First But Forgotten: A Conversation With Authors Dr. Artika R. Tyner and Leticia Gonzales
First But Forgotten: A Conversation With Authors Dr. Artika R. Tyner and Leticia Gonzales
Whenever someone asks me what I like most about being an editor, my answer is simple—I like how much I learn as an editor. Working on First But Forgotten is no exception. I have learned a lot about some remarkable women of color, including Sarah Keys Evans, Annie Turnbo Malone, and Sylvia Mendez. But I have learned even more about the challenges of trying to tell lesser-known stories and disrupting the narratives we have about many historical events and periods—a sure sign of their necessity.
I spoke with authors Leticia Gonzales and Dr. Artika R. Tyner about their experience working on this project. I think their experiences, too, are a reflection of just how important it is to do our best to tell the stories of people who have been left out of the dominant historical narratives—especially for the kids who need to see people who look like them when they open books in the classroom or at the library.
In your book for the First but Forgotten series, you highlight the story of a woman of color most of us may not know much about. How much did you know about her before working on the project?
Gonzales: Despite growing up in southern New Mexico as a Latine woman, I had not known much about Sylvia Mendez prior to the project. In fact, I don’t recall learning about Mendez and her family in school, which was surprising to me since we had a heavy population of Mexicans and other Latine populations living in the area. The project provided a new lens for me about how school segregation was impacted prior to Brown v. Board of Education, thanks to the courage and leadership of Mendez and her parents, as well as the other families who fought for equality in the education system.
Tyner: When I started working on the project, I did not know much about Annie Turnbo Malone or Sarah Keys Evans. I saw a few references to Malone when conducting research about Madam C.J. Walker. Her likeness is also portrayed as Addie in the Netflix series Self-Made; however, this was a misrepresentation. I was familiar with the challenges faced by Black women in the military after writing my first graphic novel The Courageous Six Triple Eight; however, I was not aware of Sarah Keys Evans’s role in shaping civil rights history.
As I wrote these books, I was ashamed of my lack of knowledge about these remarkable Black women. For instance, how did I attend law school for three years and never hear of Sarah Keys Evans? History tends not to celebrate the triumph of African Americans despite centuries of institutionalized, legally mandated, and systemic oppression; hence, I feel a great level of responsibility to share our history. I still remember the day a community elder shared a prophetic vision for my future. He said with authority, “You are our community historian.” His words reminded me of an African proverb—“Until the Lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the Hunter.”
My commitment is to not only learn and share about our history but to serve as a lioness for justice. Each day, I focus on writing about Black history, culture, and values. This is my way of celebrating our legacy and giving honor to our ancestors who paved new inroads to justice and freedom. By the end of the project, my sense of shame was transformed into joy. I was overjoyed to share about two women who inspired me as an entrepreneur and civil rights attorney.
Describe your experience doing research for this project. Was it easy or challenging? Did anything surprise you about what information you were—or weren’t—able to find?
Gonzales: Although Mendez and her family were a crucial part of history, I discovered that there were few books about her, as well as the desegregation of schools in California. As a librarian and journalist, I have access to many resources and avenues to search for books across the state when it comes to research, but it was still a challenge. I relied heavily on what research was available via online sources. Even so, it took a lot of digging to really discover information about Mendez and her family that provided more intimate details about who they were and where they came from.
Tyner: The research was relatively easy since I was so excited to learn about these two dynamic leaders. This fueled my passion to charge ahead on my research journey as I spent many long days and weekends in my local Rondo library. I was surprised to find additional information about Annie Turnbo Malone in newspaper publications. As I read each article, I felt like I was traveling back in time to celebrate her accomplishments as a pioneering entrepreneur and self-made millionaire.
What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this project? How did it change your understanding of a person or a historical event?
Gonzales: Learning that Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights attorney who founded the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, was supportive of the lawsuit involving the Mendez family and Westminster, was eye-opening to me. While I knew that Marshall was the chief attorney in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that made racial segregation unconstitutional, I hadn’t known that he was connected to the segregation issues that Mexican children faced in California. This was a key piece of history that was absent from my education.
Tyner: The most interesting thing I learned was the story of other Black women who became self-made millionaires. Many of their stories are still not told. They were the philanthropists who invested in education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and services for children and families like Annie Turnbo Malone. This deepened my understanding of the importance of social responsibility. Money can serve as a key tool to foster justice and equity. Through our nonprofit, Planting People Growing Justice Leadership Institute, I plan on donating 100 copies of each book to schools across the nation to celebrate the leadership legacies of Annie Turnbo Malone and Sarah Keys Evans. This is philanthropy in action following in the footsteps of Annie Turnbo Malone.
What factors do you think contribute to the stories of these women being overlooked in history?
