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The First Step in Nation

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E. Church, a number of black women had gathered to hear Mary Church Terrell talk about ‘the modern women’. Oblivious of the heat and the perspiration which thoroughly soaked their dresses, the women were eager to hear what Mary Church Terrell as an educator and first president of the National Association of Coloured women had to say. The women were not disappointed, as Terrell looked like the ‘modern woman’ she was telling about. Her graceful walk and speaking captivated the crowd. She talked about educating less fortunate black women, organizing themselves and improving their communities.

The representatives of different clubs had joined hands to organize the National Association of Coloured women in order to put forward a formal protest against an insulting letter written by the white president of the Missouri Press Association, James Jacks. Terrell went on to talk about Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and other women who had worked for the race, making such a permanent impression on the women, that they were ready to follow the footsteps of their ancestors. One of the women who heard this speech was Fields, a teacher already active in community work.

She was a member of Charleston City Federation of women’s club, which specialized in homemaking, helping the disadvantaged, raising funds to help wayward black girls and improving the conditions. She also helped to set up the Priscilla club which served the impoverished black areas, building homes, setting up a United Service Organization for black soldiers during the World War I and later on urging the city officials to hire black teachers. All over the country, black women were helping to shape, mold and direct the thought of their race, in time for an organized female resistance movement.

The members of the National Association of Coloured women (NACW) set to solving interlocking problems involving race, gender and poverty. According to them, the problems of a race could be solved by solving the problems of its women. A story reported sixteen years before Terrell’s speech explains why that period in African- American history is known as Nadir. According to it, a 12- year old black boy narrowly escaped from being lynched by a mob of white boys, all of them in their early teenage years.

As an editor of Richmond Planet, a black weekly, ‘lynching was demoralizing to young and old equally and the children did what they saw the adults doing. ’ The time from 1880 to 1930 was the most savage and demoralizing time for the black people. Lynching was a common practice and was often performed as a ritual. African- American’s loss of civil values was just one of the manifestations of the white lawlessness. Blacks were separated from whites in public, schools and related things. Black people dealt with the racism by forming their own institutions and retreated into them.

The institution which thrived the most during this period was the Church. The Church became a ground for political discussions and position of power and leadership. Societies were formed by the Church or were joined with it, due to which they got a central position in black social, political and economic life. During this time of retrenchment, black women clubs rose to importance and formed sister clubs all over the country. By the time the NACW brought them together, the number was too high to keep count of. The clubs worked on one principle which was ‘self-help’.

They focused on educating mothers and improving the home life. Mother clubs were formed which focused on teaching mothers about home life, educating their children, and protecting their neighborhoods. Women clubs raised money to buy lands on which they made parks, schools, colleges, libraries and hospitals. They also worked on helping black women migrate from rural areas to urban by getting them settled down in their new surroundings, which were often hostile and dangerous. Educational courses were also offered.

With time the work became so much that the local federations encouraged clubs to coordinate and take bigger projects then what a single club could have not possibly handled. With time more and more clubs came under NACW, making the structure more complex and projects undertaken more sophisticated. Different departments were formed which kept on increasing with time and the projects undertaken. The philosophy behind the women clubs enabled the women to take action when at one time such was completely unthought-of. Women organization was the first step in nation making according to one of the early presidents of NACW, Josephine Silone Yates.

This banding together of the black women was showing the rest of the race a way to move forward, out of the shadows of the past and a way to facing the challenges of the new era. Even with the success of the women clubs, lynching, racism, disfranchisement, race riots were still in power. An editorial in ‘women’s era’ asked the weak and timid men to step aside and let the women take charge. Women thought that the black men were more a part of the problem, claiming that the men had sold their votes for a mess of pottage.

, which was something that a black woman would never do. Leaders like Anna Julia Cooper believed that black women could make a lot more headway as compared to men when it came to race problems. Association leaders thought that women would be far more suited for issues related to social welfare then men, due to their moral, nurturing and selfless nature. Cooper’s sense of confidence was nourished by the sense of equality with the black men. While whites had set their differences between men and women, blacks had no such issues.

During slavery, black men and women had equal status, had endured incredible hardships along with men, due to which both sex had equal footing in matter of equality.

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Racism severely limited the lives of black men though some did vote and held political positions. The fact that black men held a larger area then women was completely insignificant, for women who proclaimed that it was the ‘women era’. Club women didn’t compare the positions held by the men with their positions. They only thought about their goal which was the abolition of racism. Some scholars argued the differences of goals of the black women from the white.

The implications of the respective goals of white and black were different because of the difference of context of black and white women’s efforts were different. The end of 19th century was good for the black people, not only because the blacks were responding to the new industrial environment but also to racism repression. Black men at this time were heavily targeted leaving behind the women to deal with the pressures of life. From it became clear that the black women were handling far more burdens then their white counterparts. Also it became clear that the black women thought that the white women were also a part of the problem.

