Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994by Deborah Gray White
Too Heavy a Load celebrates this century's rich history of black women defending themselves, from Ida B. Wells to Anita Hill. Although most prominently a history of the century-long struggle against racism and male chauvinism, Deborah Gray White also movingly illuminates black women's painful struggle to hold their racial and gender identities intact while feeling the inexorable pull of the agendas of white women and black men. Finally, it tells the larger and lamentable story of how Americans began this century measuring racial progress by the status of black women but gradually came to focus on the status of black men--the masculinization of America's racial consciousness.
Writing with the same magisterial eye for historical detail as in her best-selling Ar'n't I a Woman, Deborah Gray White has given us a moving and definitive history of struggle and freedom.
At the turn of the century, the National Association of Colored Women contended that by working for the poor, they were working for their race, not just for black women. But too many black men, perhaps feeling threatened, responded by chastising these women for not confining their attempts to uplifting their race to their homes and families. Conflicts arose within black women's organizations, so much so that 'by the end of the Depression and war decades there was no viable national Black woman's organization that was truly the 'Voice of Negro Womanhood'." The masses of black women regarded those females who put gender consciousness ahead of race consciousness as elitist and selfish. Nevertheless, black women's leagues did much to improve the circumstances of black people throughout the century. In 1964, for example, the National Council of Negro Women challenged the racist white power structure in Mississippi by setting up freedom schools and registering black voters, and also built understanding between black and white women. By the late '60s, black women's organizations had become more feminist in nature, once again focusing on women's rights and needs. More recently, black women have united to defend Joycelyn Elders after she was dismissed by President Clinton.
Documented with 25 photographs, this is a rigorous examination of not only the struggles and strengths of black women's leagues, but of class, race, and gender issues in 20th-century America.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt
THE FIRST STEP IN NATION-MAKING
That organization is the first step in nation-making, and that a nation can rise in the scale no higher than its womanhood, are principles which have come to be looked upon by sociologist and all students of the development of humanity as self-evident truth....
Josephine Silone Yates
On a sticky hot night in 1916, Charleston's black women met at Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church to hear Mary Church Terrell speak on "The Modern Woman." As recalled by Mamie Garvin Fields, perspiration dripped from the women, and in the sweltering heat, their dresses clung to them. So many packed the sultry chapel that their hats touched and they were unable to move their pasteboard fans any further than a few inches from side to side without elbowing each other. It mattered little, for all were eager to hear what this preeminent educator and first president of the National Association of Colored Women had to say.
Terrell did not disappoint them. According to Fields, Terrell spoke not only about the modern woman, but in her pink evening dress and long white gloves, with her hair beautifully done, "she was that Modern Woman." Fields marveled at Terrell's graceful walk to the platform and the way she projected her voice out across the huge crowd. "We have our own lives to lead," she told them. "We are daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives. We must care for ourselves and rear our families, like all women." Going on, she spoke of the special mission of the educated black woman. "We have todo more than other women. Those of us fortunate enough to have education must share it with the less fortunate of our race. We must go into our communities and improve them; we must go out into the nation and change it. Above all, we must organize ourselves as Negro women and work together." Terrell went on to tell them about how representatives of different clubs had organized the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 when they met to formally protest an insulting letter written by James Jacks, the white president of the Missouri Press Association. She told them how Jacks had attempted to silence the effective antilynching campaign of club leader Ida B. Wells by labeling all black women prostitutes and thieves, and she asked them to turn their numbers "to face that white man and call him a liar." At the word "LIAR," Terrell's voice resonated so wonderfully that Fields all but felt it on her skin. In fact, everything Terrell did that night made an indelible impression. As Terrell spoke, she paced back and forth across the podium, extending her gloved hand, so regal, intelligent, and powerful, that to Fields's mind, Terrell did not walk, "she strode." And when she asked them "and who were the Negro women who knew how to carry their burden in the heat of the day?" they sat riveted, without flicking a fan. By the time she finished heralding Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and so many other women who had worked for the race, all in the audience were ready to rise and follow in the footsteps of their great foremothers. Before she ended, she asked, "WHO OF YOU KNOW HOW TO CARRY YOUR BURDEN IN THE HEAT OF THE DAY?" Giving Fields, and every woman present, a chance to ask themselves "Do I?" she paused, and then said a quiet "Good evening."