Gonzales: Sadly, Sylvia Mendez is not the only woman or person of color whose history has been overlooked in history. Many important contributions to our history made by people of color are often left out of history books and the public education system at large. It’s related to the barriers that still exist on the systemic level. Despite the awareness, there seems to be an increase in pushback when it comes to ensuring accurate and equal inclusion of all contributors to our nation’s history.
Tyner: One key factor is their race and ethnicity at the intersection of gender. Books written in the United States tend to center the stories of the dominant culture which can reinforce negative biases and stereotypes. Now is the time to write the stories that celebrate the United States’ rich multicultural tapestry. This is a daily and year-round commitment and simply not restricted to a celebration during Black History Month or Women’s History Month.
As we learn more about people who have been excluded from historical narratives, why do you think it’s important young students have access to these lesser-known stories?
Gonzales: As a person of color, I grew up thinking that I was inferior to white children. I didn’t see a lot of representation of Latine leaders reflected in books, media, or in school. Most of my teachers, even in New Mexico, were white. Sadly, disparities continue to exist for children of non-white cultural groups. It can make a positive impact on children and adults when they see that there were influential people and leaders who looked like them and had shared life experiences they can relate to who were inventors, creators, educators, and changemakers. Having those examples can provide a sense of pride, purpose, and motivation that can have positive effects on self-esteem, confidence, and identity.
Tyner: It gives them the invitation to become inclusive leaders who embark on a learning journey. I am reminded of the words of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop who describes books as mirrors and windows. By having lesser-known stories readily available, diverse children can see a positive reflection of themselves on the pages of a book. This is the inspiration they need to learn, grow, and lead. This can inspire the next Annie Turnbo Malone to become an entrepreneur or the next Sarah Keys Evans to fight for justice. These historical narratives also help to create windows for all children which can aid in raising cultural awareness and building bridges across cultures.
How can The Untold Story of Sarah Keys Evans help students understand Black women’s roles in the fight for civil rights in the United States?
Tyner: It will help students to understand that there is a journey to realize the promises of liberty and justice for all. Change does not occur overnight, nor does it magically appear. It requires everyday people to take a stand when they see an injustice. For instance, the legacy of fighting against segregation in public transportation did not start with Rosa Parks’ arrest in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Many others paved the way from Ida B. Wells to Dovey Johnson Roundtree to Claudette Colvin.
What do you think The Untold Story of Annie Turnbo Malone can help students understand about Black businesswomen in the United States?
Tyner: It will help students to understand that when they see a problem, they can create a solution. This is a reminder that students are never too young to make a difference. They can create a new product like Me and Bees Lemonade by Mikaila Ulmer, which supports a healthy ecosystem by protecting bees.
How can The Untold Story of Sylvia Mendez help students understand Latine women’s roles in the fight for civil rights in the United States?
Gonzales: What is remarkable about Sylvia Mendez, is how young she was when the court case was filed. I can recall instances in my life where I experienced racism and discrimination, even at a young age. Children are not immune to negative or adverse life experiences, but by being exposed to Mendez’s story, they can see an example of how someone who looked like them preserved through a difficult and challenging time in her life. Not only did she succeed, but Mendez also used her experience and the positive example from her parents to give back to her community. Her story is inspiring for adults and children alike.
If you could pick another woman to include in the First But Forgotten series, who would it be and why?
Gonzales: Dolores Huerta, an American labor leader and civil rights activist, is another changemaker in the Latine community that is essential to our country’s history. Unlike Mendez, I do recall learning about Huerta in my 7th-grade social studies class when we studied the Labor movements. Huerta co-created the United Farm Workers Association with César Chávez to help migrant farm workers advocate for better wages. Migrant farm workers are a vital part of our society, providing a large chunk of labor in getting our food from the fields and into our stores and homes.
Tyner: I would include Judge Jane Bolin, the first African American female judge, who served from 1939 to 1978. She was the first in many ways: the first Black female graduate of Yale Law School, and the first Black female member of the New York State Bar Association. While on the bench, she worked to promote racial justice and equity. She inspired the next pioneering Black female judge, Constance Baker Motley. Judge Motley served on the federal bench.
Judge Bolin’s story would inspire the next generation of young women to consider a career in law. This is critically important since the legal profession is one of the least diverse professions. Further, there are still opportunities today for female lawyers and jurists to work toward the realization of equal justice under the law.
Anything else you would like to add?
Gonzales: It is refreshing to see the important work that Capstone is doing to ensure the history of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) is not forgotten. Over the past four years, I have worked on various projects with Capstone to share the lives and experiences of leaders, politicians, scientists, writers, performers, and other notable BIPOC individuals. Throughout this process, I have learned about people that I otherwise wouldn’t have known existed. I also discovered that there is little information about many of them. The work that Capstone is doing to change the narrative and share history will have positive impacts on current and future generations.