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Combahee River Collective

The Combahee River Collective was an influential Black feminist organization formed in Boston, Massachusetts, active from 1974-1980. The Collective was “one of the earliest explorations of the intersection of multiple oppressions, including racism and heterosexism.” They argued that the intersectionality* of being a Black woman created a combination of identities subject to unique and widespread “racial-sexual oppressions” in American society. (2) The women of the Collective, many of whom were lesbians, fought against the tides of sexism, homophobia, and racism that had oppressed their predecessors and continued to oppress them daily in the form of personal, political, and systemic forces.

Barbara Smith, co-founder of the movement, described how by the mid-1960s, the civil rights movement had transformed into one focused largely on “Black liberation, Black power, and Black nationalism,” leaving little room for Black women’s voices to be heard. Often, as it has been throughout American history, to be a Black woman and be heard at all was dangerous, especially in Boston, which Smith stated “was like World War III” after school busing and desegregation efforts had begun in the region. (5)

By the 1960s, the second wave of feminism had also begun, but while they shared similar convictions with white feminist activists about topics like the Vietnam War and women’s liberation, Black women could not rely on existing feminist organizations to take up the specific injustice against Black women and lesbians as a platform. So, inspired by their peers in the Northeast who had created the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in 1973, Smith and her colleagues created the Combahee River Collective in 1974.

Why the "Combahee"?

The organizers of the Combahee River Collective were inspired to unite under the name of the Combahee River due to its connection to Harriet Tubman and its significance to Black women’s history. On June 2, 1863, Harriet Tubman, renowned activist credited with saving around 70 enslaved people through the Underground Railroad, formulated and led a military offensive in conjunction with the Union army to free slaves on the Combahee River in South Carolina during the American Civil War. In planning and executing this offensive, Tubman, who is sometimes likened to the biblical figure Moses, became the first woman to lead a major military operation in American history. Flanked by 150 Black Union soldiers, Tubman and Union forces successfully freed more than 700 enslaved people from Confederate ownership in the area. She later led similar operations with the Massachusetts 54th Infantry. Beyond her devotion to Black emancipation, Harriet Tubman dedicated her later life to the work of women’s suffrage and emphasizing Black women’s roles in getting women the right to vote.(4) This gave the Combahee River Collective many reasons to root their group and cause in her legacy.

Combahee River Collective Statement

The Collective’s seminal work came in April 1977 with the Combahee River Collective Statement, whose main contributors were co-founders Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, and Barbara Smith.(2) They split this text into four sections. In the first, titled “The Genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism,” the authors explained the scope of Black women’s exclusion from both American civil life and broad feminist movements under a larger American “system of white male rule.” This, they argued, created conditions in which Black women “were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being ‘ladylike’ and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people.” Despite this, Black women had subverted their oppression by both whiteness and the patriarchy in “dramatic and subtle ways” for generations. The Collective saw that because their post-World War II world allowed them to at least “minimally partake” in American society in ways Black women never could before, they could carry on this legacy and build upon the Black feminist movement by “more effectively fight[ing] our oppression” through unprecedented social and political avenues. In their statement, the Collective members explicitly referenced the likes of fearless Black women activists Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Frances E. W. Harper in inspiring their fight for the rights of Black women and lesbians.(3)

In the Combahee River Collective Statement’s second section, titled “What We Believe,” laid out the Collective’s mission. They started by describing “how little value has been placed upon [Black women’s] lives during four centuries of bondage in the Western hemisphere,” and how no meaningful movement had “ever considered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression.” They argued, in fact, that no broad movement “has ever examined the multilayered texture of Black women’s lives.” Because of this, Collective members organized through their identity, which for Black women was “a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept.” The authors are careful to point out that white women did not need to unite under race with white men to gain rights in American society. This section then went on to explain how the patriarchy is woven into the fabric of the United States’ capitalist and imperialist systems, leading Collective members to conclude that these systems must be destroyed. They embraced socialism as an alternative for “the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products,” which “must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.”(3)

In sections three and four, titled “Problems in Organizing Black Feminists” and “Black Feminist Issues and Projects” respectively, the Combahee River Collective described obstacles they faced in spreading their message to more Black women and lesbians as well as American society at large. They wrote that although many Black women understand how sexism and racism combined to oppress them, “because of the everyday constrictions of their lives, [they] cannot risk struggling against them both.” These structures were not only seen in widespread racial and sexual oppression from white America, but also from within Black communities. The Combahee organizers saw how their brand of Black feminism contradicted many traditional assumptions made in Black social circles and families about men and women being fundamentally different and thus requiring different roles in society, leaving little room for Black women to be vocal and strong leaders. This created an environment in which Black women had to fight against more than just white American norms and systems to be understood. Many even mistook the fight for Black women’s autonomy as “divid[ing] the Black struggle” at a time when Black male organizers may have felt like they were losing valuable allies in the greater movement against racism. This meant that the women of the Combahee River Collective faced obstacles from every direction in their fight for equal rights. They would not falter, they wrote, ending the paper by declaring: “we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggle before us.” (3)

Activities & Causes

Besides writing the Combahee River Collective Statement in 1977, the Collective helped fund and organize seven different retreats for Black feminists along the east coast. This furthered their mission of spreading consciousness among their Black women and lesbian peers and provided a support structure for activists of color who were usually intimidated into keeping their work quiet for fear of retribution.(2) This mission extended to a desire to publish the writings of Black feminists across the country who may have lacked access to resources or sufficient publicity to have their voices heard. The Collective also worked to preserve reproductive rights and the right to sexual assault self defense, supporting movements around the criminal proceedings of Inéz García, a woman who was charged with murdering her rapist in 1974, and Dr. Kenneth Edelin, a Black physician convicted of manslaughter in 1975 for helping a 17-year-old girl in Boston get an abortion.(3) On April 28, 1979, the Collective hosted a 500 person march at the Boston Common protesting racial and sexual violence against women. The march was held in response to the lack of media coverage and police attention to the murders of 12 black women that occurred in Boston within the span of five months.(6)

Impact & Legacy

The Collective disbanded in 1980, after having hosted thousands of students to its retreats. The impact of its activities, especially the retreats, influenced future leaders and scholars. The Collective is credited with laying the groundwork for contemporary feminism, particularly Black feminism.(1,6)

*Intersectionality: The term was coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap, affecting the way people from different backgrounds encounter the world.

Sources & Further Reading

(1)City of Boston. (Feb. 14, 2020) “The Combahee River Collective.” Black History Boston: Boston, Mass. www.boston.gov/news/black-history-boston-combahee-river-collective

(2)Anders, Tisa M. (Apr. 23, 2012) “Combahee River Collective (1974-1980).” Blackpast: Seattle, Wash. www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/combahee-river-collective-1974-1980

Full text of the (3)Combahee River Collective Statement: www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/combahee-river-collective-statement-1977

(4)Smithsonian: National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Jun. 2, 2016) “The Combahee Ferry Raid.” nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/combahee-ferry-raid

(5)Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. (2017) How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books

(6)Gray, Arielle. (2019) "This Boston Collective Laid the Groundwork for Intersectional Black Feminism." WBUR: Boston, Mass. www.wbur.org/news/2019/06/10/boston-combahee-river-collective-intersectional-black-feminism

Written and researched by Jack Gassen. Posted February 2022.