ABOVE PHOTO: From left: Emma Chappell, Rita Hill, and JoAnn Bell
By Thera Martin
Every decade or so, we hear a particular year proclaimed as “The Year of the Woman.”
It was declared when Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968.
It was also declared after the 1992 Democratic National Convention when six women were elected to the United States Congress, including Carol Moseley Braun — the first African-American woman elected to the United States Senate and only the second African-American U.S. senator to serve since Reconstruction.
After speaking with the conveners of the Black Women’s Leadership Council (BWLC), 1984 should be added to that list as “The Year of African-American Women in Philadelphia” — the year when the organization joined forces to help elect the City’s first African-American mayor.
Some may think, “Oh boy, here we go again, another women’s group to join.” But the reality is that the Black Women’s Leadership Council is not just “another women’s group.” It is comprised of African-American women from all walks of life, including those who may not be part of the corporate world. The group continues to make strides, insuring that there is inclusion, diversity and accountibility, when addressing issues that affect these women.
In addition to helping W. Wilson Goode, Sr. win two mayoral elections, the BWLC helped put John F. Street, Esq. over the top when he was elected as Philadelphia’s second African-American mayor. And yes, the organization was also there to help Michael A. Nutter become the City’s third Black mayor.
An important presentation on behalf of Pennsylvania’s African- American women
Last July, BWLC met with Governor Tom Wolf at his Philadelphia office to discuss the issues African-American women were most committed to and what support was needed from the Commonwealth.
A position paper outlining specific “asks” was presented to the governor. They included:
(1) strengthening minority participation programs and committees to include more African-American women; (2) requiring and applying the principles of “cultural competency” in all social service contracts that serve minority communities; (3) providing funding for “implicit bias” training – particularly for law enforcement officers; (4) providing adequate and equitable funding for the Philadelphia School District and naming more African-American women to state boards and commissions.
Everything from community-focused business development meetings to strategic programming
BWLC hosted an African-American business forum, where Kelly Kirkland — deputy secretary for Diversity, Inclusion and Small Business Opportunities in the Pennsylvania Department of General Services — provided information on how to do business with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
BWLC also participated in a statewide business summit with the Philadelphia Community of Leaders(PCOL).
“This BWLC is a group that does not ask for a membership fee, so someone new can be included,” said Joann Bell, director of the government office of Pugliese Associates. “BWLC is powered by ‘sweat equity.”
“BWLC’s women work hard to develop programs that will change the paradigm for African-American women,” Bell continued. “However, on occasion, a modest donation may be requested to cover the cost of an event. Currently, we operate through subcommittees to accomplish our goals and mission: health, education, law and criminal justice, economic development and gentrification, and public relations and political strategies. We also just developed a committee called BWLC 100 which is exploring creating a Black women’s equity and investment fund.”
A history of inclusion, commitment, and results
BWLC has a rich history. The organization was founded 28 years ago by a group of determined African-American women who met in the community room of the Guardian Civic League on Girard Avenue. They were frustrated by the lack of inclusion in the political decision-making process, which was dominated by men at that time, and were concerned about the growing education, housing and economic disparities in Philadelphia. The women realized that even after Mayor Goode’s election, they still didn’t have a seat at the power table. They were only expected to support male leadership.
Fed-up with the role of being the “get out the vote apparatus” — licking stamps, making lunches and knocking on doors — they said “no,” and The Black Women’s Leadership Council was born.
As a result of the organization’s early efforts, more Black women were elected to political office, seated on the judicial bench, appointed to boards, commissions and policy-making positions in both state and local governments. They were finally “at the table” lending their voices to the issues that affected their communities.
In 2016, under the leadership of Joann Bell, Emma Chappell and Rhonda Hill-Wilson, Esq. ( the conveners of the organization) and other surviving original members of the Black Women’s Leadership Council came back together with new women who were invited to join them. This group of African-American women re-established the organization in what Dr. Martin Luther King would call “the fierce urgency of now.”
Distressed by today’s concerns — the reduction of Black household incomes, failing schools, the need for a Black Lives Matters movement and the normalization of racism, sexism and misogyny — it was time to get back to work. Pennsylvania ranks next to last in the number of women elected to office, and Black women are virtually nonexistent as statewide officeholders in spite of being the largest single and reliable voting bloc in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
“We as Black women helped in a very significant way to get W. Wilson Goode elected in 1984,” Bell said. “We did a lot of the heavy lifting for Goode and for other Black men who were running for political office over the years. The early 1980’s is when our group first formed. We were responsible for the revolution of so many Black women going on the bench as judges. We were never included at the final decision making table for Black folks in Philadelphia.”
“ We began to feel the pressure about doing all the task-oriented things to help men win political campaigns, for example,” Bell continued. “However, we noticed that when it came time, we were not a part of the final decision-making.”
Retired City Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco, the late Councilwoman Gussie Alexander Clark, the late political operative and consultant Lana Felton Ghee, the late Onah Weldon, Jettie Newkirk, Esq. and the late PA State Senator Roxanne Jones were amongst some of the first women to come together with Bell, Chappell, Linda Miller, Gerry Williams, Ethel Barnett, the late Edwina Baker and Pat Russell to form this coalition of Black women leaders.
