers.
*Communicator and advocate. These leaders were highly effective in painting a picture of a different future and selling that to followers, sponsors and doubters. A leader in the near hopeless conditions they faced must keep the message alive.
As we salute these unsung leaders during this Black History month of recognition let’s remember all the unrecognized or forgotten leaders we have learned from and modeled to create our personal leadership stories.