As the country acclimated to a post-war world, many African Americans questioned where they fit into society. Black women served their country in the military and the defense industries. Many participated in the Double V campaign, which raised awareness about the contradiction of America spreading freedom around the world while denying equal rights to people of color living within its own borders.
The war brought about many short-term changes for Black women, but little changed in the long-term. Society expected Black women—like their white counterparts—to give up whatever newfound freedoms they gained during the war. In addition, civil rights advocates made little progress to end Jim Crow policies and violence against Black Americans. America was just as limiting to men and women of color after the war as it had been before the war. There was one major difference, however. Through their wartime service, Black women briefly experienced the benefits of higher pay and integrated work environments. Losing those gains motivated them to fight against post-war setbacks, reclaim their wartime privileges, and contribute to the growing civil rights movement.
These images were created by artist Elizabeth Catlett. Elizabeth’s grandparents were enslaved Africans. Her father was a professor of mathematics at the famous Tuskegee Institute and her mother worked an assortment of jobs to support the family. Elizabeth was denied entry to the Carnegie Institute of Technology because of her race and attended the historically Black Howard University instead. While there, she studied art and design and graduated with honors in sculpture.
Elizabeth’s mentors encouraged her to create art in response to what she knew and experienced. Her I am the black woman (originally entitled I am the negro woman) series is an example of her approach. Elizabeth created these pieces while participating in a radical artist community in Mexico City. The United States government considered her politics so extreme that they placed her on a list of dangerous people and barred her re-entry into the United States. Elizabeth eventually renounced her American citizenship and made Mexico her permanent home.
The complete set includes 15 linocuts that highlight the contributions of African American women in the 1940s and earlier in American history. Each image provides a glimpse into the challenges Black women faced in post-war America. The four images included here were selected because they speak to women’s contributions in the workplace, in the creative community, and in the broader fight for racial equality.