Michelle R. Scott, associate professor of history and Director of the Historical Studies Graduate Program, has received the 2017 Letitia Woods Brown Article Prize from the Association of Black Women Historians for her article, “These Ladies Do Business with a Capital B: The Griffin Sisters As Black Businesswomen in Early Vaudeville,” published in the Journal of African American History.
“Michelle Scott has done extensive research and beautifully written a compelling article to tell a story of black women in business which has been ignored,” says Sharon Harley, associate professor of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park and the chair of the Letitia Woods Brown Article Prize. “She has also taken it further by showing how the Griffin Sisters used vaudeville to fight for racial equality, which is an area not often associated with the movement.”
Scott had to sift through census information, obituaries, newspapers, and entertainment materials in independent archives across the country and the Library of Congress to weave and verify the Griffin sister journey. “I found the Griffin sisters in a footnote in a journal article while working on my current book about the Theatre Owner’s Booking Association circuit from the 1920s to 1931,” remembers Scott.
Emma and Mabel Griffin were famous for their acts as singers, comedians, and dancers between 1900 and 1918 in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Chicago. The sister act gained prominence as independent artists and businesswomen by becoming theatre owners, vaudeville circuit owners, and agents of their own entertainment contracts. They used their showmanship and business skills to fight for racial equality as labor organizers for the rights of black vaudeville artists. The Griffin Sisters created a template for future generations of black show business artists to gain control over their wages and art at a time when black women managers were unheard of.
“Emma and Mabel Griffin used the legal system, their celebrity, the fact that they were respected and beloved by black communities, and black newspapers to agitate for change in management, production, and racial equality,” said Scott. The article gained the attention of prominent historians of African American history on the board of the Letitia Woods Brown Prize who felt the article was worthy of acknowledgment.Letitia Woods Brown was an African American researcher and historian who was the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in history and was the primary consultant for the Schlesinger Library’s Black Woman Oral History project. She personally donated the money for the book, anthology, and article awards.
The accolade is personally significant for Scott who studies twentieth-century U.S. history, African American history, women’s history, black musical culture, and civil rights. “The Griffin sisters article was an opportunity for me to reveal the often forgotten women who did civil rights work. What does it mean when you study an event like WWII and you leave gender out, or even the construction of the 1960s Civil Rights Act and add the word ‘sex’ to it? The narrative changes and the full story must be told.”