Mary Church Terrell, “In Union There is Strength,” 1897
Courtesy Library of Congress (2004677319)
Born in Memphis in 1863 and an activist until her death in 1954, Mary Eliza Church Terrell has been called a living link between the era of the Emancipation Proclamation and the modern civil rights movement. Terrell was particularly active in the Washington, D.C. area. From 1895 to 1911, for example, she served on the District of Columbia School Board and battled against the inequities fostered by the city’s segregated system. Terrell was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which was formed in 1896. In her first presidential address to the NACW, delivered in Nashville on September 15, 1897, Terrell makes a stirring plea for unity, activism, and race pride. That speech, reprinted in 1990 from the original manuscript in the Library of Congress, appears below.
In Union there is strength is a truism that has been acted upon by Jew and Gentile, by Greek and Barbarian, by all classes and conditions alike from the creation of the universe to the present day. It did not take long for men to learn that by combining their strength, a greater amount of work could be accomplished with less effort in a shorter time. Upon this principle of union, governments have been founded and states built. Our own republic teaches the same lesson. Force a single one of the states of the United States to stand alone, and it becomes insignificant, feeble, and a prey to the rapacity of every petty power seeking to enlarge its territory and increase its wealth. But form a republic of United States, and it becomes one of the great nations of the earth, strong in its might. Acting upon this principle of concentration and union have the colored women of the United States banded themselves together to fulfill a mission to which they feel peculiarly adapted and especially called. We have become National, because from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Maine to the Gulf, we wish to set in motion influences that shall stop the ravages made by practices that sap our strength and preclude the possibility of advancement which under other circumstances could easily be made.
We call ourselves an Association to signify that we have joined hands one with the other to work together in a common cause. We proclaim to the world that the women of our race have become partners in the great firm of progress and reform. We denominate ourselves colored, not because we are narrow, and wish to lay special emphasis on the color of the skin, for which no one is responsible, which of itself is no proof of an individual’s virtue nor of his vice, which neither is a stamp, neither of one’s intelligence nor of ignorance, but we refer to the fact that this is an association of colored women, because our peculiar status in this country at the present time seems to demand that we stand by ourselves in the special work for which we have organized. For this reason it was thought best to invite the attention of the world to the fact that colored women feel their responsibility as a unit, and together have clasped hands to assume it. Special stress has been laid upon the fact that our association is composed of women, not because we wish to deny rights and privileges to out brothers in imitation of the example they have set for us so many years, but because the work which we hope to accomplish can be done better, by the mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of our race than by the fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons. The crying need of our organization of colored women is questioned by no one conversant with our peculiar trials and perplexities, and acquainted with the almost insurmountable obstacles in our path to those attainments and acquisitions to which it is the right and privilege of every member of every race to aspire. It is not because we are discouraged at the progress made by our people that we have uttered the cry of alarm which has called together this band of earnest women assembled here tonight.
In the unprecedented advancement made by the Negro since his emancipation, we take great pride and extract therefore both courage and hope. From a condition of dense ignorance. But thirty years ago, we have advanced so far in the realm of knowledge and letters as to have produced scholars and authors of repute. Though penniless as a race a short while ago, we have among us today a few men of wealth and multitudes who own their homes and make comfortable livings. We therefore challenge any other race to present a record more creditable and show a progress more wonderful than that made by the ex slaves of the United States and that too in the face of prejudice, proscription, and persecution against which no other people has ever had to contend in the history of the world. And yet while rejoicing in our steady march, onward and upward, to the best and highest things of life, we are nevertheless painfully mindful of our weaknesses and defects [in] which we know the Negro is no worse than other races equally poor, equally ignorant, and equally oppressed, we would nevertheless see him lay aside the sins that do so easily beset him, and come forth clothed in all these attributes of mind and grace of character that claims the real man. To accomplish this end through the simplest, swiftest, surest methods, the colored women have organized themselves into this Association, whose power for good, let us hope, will be as enduring as it is unlimited.
Believing that it is only through the home that a people can become really good and truly great, the N.A.C.W shall enter that sacred domain to inculcate right principles of living and correct false views of life. Homes, more homes, purer homes, better homes, is the text upon which our sermons to the masses must be preached. So long s the majority of people call that place home in which the air is foul, the manners bad, and the morals worse, just so long is this so called home a menace to health, a breeder of vice, and the abode of crime. Not alone upon the inmates of these hovels are the awful consequences of their filth and immorality visited, but upon the heads of
those who sit calmly by and make no effort to stem the tide of disease and vice will vengeance as surely fall.
The colored youth is vicious we are told, and statistics showing the multitudes of our boys and girls who fill the penitentiaries and crowd the jails appall and discourage us. Side by side with these facts and figures of crime, I would have presented and pictured the miserable hovels from which these youthful criminals come. Crowded into alleys, many of them the haunts of vice, few if any of them in a proper sanitary condition, most of them fatal to mental and moral growth, and destructive of healthful physical development as well, thousands of our children have a wretched heritage indeed. It is, therefore, into the home, sisters of the Association, that we must go, filled with all the zeal and charity which such a mission demands.
To the children of the race we owe, as women, a debt which can never be paid, until Herculean efforts are made to rescue them from evil and shame for which they are in no way responsible. Listen to the cry of the children, my sisters. Upon you they depend for the light of knowledge, and the blessing of a good example. As an organization of women, surely nothing can be nearer our hearts than the children, many of whose lives so sad and dark we might brighten and bless. It is kindergartens we need. Free kindergartens in every city and hamlet of this broad land we must have, if the children are to receive from us what it is our duty to give. The more unfavorable the environments of children, the more necessary is it that steps be taken to counteract the hateful influences upon innocent victims. How imperative is it then that we inculcate correct principles, and set good examples for our own youth whose little feet will have so many thorny paths of prejudice, temptations, and injustice to tread. Make a visit to the settlements of colored people who in many cities are relegated to the most noisome sections permitted by the municipal government, and behold the miles of inhumanity that infest them. Here are our little ones, the future representatives of the race, fairly drinking in the permissible example of their elders, coming in contact with nothing but ignorance and vice, till at the age of six evil habits are formed that no amount of civilizing and Christianizing can ever completely break. As long as the evil nature alone is encouraged to develop, while the higher, nobler qualities in little ones are dwarfed and deadened by the very atmosphere which they breathe, the negligent, pitiless public is responsible for the results and is partner of their crimes.
