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Ashley Farmer was exasperated. She was tired of reading historical accounts of the postwar black freedom struggle in America that cast black female activists only as helpmates to male leaders. Just as men had overshadowed women at the time, so had the popular narrative of the era erased the contributions untold numbers of women made as strategists and theorists, thinkers, and doers.
Steeping herself in the work of scholars who were reexamining the postwar black freedom struggle and beginning to bring women out of the shadows, Farmer was intrigued to find, in a biography of the black nationalist leader Robert F. Williams, a couple sentences about a Harlem activist named Mae Mallory. Mallory and Williams were part of a nonviolent civil rights protest in Monroe, N.C., in August 1961, that culminated with an attack by an angry white mob.
“I was primed as a scholar of black women’s history to take those two sentences and pull them out,” says Farmer, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of history and African American studies. “I thought, ‘There’s probably a whole book there. Someone just has to look.’”