Reclaiming African American History

Reclaiming African American History | Janet Bell | Janet Bell Interview | Ruth Hodge | Ruth Hodge Interview

I’m a woman/ Phenomenally/ Phenomenal woman/ That’s me/ Now you understand/ Just why my head’s not bowed/ I don’t shout or jump about/ Or have to talk real loud/ When you see me passing/ It ought to make you proud/ I say/ It’s in the click of my heels/ The bend of my hair/ The palm of my hand/ The need of my care/ ‘Cause I’m a woman/ Phenomenally/ Phenomenal woman/ That’s me.
~Maya Angelou

When I first began my project, I wanted to take a look at the broad topic of African American history in Carlisle. After visiting the Cumberland County Historical Society I was advised to meet with both Ruth Hodge and Janet Bell. In performing my research I asked them what life was like for them working in Carlisle, living in Carlisle, growing up in Carlisle, and essentially, what it meant to be African American in Carlisle. From their lived experiences I have been able to get a glimpse of African American history in the town. I asked these two women about their work regarding African American history and they shared with me parts of their research regarding other brave, courageous, notable African Americans like themselves. Women like Ruth Hodge and Janet Bell are truly phenomenal for they are two living pieces of history who have advocated and unearthed a piece of the past that has been forgotten.

Race Relations in Carlisle
Community activists like Ruth Hodge and Janet Bell remember a time when Carlisle was not so welcoming for members of the African American community. They remember a time when there was legal segregation and restaurants like the Hamilton among others “were not available for [African Americans] to go in and sit at the counter.”[1] Venues like the Carlisle Theatre were segregated and minorities had to sit in the balcony. [2] Job placement was limited to either service or secretarial positions and housing and loan options were sparse. Even among the churches, there were clear racial divisions, “everybody mostly goes to their own Black church…you don’t realize there’s segregation until Sunday.”[3] Ruth Hodge attests, “Oh yes. Carlisle was terrible. The banks wouldn’t loan you any money to build a house. They’d lend you enough to buy a little shack. You couldn’t rent anyplace in town. … It was terrible. It was awful.”[4] However, as time has moved on, they have spoken of Carlisle’s improvements. “It’s not the Carlisle that it was and I thank God for that.”[5]

Audio clip of Ruth Hodge speaking about race relations in Carlisle

Despite the myriad obstacles these women have faced, they have fought through it and achieved. They have donated their time, their hearts and souls to make sure that this vital history can live on. Phenomenal women like Ruth Hodge and Janet Bell have uncovered and reclaimed the African American roots buried deep and interwoven within Carlisle’s rich history. When poets like Maya Angelou speak of phenomenal women, she speaks of women like Ruth Hodge and Janet Bell; an inspiration to us all.

[1] Janet Bell, interview with Yazmin Watkins, October 23, 2007
[3] Janet Bell, interview with Yazmin Watkins, October 23, 2007
[4]Ruth Hodge, interview with Yazmin Watkins, November 29, 2007
[5] ibid