Let the women of the National Association see to it that the little strays of the alleys come in contact with intelligence and virtue, at least a few times a week, that the noble aspirations with which they are born may not be entirely throttled by the evil influences which these poor little ones are powerless to escape. The establishment of free kindergartens! You exclaim Where is the money coming from? How can we do it? This charity you advocate though beautiful in theory is nevertheless impossible of attainment. Let the women of the race once be thoroughly aroused to their duty to the children, let them be consumed with desire to save them from lives of degradation and shame, and the establishment of free kindergartens for the poor will become a living, breathing, saving reality at no distant day. What movement looking toward the reformation and regeneration of mankind was ever proposed that did not instantly assume formidable portions to the fainthearted. But how soon obstacles that have once appeared insuperable dwindle into nothingness, after the shoulder is put to the wheel and united effort determines to remove them! In every organization of the Association let committees be appointed whose special mission it will be to do for the little strays of the alleys what is not done
by their mothers, who in many instances fall far short of their duty, not because they are vicious and depraved, but because they are ignorant and poor.
Through mother meetings which have been in the past year and will be in the future a special feature of the Association, much useful informatics in everything pertaining to the home will be disseminated. Object lessons in the best way to sweep, to dust, to cook and to wash should be given by women who have made a special study of the art and science of housekeep. How to clothe children neatly, how to make, and especially how to mend garments, how to manage their households economically, what food is the most nutritious and best for the money, how to ventilate as thoroughly as possible the dingy stuffy quarters which the majority are forced to inhabit… all these are subjects on which the women of the masses need more knowledge. Let us teach mothers of families how to save wisely. Let us have heart to heart talks with our women that we may strike at the root of evil. If the women of the dominant race with all the centuries of education. refinement, and culture back of them, with all their wealth of opportunity ever present with them, if these women felt a responsibility to call a Mother’s Congress that they might be ever enlightened as to the best methods of rearing children and conducting their homes, how much more do the women of our race from whom the shackles of slavery have just fallen need information on the same subjects? Let us have Mother Congresses in every community in which our women can be counseled. The necessity of increasing the self respect of our children is important. Let the reckless, ill advised, and oftentimes brutal methods of punishing children be everywhere condemned Let us teach our mothers that by punishing children inhumanely, they destroy their pride, crush their spirit and convert them into hardened culprits whom it will be impossible later on to reach or touch in anyway at all.
More than any other race at present in this country, we should strive to implant feelings of self respect and pride in our children, whose spirits are crushed and whose hearts saddened enough by indignities from which as victims of unreasonable cruel prejudice it is impossible to shield them. Let it be the duty of every friend of the race to teach children who are humiliated on learning that they are descendants of slaves that the majority of races on the earth have at some time in their history been subjects to another. This knowledge of humiliation will be important when we are victims of racism. Let us not only preach, but practice race unity, race pride, reverence and sect for those capable of leading and advising us. Let the youth of the race impressed about the dignity of labor and inspired with a desire to work. Let us do nothing to handicap children in the desperate struggle for existence in which their unfortunate condition in this country forces them to engage. Let us purify the atmosphere of our homes till it becomes so sweet that those who dwell in them carry on a great work of reform. That we have no money to help the needy and poor, I reply, that having hearts, generous natures, willing feet, and helpful hands can without the token of a single penny work miracles in the name of humanity and right.
Money we need, money we must have to accomplish much which we ape to effect. But it is not by powerful armies and the outlays of vast fortunes that the greatest revolutions are wrought and the most enduring reforms inaugurated. It is by the silent, though powerful force of individual influences thrown on the side of right, it is by arduous persistence and effort keep those with whom we come in daily contact, to enlighten the heathen our door, to create wholesome public sentiment in the communities in hick we live, that the heaviest blows are struck for virtue and right. Let us not only preach, but practice race unity, race pride, reverence, and respect for those
capable of leading and advising us. Let the youth of the race Be impressed about the dignity of labor and inspired with a desire to work. Let us do nothing to handicap children in the desperate struggle for existence in which their unfortunate condition in this country forces them to engage. Let us purify the atmosphere of our homes till it become so sweet it those who dwell in them will have a heritage more precious than silver or gold.
What It Means to be Colored in Capital of the U.S.
delivered 10 October 1906, United Women's Club, Washington, D.C.
As African American women found themselves excluded by white women's organizations, they founded their own. In 1892, Mary Church Terrell helped to found the National Association of Colored Women, an organization devoted to aiding and advocating for African American women. As the organization's first president, she was soon nationally known for her support of woman suffrage and her opposition to racial prejudice. Terrell came from a wealthy family and was exceptionally well-educated for an African American woman in the nineteenth century. A longtime advocate for woman's rights and African American equality, she acquired an international reputation for public speaking out on topics such as enfranchisement, segregation, and economic disparities.
Thank you very much.
Washington, D.C., has been called "The Colored Man's Paradise." Whether this sobriquet was given to the national capital in bitter irony by a member of the handicapped race, as he reviewed some of his own persecutions and rebuffs, or whether it was given immediately after the war by an ex-slaveholder who for the first time in his life saw colored people walking about like free men, minus the overseer and his whip, history saith not. It is certain that it would be difficult to find a worse misnomer for Washington than "The Colored Man's Paradise" if so prosaic a consideration as veracity is to determine the appropriateness of a name.
For fifteen years I have resided in Washington, and while it was far from being a paradise for colored people when I first touched these shores it has been doing its level best ever since to
make conditions for us intolerable. As a colored woman I might enter Washington any night, a stranger in a strange land, and walk miles without finding a place to lay my head. Unless I happened to know colored people who live here or ran across a chance acquaintance who could recommend a colored boarding-house to me, I should be obliged to spend the entire night wandering about. Indians, Chinamen, Filipinos, Japanese and representatives of any other dark race can find hotel accommodations, if they can pay for them. The colored man alone is thrust out of the hotels of the national capital like a leper.
