by TRACY ZOLLINGER TURNER and CARMEN SIERING
photos by MARTIN BOLING and JIM KRAUSE
The achievements of Black women are being recognized nationally as never before, thanks to the ascent of Kamala Harris to the vice presidency, the impact of Black women on the presidential election, and the several Black women appointed to cabinet and other key government positions. Finally, and long overdue.
Black women are also mayors of several of the country’s largest cities, including Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., and Michelle Obama for the third straight year is the most admired woman in America, according to a 2020 Gallup poll. (Harris finished second.)
Here in Bloomington, Black women have contributed mightily to every facet of our community, and in this issue we recognize the successes of 21. There are many, many more.
Recognition, however, does not mean that prejudice is on the decline, either nationally or in Bloomington. In fact, one could just as easily argue that bigotry is on the rise in the wake of our former president’s efforts at legitimizing racism and inciting violence.
Most of the women profiled in these pages have experienced prejudice and faced obstacles because of both the color of their skin and their gender.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” It is our hope that by sharing these stories, we might cast a little light.
Doris Sims has seen the country “go through hills and valleys” when it comes to race. “A lot—especially within this past year—has happened within our country with dealing with racial inequality, and dealing with issues of equity and diversity,” she says. For some, she believes, this time has introduced new awareness. “What I’m hoping is that we don’t lose the momentum that we’ve gained. It’s easy to stick a sign in your yard and say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ it’s another thing to make sure the actions that you take show that Black lives matter to you.” Read more.
Professor Jeannine Bell, a nationally recognized scholar in the area of policing and hate crimes, has written extensively on criminal justice issues. When demonstrators took to the streets this summer demanding changes to policing in America, she was a step ahead of them. Read more.
Nicole Bolden comes from a lineage of women with a legacy of firsts. Her grandmother was the first Black nurse to work in the University of Iowa Hospitals. Her mother, Valeri Haughton, was the first Black woman to be directly elected to the Monroe County judiciary. In 2015, Bolden became the first Black women elected to citywide office in Bloomington and is the only LGBTQ woman of color in elected office in Indiana. Read more.
Selena Drake, who was raised in Gary, Indiana, says she never truly experienced racism prior to attending Indiana University. A racially charged incident that occurred as she started her freshman year in 2016 changed that. Read more.
For more than 40 years, Elizabeth Mitchell has been documenting African American history and correcting the white version of that history. “All those stories that tell us who we are—stories of exploration, freedom, slavery, and, of course, violence,” she says. “We hold on to those one-sided stories and pass them on from one generation to the next.” Read more.
Whether it’s ensuring that local elementary school children have winter coats or cheering up the Bloomington skyline with hot air balloons, Vanessa McClary cares that the work she does in the community has tangible results. A dedicated volunteer and leader in Kiwanis for two decades, “I don’t talk about me a lot,” she says. “I’m passionate. I’m committed. I think I encourage others in a lot of different ways to be more involved in their community … but ultimately, it’s not about me, it’s about the impact of what I do.” Read more.
As a master’s student at Indiana University, Priscilla Barnes researched public health disparities and the connection between faith communities and public health. Now, as an affiliate faculty member with IU’s Center for Rural Engagement, she’s doing something similar. She designed the “Healthy Rural Indiana 2025: Community Health Improvement Plans Project” to build partnerships that address public health needs in rural communities. Read more.
Jacinda Townsend is a novelist, a software trainer, and a Monroe County Community School Corporation board member. She’s also a Harvard University graduate with a law degree from Duke University and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her 2014 debut novel, Saint Monkey (W.W. Norton & Company), won national awards and critical acclaim. Read more.
Gladys DeVane, 81, is a storyteller, scriptwriter, and actor. She first learned stagecraft competing in oratorical contests as a child and acting in plays in high school and college.
“My aunt worked with me on dramatic readings—storytelling in the form of monologues,” DeVane says. “By 15 I was giving recitals all over [Oklahoma City].” Read more.
Maqubè Reese’s first name was created by her mother—a combination of the names of her four aunts. “I feel like I embody all of them,” she says. “I absolutely love my name. I feel like I live it every day.”
As she gets ready to enter her 30s in 2021, that wellspring of family appears to fuel a very busy life. Reese works as the assistant director of diversity initiatives for the Indiana University Kelley School of Business and is engaged in an abundance of community work. Read more.
Jenn Cristy has a credo for these challenging times: “Be kind and have conversations with people.” A writer and performer of original music, as well as owner of One Pulse Entertainment, the past pandemic year has hit her hard. In addition to the obstacles that she, like many who make a living in the performing arts, faced, she lost a sister-in-law to COVID-19 in the spring of 2020. Read more.
Growing up, Markay Winston, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Monroe County Community School Corporation (MCCSC) since 2017, saw educational inequity firsthand. “Living in Iowa, I didn’t see many children who looked like me,” Winston says, “and certainly not many teachers who looked like me.” Read more.
Virginia Githiri wears so many different professional hats in her daily life, it’s not hard to fathom that writing inspirational gospel songs is something she does in her sleep. “I’m not one of those songwriters that can just sit at my piano and just write,” she says. “Most of the new ideas that I get literally come to me when I’m in deep, deep sleep.” Read more.
“Fun fact,” says Dr. Tashera Perry, an OB/GYN with Indiana University Health, adjunct clinical assistant professor for the IU School of Medicine, and the associate chief medical information officer for IU Health South Central Region. “I’m a high school dropout. I don’t actually have a high school diploma.” Read more.
Artist Larissa Danielle’s multimedia work has often been inspired by political and social realities. In 2020, those realities felt particularly overwhelming. “I was really influenced by a lot of the Black trauma that was going on—I don’t want to say until recently, because it’s always going on,” she says. Read more.
In 2014, Maria E. Hamilton Abegunde was the first person to earn a doctorate in African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University—a distinction that was groundbreaking not only in its accomplishment, but also for the revolutionary nature of the research she continues to do. Read more.
As early voters wrapped around the block in downtown Bloomington last fall, Nicole Browne, the first Black woman elected as Monroe County’s Clerk of Courts, often walked out to greet them. She pointed out where they could grab a coffee or find a restroom as they waited, then thanked them for exercising their civic duty. Read more.
Though she’s earned several degrees herself, when you visit Mattie White’s office, there’s only one credential on display—her grandmother’s 1939 high school diploma. “Being an African American woman at that time, that was a huge feat,” White says. “She and my mom instilled in me the importance of getting an education.” Read more.
Ellyn Pruitt grew up with an affection and respect for cemeteries. She remembers that whenever her extended family in Gary, Indiana, was drawn together for a funeral, it also became a pilgrimage of sorts. “It was important to know where your family was buried,” she says. Read more.
Although she is only 20 years old, Tamara Brown has been an activist for years. The 2018 Bloomington High School North graduate was instrumental in the formation of Bloomington Students Against Assault Weapons (BSAAW) in the aftermath of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Read more.
Beverly Calender-Anderson is effusive when discussing the election of Vice President Kamala Harris. “Not only is she smart and totally qualified to be vice president and president, but she wears Chucks,” Calender-Anderson says of Harris’ penchant for wearing Converse sneakers.
More importantly, Calender-Anderson sees Harris’ election as a uniting force for the country. Read more.
Bloom Magazine thanks the Bloomington Urban Enterprise Association (BUEA), which awarded $2,500 to Bloom for the creation and publication of the “Black Women of Bloomington” feature. Learn more at bloomington.in.gov/business/buea.