This speech, and many others delivered by Terrell and club leaders across the country, had the desired effect. Fields, a South Carolina teacher already active in community work, could hardly wait until morning to get going. As she put it, "everywhere you might look, there was something to do." She joined the Charleston City Federation of Women's Clubs, and with twenty other women established the Modern Priscilla Club, which specialized in homemaking, making clothes for the disadvantaged, and raising funds to support the Wilkinson Home, a refuge for wayward black girls. With other women, Fields worked tirelessly to get the city to fill a dangerous ditch that more than one black child had died in. The Priscilla Club surveyed the most impoverished black areas and urged the city to erect new housing. With the outbreak of World War I they helped set up a United Service Organization for black soldiers, and when the war ended they worked with the NAACP, pushing city officials to hire black teachers in black schools.
This was what Terrell had meant, what it meant to carry one's burden in the heat of the day. All over the country, especially in urban areas, black women took up their burdens. They were doing it before James Jacks's letter, but by tying the progress of the race to the morality of its women, Jacks's insulting letter ignited a new fire under them. Race work became the means wherein black women could change their image, and from their point of view, the uplift of women was the means of uplifting the race. This was the call to arms of the National Association of Colored Women. As put by one of its most articulate members, Anna J. Cooper, it was time for action, a time for women, in particular, to step forth to "help shape, mold, and direct the thought" of their age, a time for organized female resistance.
In short, the National Association of Colored Women became the black woman's primary vehicle for race leadership. Its members saw a set of interlocking problems involving race, gender, and poverty, no one of which could be dealt with independently. They believed that if they worked for the poor, they worked for black women, and if they worked for black women they worked for the race. Since, in their minds, "a race could rise no higher than its women," they felt that when they improved the condition of black women, they necessarily improved the condition of the race. When they spoke in defense of black women, they automatically spoke in defense of all black people. They talked about their work as "race work," and their problem as the "race problem." In their minds, though, the problems of the race revolved around the problems of its women.
A story in the Richmond Daily Enquirer, reported sixteen years before Terrell made her rousing Charleston speech, illustrates why this period in African-American history is known as the nadir. The story told of a twelve-year-old black boy who, in March 1890, narrowly escaped being lynched by a mob of white youths, none older than thirteen years. Richmond's newspapers, both black and white, lamented the sad state of affairs that had children attempting to lynch other children. But as the editor of the Richmond Planet, a black weekly, courageously noted, children learned by example, and as long as white adults did such dastardly deeds, their children would do the same. "Lynching," the editor concluded, "was demoralizing to young and old."
No doubt the temper of the times prevented the Richmond Planet editor from being more critical, for his comment was surely an understatement. As the centerpiece in the South's post-Civil War reign of terror on black people, lynching and mob violence was more than demoralizing, it was the most savage and barbaric manifestation of white on black violence since slavery. Between 1880 and 1930 there were at least 2,018 separate incidents of lynching, in which some 2,362 African-American men, women, and children were murdered. These lynchings often became ritualistic affairs, where victims were mutilated and burned at the stake in a carnival-like atmosphere. At the same time, the practice of whitecapping was spreading, wherein black landowners and sharecroppers were subjected to such prolonged intimidation and violence that they fled their land, making way for white tenants and owners. Northern and Southern urban areas provided some refuge, but a series of riotsWilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, Atlanta in 1906, Springfield, Illinois in 1908, Chicago and East St. Louis in 1919saw white rioters, with the sanction and even assistance of law enforcement officials, beat blacks indiscriminately, destroy their businesses, and force them to leave their homes and abandon their possessions.
