How The Combahee River Collective Got It’s Name

160 years ago on June 2nd, 1863, Harriet Tubman, along with 150 Black Union volunteers freed 750 enslaved people in the Combahee River Raid in South Carolina, U.S. More than 100 years later in 1974, Black queer feminist activists honour Harriet Tubman’s legacy by naming their newly formed group, The Combahee River Collective.

The group came together after being disillusioned by the feminist movement’s lack of action around racism, and the civil rights movement’s lack of action around homophobia. Theirs was a foundational space that paved the way for future intersectional feminist thought. One of the Collective’s founders Barbara Smith, whose literal twin sister Beverly Smith who was also one of the founding members, talks about how they chose their name in an interview capturing an oral history of the Collective:  

There was a little book that I had the opportunity to find and read, which talks about and describes Harriet Tubman’s raid on the Combahee River. And I was very excited about it, and we always shared things we liked when we read or saw them because there was no such thing as Black women’s culture or Black women’s studies. The cultural resources that Black women take for granted now were not available. I liked naming it after a political action that freed over 750 enslaved Africans. Harriet Tubman was a fighter.” 

I highly recommend reading this interview by Marian Jones (google it), Barbara and Berverly Smith, Demita Frazier and Margo Okazawa-Rey, talk about how they would hang out, read books, bake, and laugh over Saturday Night Live. The socio-political influence of the Combahee River Collective is well documented, especially through the Combahee River Collective Statement, a landmark piece of writing  that set the foundation for intersectional feminist theory and practice. But it was also deeply endearing to hear of the group simply hanging out, and between the struggles, laughing over Sesame Street episodes and the Blues Brothers.

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