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Organizing Women: Archives and Activism (March 2004)

As soon as activist Loretta Ross calls UPS to arrange to ship her papers to the Sophia Smith Collection, her staff form a human shield around the boxes. Only half in jest, they protest, "No. You can't take our history away."

This playful moment captures the mixed emotions stirred up by the long and exhausting days of packing. Loretta is up and down ladders to retrieve boxes from attic eaves and closet shelves. She is up and down the scale of emotions, too. At one point she calls a friend with a crowbar to pry open old file cabinets. As the contents tumble out, datebooks and position statements, political buttons and newsletters, a rolodex and videotapes flash before her as so many moments in her life.

Flyers announcing demonstrations recall Ross's involvement in black nationalist politics and tenant organizing in Washington, D.C. in the early 1970s. A poster for the First National Conference on Third World Women and Violence signals her years as Executive Director of the D.C. rape crisis center, the first in the country staffed primarily by women of color. Videotapes bring back the excitement of the first national conference on Women of Color and Reproductive Rights, an event she organized in 1987 as the first Director of Women of Color Programs for the National Organization for Women.

Loretta Ross, Malika Redmond, and Deanna
West, Georgia, December 2003.
"No! you can't take our history." Loretta Ross, Malika Redmond, and Deanna West packing Loretta's Papers in Atlanta, Georgia, December 2003. Photo by Joyce Follet

"This is intense," Loretta remarks more than once as she comes across a poem she wrote at a particularly happy moment, or a memorial program for a friend murdered in what she believes was a political killing. An early manual she compiled explains the self-help process central to the National Black Women's Health Project. Board-of-director files offer glimpses of the National Political Congress of Black Women, the Women's Commission of the National Rainbow Coalition, and the SisterLove Women's AIDS Project. Loretta's reports for the Center for Democratic Renewal track links between white supremacist and anti-abortion groups. An unpublished proposal details her political thinking in the mid-1990s as she launched the National Center for Human Rights Education, the organization she now directs.

Every item triggers a story. Sitting down with an album of photos taken while monitoring elections in South Africa, Loretta recounts the tale of a harrowing drive to obtain ballots that otherwise would not have reached the black township where she was posted and where people were waiting in line for days to vote. When an election official turned away a frail elderly woman because she was unable to make her way alone into the voting booth, Loretta intervened. The woman cast her ballot, and the album slips into a box of materials from Loretta's other international commitments--delegations she led to UN Women's Conferences, and the Network of East-West Women she helped create.

Fifteen, twenty, twenty-five boxes, a growing tribute to decades of organizing by and for women of color. The more boxes pile up, the more reluctant Loretta becomes to part with them. "It reminds me of arriving home from college," she muses, recalling that her mother had reclaimed her bedroom and disposed of some belongings. Gradually she makes peace with the process. After all, this has all been out of sight and out of mind for ages anyway, Loretta observes, and in a way the information will be more accessible once it is at the archives and arranged for use. There is also consolation in knowing she will have a chance to ponder it all again soon when she records her story for the SSC's Visions of Feminism Oral History Project.

Besides, the phone keeps ringing. The calls re-immerse Loretta in her current responsibilities as co-director of the upcoming pro-choice March for Women's Lives. By the time the UPS driver pulls away, Loretta is strategizing about involving rural women. As she goes back to organizing for the future, archivists at the SSC will begin the parallel task of unpacking her past. By preserving and organizing her papers and making them available to the public, the SSC ensures that lessons learned are not forgotten and that the voices of women of color will be heard by scholars and activists analyzing the feminism of today and charting paths to social justice in the years ahead.

--Joyce Follet

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