Unprosecuted white lawlessness was but one manifestation of the African American's loss of civil liberties. Everywhere one turned black rights were trampled. Laws regarding vagrancy, work contracts, and crop liens were written so that black people were kept either tied to the land in perpetual debt or in prison. State after state disfranchised blacks by use of poll taxes, literacy laws, property qualifications, and "grandfather clauses," which waived voting requirements for those whose fathers and grandfathers were qualified to vote in 1860 (thereby disqualifying most blacks from easy access to the polls). By 1880 blacks were separated on trains, in depots, and on wharves. After the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional in 1883, blacks were banned from public and private establishments, including hotels, restaurants, theaters, parks, and libraries. By 1885 most states required separate schools, and eleven years later, in its infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the Supreme Court legalized Jim Crow, or racial separation, by declaring that states could use their police power to separate blacks from whites as long as facilities provided for the two races were equal.
Black people dealt with the assault by turning inward. Locked out of most arenas of American life, they accommodated racism by retreating to their own institutions. Before 1880 most black businesses catered to a white market. However, as racial exclusion forced black businesses out of the mainstream into a strictly African-American market, the number of black retail merchants, undertakers, bankers, newspaper owners, beauticians, and craftsmen increased. As blacks turned to use the products and services of their own businessmen they also made black institutions central to their social, economic, and political life. The church, in particular, thrived. Outside of the family, it was the means by which communities were organized, and the channel through which members received fellowship and status. For men especially, the church became the political arena where they vied for leadership and exercised dominance.
Mutual aid, beneficial, and fraternal societies were sometimes connected with churches, and with the spread of Jim Crow, they too increased in importance as centers of black social, political, and economic life. For example, the Odd Fellows, the largest of the black male secret orders, grew from some eighty-nine lodges and four thousand members in 1868 to over four hundred lodges and four hundred thousand members by 1904. Like the Masons, the Order of the Eastern Star, and the Independent Order of Saint Luke, they offered members aid in times of illness, organized savings and burial associations, and became the vehicle whereby members gave help to the community's unemployed, orphaned, aged, or otherwise disabled.
The clubs of the National Association of Colored Women rose to prominence during this period of retrenchment. Well before any national organization existed, local groups had coalesced throughout the country. The Colored Women's League of Washington, D.C., was among the first of the clubs that would later form the NACW. Organized in 1892 by Mary Church Terrell, Anna Julia Cooper, and Mary Jane Patterson, the Colored Women's League called on a united black womanhood to solve the race's problems. The Women's League soon branched out into the South and as far west as Kansas City, Missouri. A few months after the founding of the League, the Woman's Loyal Union, under the leadership of journalist Victoria Matthews, brought together seventy women from Brooklyn and Manhattan in support of Wells's antilynching crusade. The New York-based Union formed sister clubs in Charleston, Memphis, and Philadelphia. Not long afterward, community activist Josephine Ruffin founded the New Era Club in Boston, which provided the prototype for similar clubs in other areas of New England. In Illinois, the Chicago Women's Club organized in late 1893 after Wells appealed to black women to support suffrage and fight lynching. Thereafter, the number of clubs multiplied so rapidly that by the time the National Association of Colored Women pulled them together it was hard to keep count.
While some regional peculiarities existed, the guiding principle behind all the clubs was racial uplift through self-help. Black clubwomen believed they could help solve the race's problems through intensive social service focused on improving home life and educating mothers. Some programs aimed at increasing the skills and intellectual ability of club members, while others sent members into local neighborhoods to assist poor blacks, particularly women and children. Most clubs did both.
The Colored Women's League of Washington, D.C., and the Tuskegee Woman's Club exemplified the spirit and work of black Woman's clubs. With seventy-four members in 1905, the Tuskegee club was larger than average. It was also exclusive. Only female faculty members of Tuskegee College or wives or other female relatives of male faculty could join. Activity went forward on many fronts. In 1905 members made thirty visits to the black men and boys in the town jail, taking food and clean clothing on each visit. In the poor section of town called Thompson's Quarters the club members conducted a Sunday school, ran picnics and parties for the children, assisted in paying the funeral expenses of one child, and helped find new homes for four children. The club sponsored public and private lectures on the virtue of temperance, and organized the senior girls at Tuskegee into a club that taught them the necessity of community service and the basics of how to do it. Younger girls at Tuskegee were likewise organized, and in 1905 they "adopted" an elderly woman, helped her buy a Christmas dinner and basic necessities. Throughout the year the clubwomen assisted a community worker by conducting cooking and sewing classes at the E. A. Russell Settlement House, which club members founded and supported. By 1913, when the Tuskegee club had 102 members it assumed responsibility for a night school that was initially established by Tuskegee College. The club also established a reading room for young boys. Although woman's suffrage fell outside the rubric of community service, Tuskegee women stayed abreast of national developments on the issue and made literature on the subject available to interested members.