Till now the black women were considered inferior clubwomen, but now they demanded equality. Black women thought that white women would be able to play a vital role in finishing racism, lynching and their effects. But the women were soon sourly disappointed as they found out that white women had the same thoughts as their men, and when they tried to set themselves apart, they became a burden which the black women had been carrying for so long. Other then a few white women organizations, the rest of the organizations were clearly ‘anti-black’.

When friendly organizations asked black women to speak, they asked the crowd to support the black women. The all-white General federation of women’s clubs (GFWC) was openly hostile and in one of their newsletters wrote an offensive story about a marriage between a black and a white. This story was like a warning against inviting black women to white women clubs. This story also indirectly told the blacks that they would always be inferior to the whites due to the ‘invisible drop’ of black blood in their veins, no matter how much they got educated or learned, traveled or had talents.

Even if these actions hurt the black women, they didn’t let it discourage them from their goal. The first step to nation building was NACW’s belief that the progress of the race was marked by the progress of its women. Even the black Nationalist Martin Delany couldn’t speak about black problems because he knew nothing about the hard working men and women from the south. The position of women became strong in this case as women were the centre of the community and knew the feeling of oppression, both as a woman and as a black.

When a black woman spoke, she spoke the voice of the masses, and when the black women were free, the entire black race would be free. Not only the women believed it, the black men also soon took to the notion of women leading their race. A book named ‘noted negro women’ was also written which told about the achievements of black women and the progress of Negros since slavery. Now that men and women were thinking alike, the only issue which also became a hot topic of discussion in club meetings was how women would lead the race.

According to Alice White, a clubwoman from Montgomery, if thee home was at peace, then the women were in power. If homes were pure and teachings were pure, then from these homes, people with strong intellect, morals and religion would come. Others thought that woman should assume wide- ranging roles which would help the community. No one argued that home was the first battle ground or what NACW was doing for the community. Addie Dickerson believed that homes were the building blocks of a nation and if they were strong enough then the nation would be strong as well.

She also believed that women had to fight against Jim Crow and join hands with both races to improve the economic conditions of black women who were working out of their homes. Women also insisted that women should vote so that they could have political rights which could help in the reforming. Cooper argued that the time had come for women’s personal independence, moral and intellectual development, political activity, and a voice of her own. These philosophies influenced the ideological discussion which was taking place between the club leaders.

All women agreed to strengthen the foundation of their homes. But some wanted more, the ones who approved to suffrage and activism. The debate over this issue increased the differences between Washington and Du Boris. No matter how different the ideas or opinions of the people were, they had the same base. They had suffered humiliating experiences, rejected from clubs and moreover, they all believed that women would save the day. Black women also thought that they would stay above part politics unlike men, who were ineffective in dealing with race issues.

Terrell thought that the worst a black woman could do was to bring a corrupt politician in the association, and also that it was important that women protested against the system which took away their rights. For NACW, unity didn’t come naturally. On same issues, the clubs put their best efforts to stick together. Clubwomen wanted to prove to the world that their image about black women was wrong. Black women are able to voice their concerns, their problems. When making a case, the women saw their differences and realized that not all black women could meet their standards.

Also the clubwomen argued that the entire race was not equal, just as whites have their immoral class, lacks also have one. These women also questioned themselves as to why did the white people judge them only for their bad points? Club women wanted to end discrimination and wanted it to be marked their own success. NACW had already taken first step in nation building by helping others just as they help themselves. The very existence of NACW mean that black women had a defender with a national voice. The records of the club were impressive and at the end of the century it proposed a very bold plan.

At the time when white women were choosing between careers or homes, NACW announced that black women will do what men do, as well as what a woman will do. Convinced that black issues were same, they spoke publicly against black men and oppression. Also they didn’t feel that their feminism would tear apart the movement into camps. The club members only saw wisdom in their approach towards black poverty, same as they saw only congruity in their race and gender. Before he even penned down the term, both conservative and activists accepted Du Boris’s philosophy.

Clubwomen unlike the more modern black women leaders didn’t hesitate to represent the lower class. These women were proud of their work because they felt it was their duty to talk to them. Where all the NACW women were proud of their achievements, the also had a reason for dread. They couldn’t forever keep ignoring the differences which separated them, for some issues were too serious, too pivotal to the future of black people. The most serious issue was that the race might not raise higher then its women. Many questions rose. Will the whites accept the association? What would happen if the status didn’t rise high?

What if the programs didn’t benefit the black women? In the end it was concluded that the ideology did justice to female black activism, but if it failed the entire blame would come on the women. Twentieth century progressed and with it progressed the idea that challenges would be met by more competent women who had more knowledge and experience then the women of 1896, who were sure that would change the world history. Work Cited African &Americans. (n. d. ). National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Inc. October 12, 2008. <http://www. africanamericans. com/NationalAsscofColoredWomen

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