Faith in the World Community: Sue Bailey Thurman and Black Women’s World Reconstruction, 1920-1950

Kayleigh Whitman is a fifth year PhD student at Vanderbilt University.   She studies American Religious History with a special focus on questions of race, religion, and activism.   She is the recipient of the 2020 Nancy and Randall Burkett Fellowship.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, African American women were the vanguard of the international struggle for Black freedom. My dissertation examines the role of religious ideas in this international activism in the early twentieth century through a study of Sue Bailey Thurman’s global projects. Though Sue Bailey Thurman often appears in historical narratives through her marriage to esteemed theologian Howard Thurman, for whom the Pitts Library has recently built a digital archive, she was an established activist and intellectual in her own right, evidenced by her extensive work with the YWCA, National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), and UNESCO. Through these ventures and others, Bailey Thurman constructed networks of like-minded women in the United States and abroad to advance the cause of liberation for all people.


When I began my Rose Library Research Fellowship I was motivated by questions about relationships. Having read extensively in the thought and action of Black women involved in religious groups, I wanted to learn more about how they related to each other and the institutions that shaped their work. The I.G. Bailey Family Papers and the Louise Thompson Patterson Papers provided the opportunity to explore these matters through the writings of Sue Bailey, her mother Susie Ford Bailey, the women of the National Baptist Convention (NBC), Louise Thompson, and many others who crossed their paths. I was surprised by the geographic reach of their networks, which, despite the character of my project, surpassed my expectations. The Patterson Papers contained correspondence and materials from Thompson’s time in Russia, which was to be expected, but beyond that there were materials in the Bailey Family collection from Africa, South America, and Europe. These collections affirmed my early conclusions in the project and sharpened my focus for the remaining chapters.


In the I.G. Bailey Family Papers I was able to explore the creation of the Southeast District Baptist Association in depth and consider the institutions that African Americans built in the early years of Reconstruction. Sue Bailey Thurman was the youngest child of Susie Ford Bailey and the Reverend Isaac G. Bailey, both of whom were religious leaders in Arkansas. In examining the materials related to the institutions with which they worked – the NBC, American Baptist Home Mission Society, and the Southeast District Baptist Association – I was able to better understand Bailey Thurman’s early institutional social environment. Further, the correspondence that I read from the Bailey Family allowed me to trace their networks within the Baptist denomination and draw conclusions about the relationship between the NBC, home missions, and visions of international transformation. Towards the end of my visit, I came upon a book titled “History of the Southeast District Baptist Association,” published by one of Reverend Bailey’s colleagues, L.W. Blue. This detailed text, not only of the history and structure of the Associations but of the motivations for its formation, provided insight into the relationships that the church leaders had with one another and how they viewed their leadership in the community.


The Patterson materials provided an entirely new framing for the direction of my second chapter and directed me towards a new line of inquiry for the project in general. Joining the archive of a prominent activist with the uplift work of 19th century rural Arkansas revealed beautiful complexities to the African American women in my dissertation. One of the more unexpected discoveries in this collection were birthday cards filled with warm wishes between the Thompson and Bailey families spanning the 1920s to the 1980s. Though these were often small notes, they unlocked a view of how they supported their relationships through time and the role that social networks played in women’s political lives.


Sue Bailey Thurman, Susie Ford Bailey, and Louise Thompson Patterson are just a sampling of the women who forged relationships across the world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Through their efforts at home, in institutions and education, and their encounters abroad, they took steps to build a world that matched their vision of freedom. Working in the collections at the Rose Library allowed me to get a better grasp of these visions and the social worlds they constructed to achieve them.