The Colored Woman's League of Washington did similar kinds of service work. In 1898 it founded a Kindergarten Normal Training Class for young women, as well as a free kindergarten for some of the capital's black youth. The club held regular sewing and mending classes for black girls, and held regular mothers' meetings for the mothers of the kindergarten children.
In both North and South, mothers' clubs were among the most popular type of club to affiliate with the National Association. Both the Tuskegee Woman's Club and the Woman's League held mothers' meetings at which community women discussed and received instruction in all subjects relating to the care and upbringing of children. The definition of "mother's" responsibilities was wide ranging. The Tuskegee club taught women how to buy land and build houses. In Savannah, members of a mothers' club set up a community watch program. They wore badges so they could be recognized by police and community residents. The black clubwomen of Kingsville, Texas, were likewise organized, and were successful at closing down a gambling house they thought was bad for their neighborhood.
Patrolling their communities, teaching children to read, improving homemaking skillsthere were few things that black women's clubs did not do. Everywhere the Phyllis [sic] Wheatley Club of Buffalo, New York, turned they found a task. Early in the century the club forced the Buffalo police to focus on crimes of vice in Buffalo's black neighborhoods. Mary Talbert, a future president of the NACW, and her club were so demanding that Talbert was invited to join the citywide committee that monitored police enforcement. Through her, the club lobbied for police protection in black neighborhoods. Along with other women's clubs in the city, it established girls' clubs where delicate subjects like personal hygiene and moral improvement were addressed. In the 1920s the Phyllis Wheatley Club helped form a junior YWCA and a Buffalo chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They donated books by black authors to the city's public library, conducted community seminars on the power of the black female vote, and organized political clubs to get the vote out. Like clubs in other parts of the country, Buffalo women regularly visited jails, established kindergartens, and supported homes for aged adults or wayward girls.
Activities like those in Buffalo occurred all over the country. Women's clubs that were part of the Texas Federation of Colored Women's Clubs bought land on which they erected parks and playgrounds. Similarly, the Woman's Musical and Literary Club in Springfield, Missouri, helped raise money for a hospital. The Semper Fidelis Club of Birmingham, Alabama, a literary society, gave out scholarships to local high-school students and donated money and clothing to the Old Folks and Orphan Home of the city. While the Phyllis [sic] Wheatley Club of New Orleans established a nurse-training program and raised money to build a hospital, women in Vicksburg, Mississippi, bought a house and established it as a nursing home and orphanage. Following the example of their counterparts across the United States, black women in Indianapolis turned their club into a kind of employment agency, securing work for migrant black women in the canning factories of the city.
Helping rural black women establish themselves in urban areas had special significance for black women's clubs because so many members had made the lonely and dangerous migration themselves. Jane Edna Hunter, for example, was not prepared for the Northern brand of racism that she encountered when she reached Cleveland in 1905. Fresh from her nurse-training courses at Hampton Institute, she fully expected her skills to support her. She found, however, that unlike Southerners, who preferred blacks to take care of them, Northerners preferred white nurses. One doctor said as much to her face, advising her to go back to the South because "white doctors did not employ nigger nurses." Unable to secure work as a surgical nurseher trainingHunter got work in private homes, but only after working at cleaning jobs in office buildings. Finding employment proved as hard as finding decent housing. When Hunter first arrived in Cleveland, she found a room in a boardinghouse that turned out to be a house of prostitution. She despaired as she fearfully walked "up one dingy street and down another." Alone in the city, Hunter had no place to turn. The YWCA residence accepted only white women, boardinghouses often charged extra for laundry, gas, and use of bathtubs, and their owners preferred male over female boarders. Middle-class black families did not rent to strangers, and most women, even those who were professionals, were compelled to stay in districts filled with gambling houses, dives, and brothels. Forced to settle for the least desirable room, where she paid what was for that time a considerable amount of money, Hunter found the loneliness of the city unbearable. At one point she went looking for peer companionship only to inadvertently find herself in a club that was a recruiting ground for prostitutes.