As a colored woman I may walk from the Capitol to the White House, ravenously hungry and abundantly supplied with money with which to purchase a meal, without finding a single restaurant in which I would be permitted to take a morsel of food, if it was patronized by white people, unless I were willing to sit behind a screen. As a colored woman I cannot visit the tomb of the Father of this country, which owes its very existence to the love of freedom in the human heart and which stands for equal opportunity to all, without being forced to sit in the Jim Crow section of an electric car which starts form the very heart of the city– midway between the Capital and the White House. If I refuse thus to be humiliated, I am cast into jail and forced to pay a fine for violating the Virginia laws....
As a colored woman I may enter more than one white church in Washington without receiving that welcome which as a human being I have the right to expect in the sanctuary of God....
Unless I am willing to engage in a few menial occupations, in which the pay for my services would be very poor, there is no way for me to earn an honest living, if I am not a trained nurse or a dressmaker or can secure a position as teacher in the public schools, which is exceedingly difficult to do. It matters not what my intellectual attainments may be or how great is the need of the services of a competent person, if I try to enter many of the numerous vocations in which my white sisters are allowed to engage, the door is shut in my face.
From one Washington theater I am excluded altogether. In the remainder certain seats are set aside for colored people, and it is almost impossible to secure others....
With the exception of the Catholic University, there is not a single white college in the national capitol to which colored people are admitted.... A few years ago the Columbian Law School
admitted colored students, but in deference to the Southern white students the authorities have decided to exclude them altogether.
Some time ago a young woman who had already attracted some attention in the literary world by her volume of short stories answered an advertisement which appeared in a Washington newspaper, which called for the services of a skilled stenographer and expert typewriter.... The applicants were requested to send specimens of their work and answer certain questions concerning their experience and their speed before they called in person. In reply to her application the young colored woman...received a letter from the firm stating that her references and experience were the most satisfactory that had been sent and requesting her to call. When she presented herself there was some doubt in the mind of the man to whom she was directed concerning her racial pedigree, so he asked her point-blank whether she was colored or white. When she confessed the truth the merchant expressed...deep regret that he could not avail himself of the services of so competent a person, but frankly admitted that employing a colored woman in his establishment in any except a menial position was simply out of the question....
Not only can colored women secure no employment in the Washington stores, department and otherwise, except as menials, and such positions, of course, are few, but even as customers they are not infrequently treated with discourtesy both by the clerks and the proprietor himself....
Although white and colored teachers are under the same Board of Education and the system for the children of both races is said to be uniform, prejudice against the colored teachers in the public schools is manifested in a variety of ways. From 1870 to 1900 there was a colored superintendent at the head of the colored schools. During all that time the directors of the cooking, sewing, physical culture, manual training, music and art departments were colored people. Six years ago a change was inaugurated. The colored superintendent was legislated out of office and the directorships, without a single exception, were taken from colored teachers and given to the whites....
Now, no matter how competent or superior the colored teachers in our public schools may be, they know that they can never rise to the height of a directorship, can never hope to be more than
an assistant and receive the meager salary therefore, unless the present regime is radically changed....
Strenuous efforts are being made to run Jim Crow cars in the national capital....
Representative Heflin, of Alabama, who introduced a bill providing for Jim Crow street cars in the District of Columbia last winter, has just received a letter from the president of the East Brookland Citizens’ Association “indorsing the movement for separate street cars and sincerely hoping that you will be successful in getting this enacted into a law as soon as possible.” Brookland is a suburb of Washington.
The colored laborer’s path to a decent livelihood is by no means smooth. Into some of the trades unions here he is admitted, while from others he is excluded altogether. By the union men this is denied, although I am personally acquainted with skilled workmen who tell me they are not admitted into the unions because they are colored. But even when they are allowed to join the unions they frequently derive little benefit, owing to certain tricks of the trade. When the word passes round that help is needed and colored laborers apply, they are often told by the union officials that they have secured all the men they needed, because the places are reserved for white men, until they have been provided with jobs, and colored men must remain idle, unless the supply of white men is too small....
And so I might go on citing instance after instance to show the variety of ways in which our people are sacrificed on the altar of prejudice in the Capital of the United States and how almost insurmountable are the obstacles which block his path to success....
It is impossible for any white person in the United States, no matter how sympathetic and broad, to realize what life would mean to him if his incentive to effort were suddenly snatched away. To the lack of incentive to effort, which is the awful shadow under which we live, may be traced the wreck and ruin of score of colored youth. And surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the princip
Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawn so wide and deep.
“A Heritage of Scorn”: Harper Urges A Color-Blind Cause
The struggle for woman suffrage lasted almost a century, beginning with the 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, and including the 1890 union of two competing suffrage organizations to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). NAWSA and other organizations campaigned diligently for the vote in a variety of ways, but did not achieve success until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. This prolonged struggle entangled female activists in other important political and moral issues that divided the nation along racial, ethnic, and class lines, and debates over the vote for women often took a divisive tone. In this 1891 speech to the National Council of Women, African-American abolitionist, lecturer, and writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper answered the racist charges of white suffragists who saw the vote for (white) women as a way to maintain white supremacy. The vote for African-Americans, both men and women, Harper argued, was a matter of “justice, simple justice.”
I deem it a privilege to present the negro, not as a mere dependent asking for Northern sympathy or Southern compassion, but as a member of the body politic who has a claim upon the nation for justice, simple justice, which is the right of every race, upon the government for protection, which is the rightful claim of every citizen, and upon our common Christianity for the best influences which can be exerted for peace on earth and good-will to man.
