Sue Bailey Thurman, a Pine Bluff native, was an author, historian, and pioneer in civil rights and racial equality who helped shape and counsel civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s.
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Sue Elvie Bailey was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on August 26, 1903, to educators Rev. Isaac Bailey and Susie Ford Bailey. She was one of ten children. Her parents emphasized the importance of education, religious studies and missionary work. They also led in founding a private college funded by Arkansas’ African American Baptists that later became the Morris Booker Memorial College in Dermott.
During her early childhood, her family moved to Washington D.C. where Bailey attended primary school at Nannie Burroughs' School for Girls. In 1920, she completed her high school education at Spelman Seminary (now known as Spelman College) in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1926, she became the first African American woman to receive a music degree from Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, after she earned a bachelor’s degree in music and liberal arts. She became a national secretary for the student division of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), a nonprofit organization that focused on women's rights, empowerment, and leadership in more than 100 countries. As a YWCA national secretary, she traveled Europe lecturing about interracial and intercultural connections. She also established the YWCA’s first World Fellowship Committee.
In 1932, she married renowned theologian and scholar Dr. Howard Thurman. At the time of their marriage, he was the Dean of Rankin Chapel and Professor of Systematic Theology at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
A few years later, Thurman became the first publisher Mary McLeod Bethune’s National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) African American women’s journal. She also served as the founder and chairman of the NCNW’s National Library, Archives, and Museum.
In 1936, Thurman and her husband took a trip to India sponsored by the YWCA. In an effort to find answers to the racial equality problems in America they were the first African Americans to meet with legendary non-violence activist Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi provided insight into his philosophy of non-violent activism and engaged in dialogue with the Thurman’s about ways in which black Americans could use this tactic to gain their civil rights. Gandhi also gained insight into how the struggles for racial freedom of African Americans in America related to the struggle for freedom in South Asia. Thurman and her husband later returned to the United States where they promoted nonviolent resistance, bringing it to the attention of Martin Luther King Jr. who later made a similar trip to India in the late 1950s to gather information on Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance techniques for a mass movement.
Thurman later extended her work through her writings. She loved history and felt compelled to document, record, and preserve the recorded past of African Americans. She wrote numerous articles published in periodicals throughout the country. In 1949, she wrote Pioneers of Negro Origin in California about the history of African Americans in California. In 1958, she wrote The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro as subversive, nonthreatening means to teach about the historical contributions of African American women. In the 1950s, she founded the Museum of African American History in Boston, Massachusetts.
In 1944, Thurman co-founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in California, the nation’s first interracial non-denominational church. Their meeting with Gandhi had changed the trajectory of their lives, leading them to consider establishing a church free of racial and social prejudices. They also believed that demonstrating a model of interracial cooperation was important in the fight for racial equality. Since the cause was so important to the couple, Thurman took their two daughters to San Francisco when they founded the church.
In 1981, after her husband's death, Thurman took over the management of the Howard Thurman Educational Trust, which funded research for literary, religious and scientific purposes, endowed scholarships for black students and assisted charitable projects. Thurman received many awards for her work, including honorary doctorates of letters from Boston University and Livingstone College in North Carolina for establishing museums of African-American history.
On December 25, 1996, Thurman died in San Francisco, California.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard