Born Ernestine Delois Eppenger in 1941, Ernestine Eckstein would become one of the most important activists in both the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the nascent LGBTQ+ movement of the 70s.
Her civil rights activism began during her time as a student at Indiana State University, as an officer of a chapter of the NAACP. But her progressive ideas eventually brought her to the more progressively minded Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), which she joined upon moving to New York City in 1963 at the age of 22.
Shortly after this move to New York City, Ernestine Eckstein also became involved in the Daughters of Bilitis, the first known lesbian civil rights group in the United States. When she was appointed as Vice President of the New York chapter of the DOB, she came to represent the desire of the younger generation of lesbian and gay activists to see the movement’s strategy move away from private negotiations with doctors and psychologists (in an effort to end the practice of trying to “cure” homosexuality), towards a tactic of more direct action, such as political lobbying and public demonstration. In this attitude, she was on the forefront of strategic thinking around civil rights, and she is quoted as having said that, “Picketing I regard as almost a conservative act now. The homosexual has to call attention to the fact that he’s been unjustly acted upon. This is what the Negro did”.
Eventually, Ernestine moved to the west coast and joined the progressive activist group Black Women Organized for Action (BWOA). This group was one of the first Black feminist groups in the country. The organization was known for it’s conscious inclusivity of all Black women and it’s unique lack of a hierarchical internal structure. Unfortunately, this organization dissolved after members decided that Reagan-era conservative sentiments rendered their 1960s style strategies ineffective.
Not much is known about Ernestine’s life post-BWOA but she is recorded in the Social Security Death Index as having passed away on July 15, 1992.
Complement this with learning more about other activists such as the incomparable Miss Major Griffin-Gracy.