|The history of the Black woman's club movement in America|
Maude T. Jenkins
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Pockets: Gottesman Libraries Archive, Historical Dissertations
Tags: African American women, Societies and clubs
Our womanĂs movement is womanĂs movement in that it is led and directed by women for the good of women and men for the benefit of all humanity, which is more than one branch of it. We want, we ask the active interest of our men and too, we are not drawing the color line; we are women, American women, as intensely interested in all that pertains to us such as all other American women; we are not alienating or withdrawing, we are only coming to the front, willing to join any others in the same work and cordially inviting and welcoming any others to join. (The WomanĂs Era 2:14, September 1895)
The above quotation is an excerpt from an address made in Boston, Massachusetts in July 1895, by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, a black Bostonian, who was editor of the WomanĂs Era, the official organ of the WomanĂs Era Club, an organization of black clubwomen in Boston. The occasion was a meeting of black women from some 20 clubs in the United States for the First National Conference of Colored Women in America.
In her Century of Struggle: The WomanĂs Rights Movement in the United States, Eleanor Flexner (1959, p. 190) states that Mrs. RuffinĂs address which protested the exclusion of black women from white womenĂs federated clubs ˘deserves a place in the annals of American history.÷
The National Federation of Afro-American Women was the outgrowth of the conference called by Ms. Ruffin. In 1896, this new organization of which Mrs. Booker T. Washington was elected president and the Colored WomenĂs League of Washington, District of Columbia, combined to form the National Association of Colored WomenĂs Clubs, which is still in existence.
Other prominent leaders associated with Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin were Frances Barrier Williams, Maria Baldwin, Ida Wells Barnett, Mary Talbert, Mary Church Terrell, Janie Porter Barrett and Margaret Murray Washington.
Charles H. Wesley, in his Richard Allen, Apostle of Freedom (1935, p. ix), states that ˘one of the purposes of history is to assist one generation in the comprehension of the problems and ideals which have been received as a heritage from preceding generations.÷
According to Eliot D. Chapple (1979, p. 27) this universal search for ethic and racial roots is a primary focus of ˘the educational process through which a sense of identity and independence for the individual and the group are established÷ (1979, 81:27).
I can empathize with Rossi when she writes:
The more I read . . . the greater was my sense that there was a whole host of like-minded women who had preceded my generation in American history. I had never before experienced so keenly a sense of continuity with previous generations. There is a strength in the vision of a sisterhood that has roots in the past and extends into the future. (1973, p. xi)
This monograph is an examination of the contribution of the National Association of Colored WomenĂs Clubs to American culture. An accurate account of the founding of of the NACWC is long overdue. Vagueness and controversy about how the organization came into being still exist. In a recent dissertation Tullia Hamilton (1978) inaccurately stated that the NACWC had been absorbed by the National Council of Negro Women in 1935.
How did the NACWC develop? What was its relationship with other institutions? What was the impact of the organization on its lesser known members? How effective was the organization?
We will see that many aspects of the organizationĂs programs were unique. Many aspects were similar to those of the General Federation of WomenĂs Clubs not because of a need to imitate the white clubwomen but out of a response to the 19th century era, a time of self-improvement, social purity and social reform. Black culture or literary clubs have been held up to ridicule. Yet a closer scrutiny reveals that these same clubs raised funds for scholarships for college students and for other humanitarian causes brought to their attention.
Who were the club leaders? How and why did they come to the club movement? Were there similarities in their life experiences? What was the relative importance of gender and race in their lives? What forces contributed to their communicative style? Did they develop leadership in others? What were the consequences of their work?
The black woman has always been a participant in voluntarism whether it be the abolitionist, temperance, prison reform, suffrage, settlement house, peace or labor movement. ˘We were there.÷ I am focusing on the club movement which will enable us to learn more about the self-help and philanthropy in the black community and thus help dispel the myth that when it comes to mutual support and collective solidarity, the black family is found wanting. We will gain a more balanced picture of the woman in the black family as we witness her resourcefulness, her innovativeness under very trying circumstances and her determination not to become embittered by racism.
We can look to the experiences of these club women in the 19th century for models as to how to bring order into todayĂs maelstrom. Witness the black women from all over America who held a summit conference in Washington, D.C. on July 29 through 31, 1981, in response to a call issued by former Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm and Mona Humphries, national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. These were the same days that black women met in Boston in 1895, in response to call to organize issued to black women throughout America by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.
We need not apologize for praising the work of black clubwomen. We can concur with Irvin Howe when he writes: ˘A sense of natural piety towards oneĂs origins can live side by side with a spirit of critical detachment÷ (1975, p. 87).
The primary source data I will be using are located in the rare book and social science collections at the Boston Public Library, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans, the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Radcliffe College, the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, the Moorland Collection at Howard University and the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston, South Carolina. Some of the minutes, speeches, diaries, letters and copies of WomenĂs Era and National Notes are in possession of this author. I have also received assistance from clubwomen who have held office on the national, state and local level. At the 49th Annual Meeting of the Southern Historical Association, held in Charleston, South Carolina, November 1983, I had a brief interview with Louis B. Harlan, an authority on Booker T. Washington, about Mrs. Margaret Washington.