After this thoroughly alienating and frightening experience, Hunter resolved to remedy the housing problem confronting black women. Six years after arriving in Cleveland she met with seven other black women and together they discussed the indignity of living in boardinghouses where they had to turn lights out at 10 P.M., had no place to entertain friends, and had no access to kitchen facilities. With no social agency to provide or refer services to black women, they resolved that they alone had to initiate the change. After electing Hunter president of the new Working Girls' Home Association, they each pledged to raise a nickel per week and to gather as many new members as they could to increase their funds. From this inauspicious beginning came the Phillis Wheatley Association, a settlement house that provided rooms, recreation, and employment referrals to black women.
Similar stories could be told of other homes founded by black women. Both the Harriet Tubman Club of Boston and the New Century Club in Providence, Rhode Island, founded homes for working women. In New York, in 1897, Victoria Earle Matthews became the guiding spirit of the White Rose Mission Home, and in Buffalo, New York, clubwomen helped found the Friendship Home for Girls. Like the Phillis Wheatley Association, these homes provided affordable housing, social activities, and employment referrals. Some offered educational courses. The Friendship Home, for instance, offered enrichment classes in first aid, sewing, music, and English.
As the clubs, and the institutions that they built, grew, so did local federations and the national body they affiliated with. Local federations encouraged coordinated service work and allowed clubs to undertake projects too expensive for a single organization. For example, the Tuskegee Woman's Club had persistently lobbied state officials to provide separate facilities for juvenile delinquents to keep them from coming under the influence of hard-core adult criminals. It was not, however, until the better-financed Alabama State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs took matters into its own handsby establishing the Mt. Meigs Reformatory for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers, and later the Mt. Meigs Rescue Home for Girlsthat the Tuskegee club's aims were achieved. While the Meigs Reformatory eventually became a state institution, Alabama clubwomen assumed financial responsibility for the Rescue Home. Similarly, the thirty clubs that composed the Empire State (New York) Federation of Women's Clubs adopted the financially troubled White Rose Mission Home in 1924.
As time passed, and more and more clubs affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women, the structure of the organization became more complex, and the projects undertaken or supported by clubs more sophisticated. In 1896 the NACW reported a membership of two hundred clubs. By the 1916 national convention there were fifteen hundred affiliates. Over this period, the NACW structure changed to meet women's varied interests. In 1901 the departments of organizational work included kindergartens, mothers' meetings, domestic science, rescue work, religion, and temperance. In 1904, five new departments were added, including art, literature, professional women, businesswomen, and social science. Business and the professions were combined into one department in 1908, the religion department was dissolved, and the departments of parliamentary law, forestry, and humane interest were added. Since the hands-on work of the NACW was done by local clubs, these departments helped the National Association of Colored Women define the needs, set the goals, and voice the concerns of black women. Coordinated activity also came through the process of city, state, and regional federations. By 1909, there were twenty state federations of black woman's clubs, including regional federations in the North, North Central, Northwest, and South.
The philosophy of the black woman's clubs equalled in importance their specific projects. Philosophy, in fact, glued the disparate parts together and impelled the women to take action. Local clubs had, of course, functioned before 1896 and could do so after 1896, effectively carrying forward their community based self-help, racial uplift programs. The NACW, however, was established to say to the nation what black women were saying to their communities. What it said, the philosophy it expounded, was unprecedentedly "feminist" in that NACW leaders insisted that only black women could save the black race. To NACW women, the national organization was not just another narrowly focused woman's organization, but as one of its early presidents, Josephine Silone Yates, claimed, it was "the first step in nationmaking."
Meet the Author
Deborah Gray White is professor of history and co-director of the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis at Rutgers University. She is also the author of Too Heavy a Load.
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