The Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) awarded Cheryl D. Hicks, a UNC Charlotte history professor, the Letitia Woods Brown Book Award for her book “Talk With You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice and Reform in New York, 1890-1935.”
ABWH is a group that Hicks said did not only influence her but mentored her. The award recognizes “innovative, well-researched and insightful scholarship (about or by an Africana woman) that enhances the growing corpus of Africana women’s historiography,” according to the ABWH website.
“[The ABWH’s] scholarship has been a model for me, through my entire process from being a grad student, to becoming an assistant professor, to my position now as associate professor,” said Hicks. “I am able to do my work because of their groundbreaking scholarship, so to have them recognize my work is very important and very special to me.”
Although Hicks was aware that the UNC Press, which published the book, had submitted the work for consideration for some awards when they published it in 2010, she was informed that she won the prize by ABWH at a luncheon Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. The luncheon was held just before the major annual convention of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), where the ABWH was founded in 1977.
In the acknowledgements section of the book, Hicks recalls that joining UNC Charlotte’s history department in 2007 “provided a wonderfully collegial environment for me as I completed manuscript revisions.” She is still thankful that her coworkers were so encouraging, even helping read over portions she wanted to clear up. “The department is full of scholar teachers that understood the importance of completing your first book,” she said.
In her first book, Hicks explored the objects, mostly the black female objects, of urban reform at the turn of the century, she said. “Many historians have written about the middle class activists and what they were trying to do for the working class. I am interested in what the working class and working poor were thinking at this time.”
The book is divided into three sections: African American Urban Life and the Multiple Meanings of Protection in the City, Urban Reform and Criminal Justice and Rehabilitation and Respectability and Race. Each section tells the stories of working-class women who find themselves caught up in a system that doesn’t care for their needs.
Hicks focused on a reformatory and a prison, two places where women who had fallen through the cracks often ended up, she said. She received a fellowship at the New York State Archives in Albany, N.Y. and began to go over reformatory records case by case. “There were about 424 case files for the one reformatory that I look at. That’s when I started to pull the stories together,” she said.
Looking at prison files helped Hicks get a look from the perspective of an older group of women. “Most felons were in their mid-twenties and older, so I got a broad range of perspective of how women experienced the urban north and the real challenges they faced,” she said.
The true importance of the book lies in these challenges, said Hicks. “Many reformers saw these single, unprotected women in trouble and decided that they were the problems that needed to be fixed. I was more interested in the problems that these women experienced in the city.”
These challenges, that range from being physically assaulted by police to facing down a mother’s curfew on the night of a dance, become clear in the correspondence to and from the families of women incarcerated in prison or institutionalized in reformatories. While reading the letters of her subjects, the voice of these women began to take shape, said Hicks.
“The idea that the working class and the working poor [of that time period] don’t have a voice that’s legitimate and don’t have a voice that needs to be heard is something that I found to be clearly not true,” she said. “Looking at criminal justice records actually gave me a very clear sense of the continued struggle of the working class to improve their lives and particularly the lives of their younger relatives.”
Hicks came across letters that showed families making sacrifices to prepare for a paroled relative to come home or just speaking to incarcerated loved ones. “Parents were sometimes writing in anguish because they saw their attempt to reform their relative through reformatories as a tool to help parent them, but the state simply saw them as incompetent parents.”
One of the strongest letters Hicks came across was not to a loved one but to the superintendent of a reformatory from a woman who was incarcerated there. The letter was written by Lucy Cox, a poor woman who had been arrested for prostitution and whose letters demanding respect from administration were ignored. In her final letter in 1924, Cox writes, “This is business I want to talk with you like a woman.” Hicks saw fit to name the book after this quote.
“Her situation for me was a prime example for how these women could articulate what they were going through without anyone speaking for them,” Hicks said. “She also was demanding of the superintendent ‘Acknowledge my womanhood. Acknowledge that I am not just a person of humanity but also a woman who understands that you can make mistakes but you can learn to move on. Allow me to do that.’”
Hicks is now in the initial stages of her next book project, an exploration of a legal case in 1904 New York that explores interracial intimacy as well as black civil rights, she said. The case, Elias vs. Platt, involves Hannah Elias, who many historians agree was the first black female millionaire and a case in which John R. Platt accused her of blackmailing him for $685,385.
“It’s a story of her life as a poor black woman in Philadelphia and how she became a symbol for New York and the nation as a woman of wealth,” said Hicks. “It’s also a story of racial ambiguousness at the turn of the century.”