Our first claim upon the nation and government is the claim for protection to human life. That claim should lie at the basis of our civilization, not simply in theory but in fact. Outside of America, I know of no other civilized country, Catholic, Protestant, or even Mahometan, where
men are still lynched, murdered, and even burned for real or supposed crimes. . . . A government which has power to tax a man in peace, and draft him in war, should have power to defend his life in the hour of peril. A government which can protect and defend its citizens from wrong and outrage and does not is vicious. A government which would do it and cannot is weak; and where human life is insecure through either weakness or viciousness in the administration of law, there must be a lack of justice, and where this is wanting nothing can make up the deficiency.
The strongest nation on earth cannot afford to deal unjustly towards its weakest and feeblest members. . . . I claim for the negro protection in every right with which the government has invested him. Whether it was wise or unwise, the government has exchanged the fetters on his wrist for the ballot in his right hand, and men cannot vitiate his vote by fraud, or intimidate the voter by violence, without being untrue to the genius and spirit of our government, and bringing demoralization into their own political life and ranks. Am I here met with the objection that the negro is poor and ignorant, and the greatest amount of land, capital, and intelligence is possessed by the white race, and that in a number of States negro suffrage means negro supremacy? . . .
It is said the negro is ignorant. But why is he ignorant? It comes with ill grace from a man who has put out my eyes to make a parade of my blindness,—to reproach me for my poverty when he has wronged me of my money. If the negro is ignorant, he has lived under the shadow of an institution which, at least in part of the country, made it a crime to teach him to read the name of the ever-blessed Christ. If he is poor, what has become of the money he has been earning for the last two hundred and fifty years? Years ago it was said cotton fights and cotton conquers for American slavery. The negro helped build up that great cotton power in the South, and in the North his sigh was in the whir of its machinery, and his blood and tears upon the warp and woof of its manufactures.
But there are some rights more precious than the rights of property or the claims of superior intelligence: they are the rights of life and liberty, and to these the poorest and humblest man has just as much right as the richest and most influential man in the country. Ignorance and poverty are conditions which men outgrow. Since the sealed volume was opened by the crimson hand of war, in spite of entailed ignorance, poverty, opposition, and a heritage of scorn, schools have sprung like wells in the desert dust. It has been estimated that about two millions have learned to read. Colored men and women have gone into journalism. Some of the first magazines in the country have received contributions from them. Learned professions have given them diplomas. Universities have granted them professorships. Colored women have combined to shelter orphaned children. Tens of thousands have been contributed by colored persons for the care of the aged and infirm. . . . Millions of dollars have flowed into the pockets of the race, and freed people have not only been able to provide for themselves, but reach out their hands to impoverished owners.
Instead of taking the ballot from his hands, teach him how to use it, and to add his quota to the progress, strength, and durability of the nation. . . .
Underlying this racial question, if I understand it aright, is one controlling idea, not simply that the negro is ignorant; that he is outgrowing; not that he is incapable of valor in war or adaptation in peace. On fields all drenched with blood he made his record in war, abstained from lawless
violence when left on the plantation, and received his freedom in peace with moderation. But he holds in this Republic the position of an alien race among a people impatient of a rival. And in the eyes of some it seems that no valor redeems him, no social advancement nor individual development wipes off the ban which clings to him. It is the pride of Caste which opposed the spirit of Christ, and the great work to which American Christianity is called is a work of Christly reconciliation. . . .
Source: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, speech, in Rachel F. Avery, ed., Transactions of the National Council of Women of the United States, assembled in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 22–25, 1891 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1891), 86–91. Reprinted in Gerda Lerner, The Female Experience: An American Documentary (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1977), 355–357.
Steve Kramer, “Uplifting Our "Downtrodden Sisterhood": Victoria Earle Matthews and New York City's White Rose Mission, 1897-1907,” Journal of African American History, vol. 91, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 243-266.
Brittney Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), CSN WC library has a copy
Tera W. Hunter, “African American Women Worker’s Protest in the New South,” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 13, no. 4 (Summer 1999): 52-55.
Tera W. Hunter, “Domination and Resistance: The Politics of Wage Household Labor in New South Atlanta,” vol. 34, no. 2 Labor History, (Spring-summer 1993): 205-220.
Evelyn Newman Phillips, “Annie Malone’s PORO: Addressing Whiteness and Dressing Black Bodied Women,” Transforming Anthropology, vol. 11, no. 2 (July 2003): 4-17.
Kate Dossett, “’I Try to Live Somewhat in Keeping with my Reputation as a Wealthy Woman’: A’Lelia Walked and Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company,” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 21, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 90-114.
Adia M. Harvey, “Personal Satisfaction and Economic Improvement: Working Class Black Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Hair Industry,” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 38, no. 6 (July 2008): 900-915.
Althea Prince, The Politics of Black Women’s Hair (London, Ont.: Insomniac Press, 2009) WC and NLV libraries have copies of this book.
Tiffany M. Gill, Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2010). CSN WC library has a copy
Elizabeth Benedict, ed. Me, My Hair, and I : Twenty-Seven Women Untangle an Obsession (NY: Workman Publisher, 2015). CSN NLV and online copies available
Bettye Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women in Religion (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). CSN NLV and WC libraries have copies.
Many of the other books mentioned in the endnotes for chapter 6 the UNLV library has copies of, too many to type up.
1. The library guides for Chapter Six contain the texts of five speeches delivered by four women: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (her speech given in 1891 to the National Council of Women), Mary Church Terrell (one speech given in 1906 to the United Women’s Club, and an earlier one given in 1897 to the National Association of Colored Women), Fannie Barrier Williams (her speech given in 1893 to the World’s Parliament of Religions), and Ida B. Wells (her speech given in 1909 to the National Negro Conference, the forerunner to the NAACP). The issues of these speeches range from calling out racist white suffragists, hypocritical Christian practices, and lynching, to pleading for activism. Pick one of these speeches and evaluate the methods of development and support the speaker draws on to persuade, teach, and inform her audience. Consider the original audience’s awareness of and relationship to the issue. Do any parts of the speech’s issue still relate to a contemporary audience? Has the issue been resolved fully or partially? Draw on any relevant discussion of these women included in A Black Women’s History of the United States to inform your response.
2. In Chapter Six, Berry and Gross write that the years following Frances Thompson’s death would be regarded by Black middle-class women as a “new era for African American womanhood” (106). Why is this correct? Why could the statement be refuted?