Initially, they didn’t have an official name.
“We simply called each other ‘the group’ that needed each others’ help,” Bell recalled. “A little after the group first formed, Paula Peebles came on board and her best friend, the late Linda Brickhouse, joined the group and made significant contributions to the work we were doing.” The women ultimately chose the name “Black Women’s Leadership Council.”
During this period, a bright, young, feisty attorney-at-law, Genece Brinkley, along with Elouise Edmonds, assisted with drafting position papers for the forum meeting with then Gov. Robert P. Casey.
“We determined at that particular point, that we, as a body, needed to get an appointment with then Gov. Robert P. Casey to inform him of what Black women needed help with from our state level government,” Bell said. “[Gov.] Bob Casey had a very integrated administration, but in his first term, he didn’t have as many Black women as we would [have liked]. So that’s the first thing we demanded. We needed to see more Black women working in positions of leadership within his second administration, since he was a two-term elected official.”
“Attending that meeting with Governor Casey was Dr. Brenda Mitchell,” Bell continued. “We had a two-day retreat that she participated in. It was a great retreat. At the end, Brenda tried to sell us on all of the accomplishments that the governor made. It culminated with us having a great meeting with the governor. He stayed with us for two hours. The first thing he did after he met with us, he moved Dr. Brenda Mitchell from the PA State Department of Commerce over to the Governor’s Office. She worked on getting African-American women on state boards and state commissions, and was successful in her efforts. That was truly the kick-off of the Black Women’s Leadership Council. We now have a chapter in Philadelphia and a chapter in Pittsburgh.”
For a two-year period the women met, organized and did a good job.
During the mayoral election in 1999, John Street ran for mayor, as well as other Black candidates.
“For many of us within our group, we were friends with more than one of the African-American candidates running for mayor at the time,” Bell said. “Things got so heated over that race, it stalled our progress and the Black Women’s Leadership Council folded for a number of years.That was in the early 1990s.”
“In 2016, I had gotten a call from PA State Representative Vanessa Lowery Brown,” Bell continued.“She asked me to host a reception at my house for the woman who is now the Mayor of Baltimore, Catherine Pugh, and [who is] also a native Philadelphian. She was going to be in town for the weekend to be inducted into Overbrook High School Hall of Fame. She was also a part of the Association of Black Legislators and she was running for mayor.
Vanessa asked me if I would put a few women together, to meet her and hopefully to help her campaign. At that time, we were saddened by the passing of our dear friend and retired public and government relations business owner, Bill Miller. Therefore, minimal effort was made in preparation for the event.
We were shocked! We had 60 women who showed up at my house, with only a four-day notice. We sat around in my living room and with Catherine Pugh and began to tell our stories. Between food and drink we shared the challenges we face as Black women and we came, at that moment, to understand the need for more “sisterhood.”
Our first order of business was to plan a retreat to determine priorities and to rebuild the organization. More than 200 women came to what turned out to be a successful one-day retreat during which we developed a strategic plan for moving the BWLC forward.”
“This is not about ourselves. This is not a hierarchy organization. We want it to be very inclusive,” Bell stressed. “We understand that we don’t need to fight against each other. We’re supposed to help each other.”
“We give everyone the opportunity to go out and work and help make a difference that are a part of the BWLC,” added Rhonda Hill-Wilson.
“The importance of the BWLC is this: To make sure that the voice of Black women in Philadelphia is heard. I mean, typically, when one looks to leadership in the African-American community, Black women were missing for the most part. I’m not saying there’s not wonderful leadership in African-American female elected officials such as a City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown or other African-American women in City Council, for example. But there is a limitation to what individuals in government can accomplish without great public support. Our time had come as we were working to push for W. Wilson Goode to be elected, and it was in that same time frame that we pushed to get more Black women elected as judges in Philadelphia than ever before in our city’s history.”
“We all work as a united front,” Hill -Wilson continued. “There’s no big ‘I’s’ and little ‘you’s.’ This group of women [are] developed enough individually that we can give space to all. There are members who know that others have special skill sets. Rather than to outshine one another, we allow space for individual women to shine.”
“First of all, racism is still alive and well,” Chappell added. “At the beginning of the formation of the BWLC, we knew that we needed to come together and collectively fight for ourselves, our families and our community. We are the super voters. We know how to unite our voices and our actions for a common purpose. We have done it before and we’ll continue to do it. I would add that I believe racists in America woke up when President Obama was elected. Now that President Trump is in office, it has become vicious. We feel that more than ever, we need to unite with our common voices and our common actions.”
This past March, the Black Women’s Leadership Council hosted a membership drive to support African-American owned and operated radio station WURD, which is owned by a Black woman — Sara Lomax Reese — and her family. It was actually a ‘two for one’ day, in which the BWLC encouraged people to purchase a one-year membership to WURD radio. The live broadcast also provided an opportunity to showcase some of the women leaders of Philadelphia who work to make a positive difference for the City of Philadelphia. The event took place at the Marian B. Tasco Arms apartment building in the Logan section of Philadelphia.