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Black Women's Mural Raises Awareness About Black Suffragists, Celebrates Black Voices, and Sparks Community Pride


By Carolyn M. Brown, JerseyArts.com

originally published: 02/03/2023

Black Women

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a prominent journalist and activist who fought tirelessly for women’s right to vote even though she is often left out of historical conversations about the women’s suffrage movement. Today her image graces a mural located in the heart of downtown Englewood, New Jersey, on the east-facing wall of the Women's Rights Information Center building at 108 W. Palisades Avenue. The painting was inspired by the 100th year anniversary of the 19th Amendment. “The Black Women’s Mural: Celebrating Black Suffragists and Black Women in Englewood” is meant to celebrate the achievements of Black women who paved the way for civil and women’s rights as well as serve as a beacon of pride and hope for young girls, Black women and the community-at-large in Englewood. 

Apart from suffragist Wells-Barnett, the mural features past and present Black women leaders from Englewood, which includes Dr. Josie Carter, an original member of the Women's Rights Information Center's board of directors; a group of Black women activists protesting segregation at the city's Lincoln Elementary School; Hali Cooper, a Black Lives Matter protester; and Kia S. Thornton Miller along with her daughter Toni Michelle Miller, a ninth grade student at Bergen County Technical Schools. 

Funded in part with a community grant from AARP, the mural is a creative placemaking project administered in 2022 by the Northern NJ Community Foundation's (NNJCF) ArtsBergen initiative in partnership with the Women’s Rights Information Center, Metro Community Center, and the Woman’s Club of Englewood.

Black Women

The Black Women’s Mural: Celebrating Black Suffragists and Black Women in Englewood (photo by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh)

Painted by Black-Iranian visual artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, the public-inspired mural incorporated input garnered in two public workshops from Black women in the city and the community-at-large. An important part of creative placemaking is to listen to the people in the community, says Danielle De Laurentis, associate director of the NNJCF, a nonprofit focused on improving community life through education, public health, the arts and other means. In the workshops, “the participants were asked, ‘what kind of story do you want to see on this mural?’” explains De Laurentis, noting that it was this feedback along with the theme of Black Women Suffragists that informed the final design of the mural. “They shared how the lives and actions of these brave Black women of the past inspired and impacted them today,” she adds. 



 
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The Millers became the central focus of the painting as “a way of showing how the fight for (civil rights and social justice) still continues into the present,” says De Laurentis. What’s more, “Miller’s family has lived in Englewood for several generations.” Miller, who runs a mom empowerment group, attended and participated in one of the community workshops. Fazlalizadeh wanted to include a mother and daughter in her design and asked for volunteers. Miller expressed interest. But when she first approached her daughter to be a part of the mural, there was some reluctance out of fear of embarrassment, De Laurentis believes. Then NNJCF partnered with the arts education group, Arts Horizons, to host a girl empowerment workshop in Englewood. “After Toni learned (at that event) more about the Black suffragists and their role, she went back to her mom and said, ‘This is great. I don't feel nervous about being a part of (the mural) anymore. I want to do it,’” adds De Laurentis.   

De Laurentis says that a key consideration in choosing a muralist was identifying someone who had experience working with community members. Fazlalizadeh proved to be the perfect fit because her body of work is rooted in community engagement and the public sphere. On her website, the Brooklyn-based artist describes her work as site-specific and that it “considers how people, particularly women, queer folks, and Black and brown people, experience race and gender within their surrounding environments—from the sidewalk to retail stores to the church to the workplace.” 

Filming of the project was sponsored by the Woman’s Club of Englewood and the Teaneck-Englewood & Vicinity Club of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. In this video documentation, Fazlalizadeh shared that her process for creating the mural’s design involved a lot of research around the contributions of different Black women in Englewood and their resourceful roles in terms of civil rights and social justice protest.

She decided to include local everyday Black women in addition to a historical figure such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Wells-Barnett, also renowned for her campaign against lynching, prompted the passage of anti-lynching laws in some parts of the South. To that end, Fazlalizadeh created a mural reflective of not just the history of Black women and their contribution to voting rights, “but local and current women in Englewood and how they are just as important and significant as historical figures,” she said.

Black Women

Cover of the book Stop Telling Women to Smile: Stories of Street Harassment and How We're Taking Back Our Power, written by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.

Working primarily in oil painting, public art and multimedia installations, Fazlalizadeh’s artwork addresses the daily oppressive experiences of marginalized people through beautifully drawn and painted portraits. In 2018, she became the inaugural Public Artist in Residence for the New York City Commission on Human Rights. The impact of Fazlalizadeh's work spread to popular culture when she collaborated with director Spike Lee to base all of the artwork featured in his Netflix series, She's Gotta Have It, on her work. She also served as the show's art consultant. In 2020, her debut book, Stop Telling Women to Smile: Stories of Street Harassment and How We're Taking Back Our Power, was released by Seal Press. The book is an off shoot of her Stop Telling Women to Smile street art project consisting of a series of portraits of women who she interviewed about their experiences with harassment. “Writing this book was an opportunity to dive deeper into those stories, looking at race, gender, presentation, sexuality, religion, culture, body size, and more,” she stated on her website.

The Women's Rights Information Center has been providing economic empowerment resources and services for 50 years and is housed in a federal style building that was the ideal location for the mural, notes Executive Director Lilian “Lil” Corcoran. She acknowledges that women’s suffrage has often been associated with white women like Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She points out the mural represents how it’s beyond time to recognize that pioneering Black women suffragists and their role in the women’s rights movement.



 
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“There was a time when Black women were just completely left out of the conversation,” she adds, recalling the historical account of how on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, delegations of suffragists (thousands from across the country) marched on our nation’s Capital in Washington. National organizers gave an order that their contingent was to be “entirely white” and Black women were to march at the tail-end of the parade. “When the white woman in the delegation that Ida B. Wells was part of went by, she stepped out the crowd and stood in between two of the women. She was like the original Rosa Parks. ‘I'm not going to walk in the back of the line. I'm getting in here with the rest of you. We need to walk shoulder to shoulder, not in front of, not behind each other,’ says Corcoran. “So, Ida B. Wells, to me, had to be somebody that was mentioned in the whole concept of suffrage as part of the mural.”

Contrary to concerns about pushback, response to the mural has been favorable. “Englewood has one of the busiest downtowns in Bergen County and this mural is right in the center of it. It's very visible,” says De Laurentis. “One of the things that we noticed about this mural is that it really did generate community pride.”

The mural holds cultural significance for Englewood residents. “I hope that other Black little girls, young adults, and even older women and mothers walk by this mural and see themselves in it, with all the women that fought for women’s rights and equality that are gone now, but they also look at my daughter and me, who are still here, and say, ‘wow you know what there is still more to fight for and there is still more to do,’” said Miller in the video. As Black Women, “we have purpose in this world.”

To learn more about the mural, visit the NNJCF website at https://www.nnjcf.org/black-women-and-black-suffragists-mural-revealed/.




About the author: Carolyn M. Brown is an investigative journalist, editor, author, playwright, multimedia content producer and an entrepreneur. She has produced content spanning across a portfolio of platforms, including print, digital media, broadcast, theater arts, and custom events. Her publication credits include Essence, Forbes, Inc., and Diversity Woman magazines. She is a founding board member of the Paterson Performing Arts Development Council, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing together diverse communities through the performing arts and cultural events and to creating pathways for new and established artists.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.




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