3. Briefly discuss the causal chain surrounding the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. In what ways does the lawsuit filed by Ida B. Wells against the railroad company connect to Plessy v. Ferguson?
4. Discuss the circumstances faced by rural and urban Black women during this period. Did they encounter similar or different obstacles and solutions?
5. What were the differing opinions regarding southern Black female migrants into the Mid-Atlantic, Western, and Northern cities?
6. Discuss the changing climate for Black women as church members, educators, students, domestics, artists, and entrepreneurs. Refer to specific examples from Berry and Gross.
7. Pick one woman discussed in the chapter and explain how her actions are those of an individual devoted to transforming her community (of place or of beliefs) and safeguarding personal freedoms.
By 1909 Ida B. Wells was the most prominent anti-lynching campaigner in the United States. From the early 1890s, she labored mostly alone in her effort to raise the nation’s awareness and indignation about these usually unpunished murders. In 1909, however, she gained a powerful ally in the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The following speech was delivered by Wells at the National Negro Conference, the forerunner to the NAACP, in New York City on May 31-June 1, 1909.
The lynching record for a quarter of a century merits the thoughtful study of the American people. It presents three salient facts: First, lynching is color-line murder. Second, crimes against women is the excuse, not the cause. Third, it is a national crime and requires a national remedy. Proof that lynching follows the color line is to be found in the statistics which have been kept for the past twenty-five years. During the few years preceding this period and while frontier law existed, the executions showed a majority of white victims. Later, however, as law courts and authorized judiciary extended into the far West, lynch law rapidly abated, and its white victims became few and far between. Just as the lynch-law regime came to a close in the West, a new mob movement started in the South.
This was wholly political, its purpose being to suppress the colored vote by intimidation and murder. Thousands of assassins banded together under the name of Ku Klux Klans, “Midnight Raiders,” “Knights of the Golden Circle,” et cetera, et cetera, spread a reign of terror, by beating, shooting, and killing colored in a few years, the purpose was accomplished, and the black vote was suppressed. But mob murder continued. From 1882, in which year fifty-two were lynched, down to the present, lynching has been along the color line. Mob murder increased yearly until in 1892 more than two hundred victims were lynched and statistics show that 3,284 men, women and children have been put to death in this quarter of a century. During the last ten years from 1899 to 1908 inclusive the number lynched was 959. Of this number 102 were white, while the colored victims numbered 857. No other nation, civilized or savage, burns its criminals; only under that Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible. Twenty-eight human beings burned at the stake, one of them a woman and two of them children, is the awful indictment against American civilization—the gruesome tribute which the nation pays to the color line.
Why is mob murder permitted by a Christian nation? What is the cause of this awful slaughter? This question is answered almost daily— always the same shameless falsehood that “Negroes are lynched to protect womanhood.” Standing before a Chautauqua assemblage, John Temple Graves, at once champion of lynching and apologist for lynchers, said: “The mob stands today as the most potential bulwark between the women of the South and such a carnival of crime as would infuriate the world and precipitate the annihilation of the Negro race.” This is the never-varying answer of lynchers and their apologists. All know that it is untrue. The cowardly lyncher revels in murder, then seeks to shield himself from public execration by claiming devotion to woman. But truth is mighty and the lynching record disc1oses the hypocrisy of the lyncher as well as his crime.
The Springfield, Illinois, mob rioted for two days, the militia of the entire state was called out, two men were lynched, hundreds of people driven from their homes, all because a white woman said a Negro assaulted her. A mad mob went to the jail, tried to lynch the victim of her charge and, not being able to find him, proceeded to pillage and burn the town and to lynch two innocent men. Later, after the police had found that the woman’s charge was false, she published a retraction, the indictment was dismissed and the intended victim discharged. But the lynched victims were dead. Hundreds were homeless and Illinois was disgraced.
As a final and complete refutation of the charge that lynching is occasioned by crimes against women, a partial record of lynchings is cited; 285 persons were lynched for causes as follows: Unknown cause, 92; no cause, 10; race prejudice, 49; miscegenation, 7; informing, 12; making threats, 11; keeping saloon, 3; practicing fraud, 5; practicing voodooism, 1; refusing evidence, 2; political causes, 5; disputing, 1; disobeying quarantine regulations, 2; slapping a child, 1; turning state’s evidence, 3; protecting a Negro, 1; to prevent giving evidence, 1; knowledge of larceny, 1; writing letter to white woman, 1; asking white woman to marry; 1; jilting girl, 1; having smallpox, 1; concealing criminal, 2; threatening political exposure, 1; self- defense, 6; cruelty; 1; insulting language to woman, 5; quarreling with white man, 2; colonizing Negroes, 1; throwing stones, 1; quarreling, 1; gambling, 1.
Is there a remedy, or will the nation confess that it cannot protect its protectors at home as well as abroad? Various remedies have been suggested to abolish the lynching infamy, but year after year, the butchery of men, women and children continues in spite of plea and protest. Education is suggested as a preventive, but it is as grave a crime to murder an ignorant man as it is a scholar. True, few educated men have been lynched, but the hue and cry once started stops at no bounds, as was clearly shown by the lynchings in Atlanta, and in Springfield, Illinois.
Agitation, though helpful, will not alone stop the crime. Year after year statistics are published, meetings are held, resolutions are adopted and yet lynchings go on. Public sentiment does measurably decrease the sway of mob law, but the irresponsible bloodthirsty criminals who swept through the streets of Springfield, beating an inoffensive law-abiding citizen to death in one part of the town, and in another torturing and shooting to death a man who for threescore years had made a reputation for honesty; integrity and sobriety, had raised a family and had accumulated property; were not deterred from their heinous crimes by either education or agitation.
The only certain remedy is an appeal to law. Lawbreakers must be made to know that human life is sacred and that every citizen of this country is first a citizen of the United States and secondly a citizen of the state in which he belongs. This nation must assert itself and protect its federal citizenship at home as well as abroad. The strong arm of the government must reach across state lines whenever unbridled lawlessness defies state laws and must give to the individual under the Stars and Stripes the same measure of protection it gives to him when he travels in foreign lands.
