Black women face 'pet to threat' prejudice, historian and author says at MSU

Talk kicks off annual Black History Month series


FRIDAY, Feb. 2 — As Black women progress in their careers, they're often subjected to 'pet to threat,' a prominent African American historian and author agreed yesterday as she kicked off a Black History Month lecture series at Michigan State University.

Midway through the session with guest speaker Tanisha Ford, host Marita Gilbert asked her how pet to threat has impacted Black women historically. As she asked the question, Gilbert also summarized the phenomenon for an audience at the Wharton Center's Pasant Theatre.

“We are loved on, cradled, celebrated and given special places in spaces of privilege until we ask questions, until we start to hold people accountable and challenge the ways of operation. At that moment, we go from being a lovely accessory to a handful. We're then a threat that must be dealt with," said Gilbert, the associate dean of diversion and campus inclusion at the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Ford, a professor of history and biography and memoir at the City University of New York, has written four books on civil rights and Black culture as it relates to politics, economics and contemporary social justice. She was the opening speaker in the William G. Anderson Lecture Series, sponsored for 24 years by the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Ford said the subject of her latest book, Mollie Moon, was a victim of the pet-to-threat phenomenon.

“Our Secret Society: Mollie Moon and the Glamour, Money, and Power Behind the Civil Rights Movement,” which came out in October, follows Moon’s life and legacy as a pioneering Black woman in traditionally white philanthropist spaces in New York City and her role as the founder and president of the National Urban League Guild.

“I just loved the name Mollie Moon. It sounded so cool. I was taken with her,” Ford said. “Before I knew it, I had amassed hundreds of newspaper clippings of this woman across the Black press, and in mainstream newspapers and magazines. So, this woman was a veritable celebrity — a social justice celebrity, if you will — in the Civil Rights era. I thought, why don't we know her?”

As she began researching her subject in 2016 and 2017, Ford uncovered multiple layers of a Black woman who had to traverse countless barriers, unfair scrutiny and rumors and the generally racist sentiments of the time to organize prominent fundraisers to bolster Civil Rights efforts as the movement was nearing its peak.

“She was this glamorous woman who hosted these Black beauty pageants. I thought that she was a socialite who cared about justice, and I was framing her as such. It wasn't until I really started to work on the project in earnest where I really started to sit down with all the material and realized that there are all these dollar amounts attached to these stories. They weren’t just parties, they were fundraisers — she was raising money for the movement,” Ford said.

Moon raised millions of dollars to fund grassroots activists working to secure economic justice and racial equality. She helped build a formidable mutual aid network that connected Black churches, domestic and blue-collar laborers, social clubs and sororities and fraternities.

“That made me think,” she added. “I’m a historian of the civil rights movement, but I never really thought about how the movement was funded.”

 “Who's paying for the buses for the Freedom Rides? Who's paying for breakfast programs, and after-school programs for Black youth? This money has to come from somewhere,” Ford said. “Mollie Moon had this way of tapping into the wealth and resources of the titans of industry, and she spearheaded the movement for capital campaigns that raise money for these initiatives that we just kind of take for granted.”

“It was important for me to recover that history and put it front and center,” Ford added, “especially as I was writing amidst the pandemic and we were seeing stories about wealthy philanthropists guilt giving, or at least pledging to give to Black Lives Matter and other movement organizations in the present day.”

Ford said that Moon, who died at 82 in 1990, faced the pet-to-threat prejudice many times. She said that it became clear as she conducted her research that her subject faced personal attacks on all fronts as she rose to prominence.

“They spread rumors about her having an affair with (Winthrop) Rockefeller, because she was working so closely with him and he's giving millions of dollars to fund things including building the headquarters for the National Urban League,” Ford said, referring to the grandson of  Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller. “They thought she must be sleeping with him. For what other reason would this white man have to give money to a Black woman?”

Moon, the wife of longtime NAACP publicist Henry Lee Moon, proved a fascinating subject in every facet, Ford explained.

“She's so complex. And I didn't want to round out or smooth out any of that complexity. I wanted to hold her in all of her dimensions, all her flaws and imperfections, in the fullness of her humanity. Because I think that that's where the real truth telling lies,” Ford said.

In essence, she added, “this book is a love letter to Black women in leadership positions.”

Ford offered advice on how figures like Moon can be better celebrated through a renewed effort to preserve Black history. She specifically mentioned the need to archive Black magazines and other media, which was at its peak when Moon was at her most active in the 1960s.

“We need to have a greater emphasis on how we can do community-based archival work that allows people to take these incredible things that we have in our own homes, and deposit them in community archives that become accessible to people,” Ford said.

She also expressed concerns over the modern political and sociological divide in the United States.

“We see the retrenchment of the DEI initiatives. Across the board, we see an attack against critical race theory — or this specter that the conservative right has called critical race theory. We see the banning of books, schools not wanting to teach histories of enslavement, a banning of certain books in the curriculum. Our young people who do have their own freedom dreams are up against these major structural challenges,” Ford said.

 Ford said she hopes her historical contributions can play a role in shaping a better future.

“I hope, in that way, that my work is a certain kind of blueprint that helps us to chart some of these changes in schools of thought and to illuminate that work even more for historians,” Ford said. “I really want people to read this book so that they can understand where we come from, and the challenges that we face in the past and what worked and what didn't work.”

Tanisha Ford, Mollie Moon, Marita Gilbert, Black History Month, Michigan State University, MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine, Wharton Center, Pasant Theatre, William G. Anderson Lecture Series, Black History, pet to threat, Civil Rights, author, historian, lecture


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