Reference Entry

National Association of Colored Women

Anja Schüler

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
National Association of Colored Women

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In the last decades of the nineteenth century, women's clubs, black and white, proliferated throughout the United States. A means of self-expression and self-determination, they often emerged from mutual aid, missionary, and literary societies and were profoundly committed to both the social improvement of their members and the needs of their communities. Black women, however, rarely had the luxury to limiting their activities to “self-culture.” Not only were they firmly committed to change the image of black women in the white mind, they also had to meet the crisis the black community faced around the turn of the century, when economic disparities and political disfranchisement grew and racial discrimination and violence against both black men and women intensified. When the American journalist and reformer Ida B. Wells-Barnett spoke out against rape and lynchings during her 1894 lecture tour in England, the president of the Missouri Press Association, James W. Jacks, tried to discount her charges by publishing an open letter in which he denounced all black women as “prostitutes, … thieves and liars … with no sense of virtue” (Salem 2005, p. 430). At this point, black women leaders recognized the urgent need to counter this portrayal through a national organization.Shortly before this attack, black women's clubs had already started to form regional associations like the Colored Woman's League of Washington, D.C., in 1893, which invited black women's clubs in all parts of the country to affiliate, when their efforts to represent their race at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago were turned down by the Board of Lady Managers. Black women's efforts to organize were recognized in 1894, when the National Council of Women invited the Colored Women's League to become a member and send delegates to its 1895 convention. The league acted as a national organization at this convention, although other black women's associations sought similar national roles and no national convention of black women's clubs had yet taken place.A National Organization.Jacks's slanderous 1894 letter quoted above served as a catalyst for finally holding a national convention, called by Josephine Ruffin, founder of the Women's Era Club of Boston. The 104 delegates at this conference came from 14 states and the District of Columbia; their clubs focused mainly on female benevolence for black families and the black community. The newly founded National Federation of Afro-American Women (NFAAW) elected Ruffin as president and Margaret Washington, the third wife of Booker T. Washington, as vice president, and resolved to counter charges of immorality and redefine the image of black women through its work. It welcomed any support across gender and color lines. However, the NFAAW still competed with the National League of Colored Women for members, financial resources, and public attention. In July 1896, when both groups held their national conventions in Washington, D.C., their leadership moved toward unity, and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was born. Mary Church Terrell of the National League was elected the first president of the NACW; she was assisted by vice presidents from Boston, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and New Orleans. Although city and class divisions gradually diminished in the years to come, the NACW leadership remained to be dominated by women from Washington, D.C., and the Boston area. They stressed self-help, self-protection, honesty, and justice. Their motto, “Lifting as we climb,” poignantly epitomized this task, and the newly founded association stated its purposes as: “To secure and enforce civil and political rights for ourselves and our group. To obtain for our colored women the opportunity of reaching the highest standard in all fields of human endeavor. To promote interracial understanding so that justice and good will may prevail among all people” (quoted in Scott, p. 147).In the following four decades, the NACW became a major vehicle of black women's reform efforts. While much of its work initially focused on moral issues, education, and temperance, the NACW also founded antilynching committees on the local and national level and brought lynchings and violence against black women to the attention of the public. Many membership clubs had religious roots or worked in the tradition of past black leaders like Sojourner Truth and Phillis Wheatley; others turned to the new scientific methods of social change that emerged during the Progressive Era. The NACW served as their umbrella group. It operated through a number of departments and a strong executive cabinet. Its publication, the National Notes, informed its readers about the activities of women's clubs as well as of the national association and educated them in the science and techniques of reform.The initial departments of the NACW included Kindergartens, Domestics, Employment, Temperance, Suffrage, and Education, and thus strongly reflected both the self-help efforts to uplift and serve the community and the NACW's focus on education. Although literacy in the African American community had increased tremendously by the turn of the century, much remained to be done, especially in the South. Black clubwomen created and enhanced educational opportunity by direct appropriations, scholarships, and other fund-raising efforts; their literary and civic clubs offered compensatory educational programs.By the tenth annual convention in Baltimore 1916, the work of the NACW had clearly expanded and changed. Some of its thirty-five departments still mirrored the traditional activities that had built the reputation of the organization. Others, like Legislation, Civics, Suffrage, Rural Conditions, and Railroad Conditions reflected an increased political sophistication. A third category put the black clubwomen in the mainstream of the new progressive reformers and their approaches to social problems: the departments of Social Science, Industrial and Social Conditions, Health and Hygiene, and Juvenile Courts. The Business department reflected the growing participation of educated black women in business and the professions.In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the NACW also grew in numbers. While only one regional and six state associations had joined in 1901, there were twenty state federations and the southern federation by 1906 and three hundred new clubs by 1916. The NACW increasingly cooperated with other civic associations, both black and white: the 1916 convention reported on the activities of the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, the NAACP, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the Young Women's Christian Association.A Changing Agenda.On the eve of the American entry into World War I, the NACW with its 100,000 members had become one of the most important agencies working in and for the African American community. Black clubwomen were now better trained and better connected; they sought less charity and more justice. During World War I, member clubs of the NACW not only raised 5 million dollars in war bonds and promoted the conservation programs of the federal government, the organization also became increasingly political, supporting woman suffrage and prohibition and demanding the enactment of an antilynching bill. In this matter, the NACW president Mary Talbert cooperated closely with the NAACP to raise funds and garner publicity. By the early 1920s, many clubwomen had joined the NAACP or the National Urban League.The community work of black women's clubs still stressed self-help, but the tremendous migration of blacks from the South changed the nature of their work. While black clubwomen had traditionally helped the old, the young, and the infirm, they now started to develop multiservice institutions, often in collaboration with the National Urban League. These new community centers offered travelers’ aid, lodging, job placement, night classes, and industrial training but continued to support day nurseries, kindergartens, libraries, choirs, and evening entertainment. Community centers also provided training for black nurses and social workers.Under the leadership of Mary McLeod Bethune, who served as president from 1924 to 1928, the NACW experienced a consolidation phase as well as a generational transition. As the first national black organization, the association purchased a house as national headquarters in the nation's capital and installed a paid secretary. To attract younger women, the National Association of Colored Girls was founded in 1930. Issues of racial discrimination and racial violence continued to loom large. During the Depression the NACW supported the National Recovery Act but called for equal opportunities in employment and equal distribution of services; during World War II it supported the war effort, especially the sale of savings bonds and the federal Thrift Program, but protested the racial bias in the Women's Army Corps Service and the defense industries.In the 1950s the NACW increasingly turned to international human rights issues, maintaining its membership in the International Council of Women and debating U.S. policy in Africa. It also continued to work for full citizenship for African Americans. Black clubwomen used their grassroots structure to help elect black women legislators and cooperated with the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Congress of Racial Equality in the emerging civil rights movement. In 1954 the NACW changed its name to the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. Since the mid-1960s, the NACW has increasingly turned toward economic issues, debating employment inequities between men and women, and to women's health issues, in particular rape and battering, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, national health insurance, and AIDS. With changing political and ideological contexts, the membership of the NACW has declined. The oldest African American secular organization in existence today thrived from the 1890s to the 1920s, when the women's club movement was at its height. Today, it remains a sophisticated women's political organization.

Reference Entry.  1716 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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