Federal protection of American citizenship is the remedy for lynching. Foreigners are rarely lynched in America. If, by mistake, one is lynched, the national government quickly pays the damages. The recent agitation in California against the Japanese compelled this nation to recognize that federal power must yet assert itself to protect the nation from the treason of
sovereign states. Thousands of American citizens have been put to death and no President has yet raised his hand in effective protest, but a simple insult to a native of Japan was quite sufficient to stir the government at Washington to prevent the threatened wrong. If the government has power to protect a foreigner from insult, certainly it has power to save a citizen’s life.
The practical remedy has been more than once suggested in Congress. Senator Gallinger, of New Hampshire, in a resolution introduced in Congress called for an investigation “with the view of ascertaining whether there is a remedy for lynching which Congress may apply.” The Senate Committee has under consideration a bill drawn by A. E. Pillsbury, formerly Attorney General of Massachusetts, providing for federal prosecution of lynchers in cases where the state fails to protect citizens or foreigners. Both of these resolutions indicate that the attention of the nation has been called to this phase of the lynching question.
As a final word, it would be a beginning in the right direction if this conference can see its way clear to establish a bureau for the investigation and publication of the details of every lynching, so that the public could know that an influential body of citizens has made it a duty to give the widest publicity to the facts in each case; that it will make an effort to secure expressions of opinion all over the country against lynching for the sake of the country’s fair name; and lastly, but by no means least, to try to influence the daily papers of the country to refuse to become accessory to mobs either before or after the fact.
Several of the greatest riots and most brutal burnt offerings of the mobs have been suggested and incited by the daily papers of the offending community. If the newspaper which suggests lynching in its accounts of an alleged crime, could be held legally as well as morally responsible for reporting that “threats of lynching were heard”; or, “it is feared that if the guilty one is caught, he will be lynched”; or, “there were cries of ‘lynch him,’ and the only reason the threat was not carried out was because no leader appeared,” a long step toward a remedy will have been taken.
In a multitude of counsel there is wisdom. Upon the grave question presented by the slaughter of innocent men, women and children there should be an honest, courageous conference of patriotic, law-abiding citizens anxious to punish crime promptly, impartially and by due process of law, also to make life, liberty and property secure against mob rule.
Time was when lynching appeared to be sectional, but now it is national—a blight upon our nation, mocking our laws and disgracing our Christianity. “With malice toward none but with charity for all” let us undertake the work of making the “law of the land” effective and supreme upon every foot of American soil—a shield to the innocent; and to the guilty, punishment swift and sure.
Religious Duty to the Negro
Fannie Barrier Williams
Fannie Barrier Williams was an educator, political activist, and women’s rights advocate who worked for the advancement opportunities of African Americans. She called especially for social and educational reforms to improve the plight of black women in the Southern States of the U.S.
September 22, 1893 – World’s Parliament of Religions, Hall of Columbus, Word’s Congress Auxiliary Building, Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
Text of speech below:
The strength and weakness of the Christian religion as believed, preached, and practiced in the United States is aptly illustrated in its influence as a civilizing and educational force among the colored people of this country. The negro was brought to this country by Christians, for the use of Christians, and he has ever since been treated, estimated and gauged by what are called Christian ideals of right and wrong.
The negro has been in America so long and has been so completely isolated from everything that is foreign to American notions, as to what is compatible with Christianity, that he may be fittingly said to be entirely the product of Christian influences. The vices and virtues of the American negro are the same in kind and degree as those of the men and women from whom he has been learning, by precept and example, all that he knows of God and humanity. The fetiches and crudities of the dark continent have long since ceased to be a part of his life and character, he is by every mark, impulse and aspiration an American Christian, and to the American church belongs the credit and responsibility of all that he is and is to be as a man and citizen of this republic.
Religion, like every other force in America, was first used as an instrument and servant of slavery. All attempts to Christianize the negro were limited by the important fact that he was property of a valuable and peculiar sort, and that the property value must not be disturbed, even if his soul were lost. If Christianity could make the negro docile, domestic and less and independent and fighting savage, let it be preached to that extent and no further. Do not open the Bible too wide.
Such was the false, pernicious and demoralizing Gospel preached to the American slave for two hundred years. But bad as this teaching was, it was scarcely so demoralizing as the Christian ideals held up for the negro’s emulation. When mothers saw their babes sold by Christians on the auction block in order to raise money to send missionaries to foreign lands; when black Christians saw white Christians openly do everything forbidden in the Decalogue; when, indeed, they saw, as no one else could see, hypocrisy in all things triumphant everywhere, is it not remarkable if such people have any religious sense of the purities of Christianity? People who are impatient of the moral progress of the colored people certainly are ignorant as to how far false teachings and vicious examples tended to dull the moral sense of the race.
As it is there is much to be unlearned as well as to be learned. That there is something higher and better in the Christian religion than rewards and punishments is a new lesson to thousands of colored people who are still worshiping under the old dispensation of the slave Bible. But it is not an easy task to unlearn religious conceptions. “Servants, obey your masters,” was preached and enforced by all the cruel instrumentalities of slavery, and by its influence the colored people were made the most valued slaves in the world. The people who in Africa resisted with terrible courage all invasions of the white races became through Christianity the most docile and defenseless of servants.
Knowing full well that the religion offered to the negro was first striped of moral instructions and suggestions, there are thousands of white church members even who charge, or are ready to believe, that the colored people are a race of moral reprobates. Fortunately the negro’s career in America is radiant with evidence showing that he has always known the difference between courage and lawlessness of all forms, and anarchy in this country is not of negro origin nor a part of his history.
There was a notable period in the history of this country when the moral force of the negro character was tested to an extraordinary extent and he was not found wanting. When the country was torn asunder by the passions of civil war, and everybody thirsted for blood and revenge in every violent form, when to ravage and kill was the all-controlling passion of the hour, the negro’s opportunity for retribution was ripe and at hand.
The men who degraded the race and were risking everything to continue that degradation, left their widows, their daughters, their mothers, wealth and all the precious interests of home, in the keeping of a race who has received no lessons of moral restraint. It seems but tame to say that the negro race was loyal to that trust and responsibility. Nowhere in Christendom has such nobleness of heart and moral fortitude been exampled among any people; and a recollection of the negro’s conduct under this extraordinary test should save the race from the charge of being lacking in moral instincts.
There is yet another notable example of the moral heroism of the colored American in spite of his lack of real religious instruction. The African Methodist Episcopal church, with its million members, vast property in churches, schools, academies, publications and learned men and women, is an enduring monument to the righteous protest of Christians to establish the mean sentiment of caste in religion and degrade us to a footstool position at the shrine of Christian worship. The colored churches of all denominations in this country are not evidences of our
unfitness for religious equality, but they are so may evidences of the negro’s religious heroism and self respect, that would not book the canting assertion of mastery and superiority of those who could see the negro only as a slave, whether on earth or in heaven.
There is another and brighter side to the question as to how far the Christian religion has helped the colored people of America to realize their positions as citizens of this proud Republic. Enough has already been said to show that the colored American, in spite of all the downward forces that have environed him, must have been susceptible to the higher influences of the false teachings thereof. Though the Bible was not an open book to the negro before emancipation, thousands of the enslaved men and women of the negro race learned more than was taught to them. Thousands of them realized the deeper meanings the sweeter consolations and the spiritual awakenings that are a part of the religious experiences of all Christians. These thousands were the nucleus out of which was to grow the correct religious life of the millions.
In justification of the church it must be said that there has always been a goodly number of heroic men and saintly women who believed in the the manhood and womanhood of the negro race, and at all times gave the benefit of the best religious teachings of the times. The colored people gladly acknowledge that, since emancipation, the churches of the country have almost redeemed themselves from their former sin of complicity with slavery.
The churches saw these people come into the domain of citizenship stripped of all possessions, unfurnished with intelligence, untrained in the school of self-sacrifice and moral restraint, with no way out of the wilderness of their ignorance of all things, and no leadership. They saw these people with no hoes or household organizations, no social order, no churches, no schools, and in the midst of people who, by training and instinct, could not recognize the manhood of the race. They saw the government give these people the certificate of freedom and citizenship without telling them what it meant. They saw politicians count these people as so many votes, and laughed at them when pleading for schools of learning for their children.
They saw all the great business and industrial organizations of the country ignoring these people as having any possible relationship to the producing and consuming forces of the nation. They saw the whole white population looking with distrust and contempt upon these men and women, new and untried in the responsibilities of civil life. While the colored people of America were thus friendless and without status of any kind, the Christian churches came instantly, heroically and powerfully to the rescue. They began and once not only to create a sentiment favorable to the uprising of these people, but began the all-important work of building schools and churches.
They aroused the philanthropic impulse of the American people to such a degree that millions of money and an army of men and women have covered the hills of the South with agencies of regeneration of the white and black slaves of the South. The churches have vied with each other in their zeal for good work in spreading the Gospel of intelligence. Going into states that knew nothing of public school systems they have created a passion for education among both races. States that have been hostile to the idea of universal intelligence and that at one time made it a criminal offense to teach black men and women to read and write, have, under the blessed influence of the missionary work of the churches, been wonderfully converted and are now
making appropriations for the education of colored children and founding and maintaining institutions that rank as normal schools, colleges and industrial schools.
Whatever may be our just grievance in the southern states, it is fitting that we acknowledge that, considering their poverty and past relationship to the negro race, they have done remarkably well for the cause of education among us. That the whole South should commit itself to the principle that the colored people have a right to be educated is an immense acquisition to the cause of popular education.
We are grateful to the American church for this significant change of sentiment, as we are grateful to it for making our cause and needs popular at the fireside of thousands of the best homes in the country. The moral force that vouched for the expenditure of nearly $40,000,000, voluntarily given for educational and church work in the South during the last twenty-five years, is splendid testimony of the interest felt by the American people in the cause of the intellectual and moral development of the negro race. Bearing in mind all this good work done by the churches since emancipation, it is proper to ask, what can religion further do for the colored people? This question is itself significant of the important fact that colored people are beginning to think for themselves and to feel restive and conscious of every limitation to their development.
At the risk of underestimating church work in the South I must say that religion in its more blessed influences, in its wider and higher reaches of good in humanity, has made less progress in refining the life and character of the white and colored people of the South than the activity of the church interests of the South would warrant us in believing. That there is more profession than religion, more so-called church work than religious zeal, is characteristic of the American people generally, and of the southern people particularly.
More religion and less church may be accepted as a general answer to the question, “What can religion further do to advance the condition of the colored people of the South?” It is not difficult to specify wherein church interests have failed and wherein religion could have helped to improve these people. In the first place the churches have sent among us too many ministers who have had no sort of preparation and fitness for the work assigned them. With a due regard for the highly capable colored ministers of the country, I feel no hesitancy in saying that the advancement of our condition is more hindered by a large part of the ministry intrusted with leadership than by any other single cause.
Only men of moral and mental force, of a patriotic regard for the relationship of the two races, can be of real service as minister in the South. Less theology and more of human brotherhood, less declamation and more common sense and love for truth, must be the qualifications of the new ministry that shall yet save the race from the evils of false teachings. With this new and better ministry will come the reign of that religion which ministers to the heart and gives to all our soul functions an impulse to righteousness. The tendency of creeds and doctrine to obscure religion, to make complex that which is elemental and simple, to suggest partisanship and doubt in that which is universal and certain, has seriously hindered the moral progress of the colored people of this country.
The home and social life of these people is in urgent need of the purifying power of religion. We do not yet sufficiently appreciate the fact that the heart of every social evil and disorder among the colored people, especially of the rural South, is the lack of those inherent moral potencies of home and family that are the well-springs of all the good in human society.
In nothing was slavery so savage and so relentless as in its attempted destruction of the family instincts of the negro race in America. Individuals, not families; shelters, not homes; herding, not marriages, were the cardinal sins in that system of horrors. Who can ever express in song or story the pathetic history of this race of unfortunate people when freedom came, groping about for their scattered offspring with only instinct to guide them, trying to knit together the broken tie of family kinship? It was right at this point of rehabilitation of the home life of these people that the philanthropic efforts of America should have begun. It was right here that religion in its humanitarian tendencies of love, in its moral direction and purifying force, was most needed, and still is most needed. Every preacher and every teacher in the South will tell us that preaching from the pulpit and teaching in the schoolhouse is but half done so long as the homes are uninstructed in that practical religion that can make pure and sacred every relationship it touches of man, woman and child.
Religion should not leave these people alone to learn from birds and beasts those blessed meanings of marriage, motherhood and family. Religion should not utter itself only once or twice a week through a minister from a pulpit, but should open every cabin door and get immediate contact with those who have not yet learned to translate into terms of conduct the promptings of religion.
How ardently do we all hope that the heart of American womanhood will yet be aroused and touched by this opportunity to elevate and broaden the home-life of these unfortunate women in black. It ought never to be said that a whole race of teachable women are permitted to grope their way unassisted toward a realization of those domestic virtues, moral impulses, and standards of family and social life that alone are badges to responsibility. There needs no evidence to show that these unfortunate people are readily susceptible to these higher and purifying influences of religion. Come from what source they may, Jew or Gentile, Protestant or Catholic, or from those who profess no religion but who indeed are often the most religious, the colored people are eager to learn and know those lessons that make men and women morally strong and responsible.
In pleading for some organized effort to improve the home life of these people, we are asking for nothing but what is recognized everywhere as the necessary protection to the homes of all civilized people. Witness how beautifully and grandly the women of Christendom are organized to protect the homes against the invasions of intemperance. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union has gathered up the religious impulse of American womanhood for God, home, and native land. Again, to this union of pure hearts against the sin of intemperance is that other union in behalf of pure homes — “The Social Purity Society”; in fact, good women and brave men continually stand guard at the entrance of American homes, except that of the negro. Our homes need in a special degree those moral helps, promptings, inspirations, and protections that are now and everywhere the necessary safeguards even to the homes of those people who are cultured in all things spiritual and mental.
There is still another and important need of religion in behalf of our advancement. In nothing do the American people so contradict the spirit of their institutions, the high sentiments of their civilization, and the maxims of their religion, as they do in practically denying to our colored men and women the full rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The colored people have appealed to every source of power and authority for relief, but in vain. For the last twenty-five years we have gone to legislatures, to political parties, and even to churches, for some cure for prejudice; but we have at last learned that help from these sources is merely palliative. It is a monstrous thing that nearly one-half of the so-called Evangelical churches of this country, those situated in the South, repudiate fellowship to every Christian man and woman who happens to be of African descent. It is a shameful thing to say of the Christian religion as practiced in one part of our country that a young colored man susceptible of spiritual enlightenment will find a readier welcome in a saloon or any other place than he will in any evangelical church.
The fact is that the heart of America is fearfully wrong in its understanding and sentiment concerning the colored race. The golden rule of fellowship taught in the Christian Bible becomes in practice the iron rule of race hatred. That distinguished representative from Japan who started this parliament the other day by arraigning Christendom for its many hypocrisies must have had in mind the irreligious conduct of white American Christians toward black American Christians.
The hope of the negro and other dark races in America depends upon how far the white Christians can assimilate their own religion. At present there seems to be no ethical attitude in public opinion toward our colored citizens. White men and women are careless and meanly indifferent about the merits and rights of colored men and women. The white man who swears and the white man who prays and alike contemptuous about the claims of colored men.
In every profession, in every trade and occupation of men there is a code of ethics that governs the relationship and fosters the spirit of fraternity among its members. This is the religious sense of the people applied to the details of practical life. Yet, even these religious promptings to deal rightly too often stop short of reaching the man or woman who happens to be black.
Can religion help the American people to be consistent and to live up to all they profess and believe in their government and religion?
What we need is such a re-enforcement of the gentle power of religion that all souls, of whatever color shall be included within the blessed circle of its influence. The American negro in his meager environment needs the moral helpfulness and contact of men and women whose lives are larger, sweeter, and stronger than his. It should be the mission of religion to give him this help.
It should be the province of religion to unite, and not to separate, men and women according to the superficial differences of race lines. The American negro in his environment needs the moral helpfulness of contact with men and women whose lives are larger, sweeter and stronger than his. The colored man has the right according to his worth to earn an honest living in every calling and branch of industry that makes ours the busiest of nations, but there is needed a more
religious sense of justice that will permit him to exercise this right as freely as any other worthy citizen can do.
I believe that I correctly speak the feeling of the colored people in declaring our unyielding faith in the corrective influence of true religion. We believe that there is too much potency in the sentiment of human brotherhood, and in the still higher sentiment of the Fatherhood of God, to allow a whole race of hopeful men and women to remain long outside of the pale of that ever growing sympathetic interest of man in man.
. . .
There is needed in these new and budding homes of the race a constructive morality.
A man should have the qualifications of a teacher, the self-sacrificing spirit of a true missionary, and the enthusiasm of a reformer to do much good as a preacher among the negroes.
Believing, as we all do, that the saving power of religion pure and simple transcends all other forces that make for righteousness in human life, it is not too much to believe that when such a religion becomes a part of the breath and life, not only of the colored people, but of all the people in the country, there will be no place or time for the reign of prejudice and injustice. More of religion and less church may be accepted as a general answer to this question. In the first place, the churches have sent amongst us too many ministers who have had no sort of preparation and fitness for the work assigned them. With a due regard for the highly capable colored ministers of the country, I feel no hesitancy in saying that the advancement of our condition is more hindered by a large part of the ministry entrusted with the leadership than by any other single cause. No class of American citizens has had so little religion and so much vitiating nonsense preached to them as the colored people of this county.
Source: Fannie Barrier Williams, “Religious Duty to the Negro,” The World’s Parliament of Religions, (Chicago, 1894), pp. 893-897.