Reference Entry

National Association of Colored Women

Lisa Clayton Robinson

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
National Association of Colored Women

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The familiar slogan of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), “Lifting As We Climb,” sums up its century-long commitment to service, uplift, and advancement in the African American community. The NACW grew out of the network of local black women's clubs and organizations that began to develop in the United States in the late nineteenth century to promote racial progress by providing necessary social services in black communities. These clubs were formed by women who firmly believed that improving conditions in individual black homes would have positive effects on the social, educational, and economic advancement of the entire African American community.In 1895 a widely reprinted editorial by a white Southerner, which accused black women of being dishonest and immoral, led club leaders across the country to realize that they needed to work together in their efforts to protect and advance the race and the cause of black womanhood. In July of that year, one hundred women from organizations in ten states met in Boston to begin planning a national coalition of black women. One year later, the NACW was officially formed. Within a few years the NACW had 5,000 members; by 1916 it had grown to 50,000 members and over 1,000 local clubs.The slogan “Lifting As We Climb” was coined by the NACW's first president, Mary Church Terrell, who explained that “self-preservation demands that [black women] go among the lowly to whom they are bound by ties of race and sex,” and that NACW members had “determined to come into the closest possible touch with the masses of our women, through whom the womanhood of our people is always judged.” This statement points out a key feature of the original black women's club movement: the NACW's members were overwhelmingly middle-class, educated women, and thus in a class and social situation different from many of the women and families for whom their programs were designed to help.They planned to solve this division by raising as many women as they could to their own level of relative material comfort. Teaching middle-class values became one of their early priorities, and the NACW's first programs included temperance societies and classes on housekeeping and child-rearing. Club members were also dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable members of their communities, the very young and the very old. By the turn of the century, clubs all over the country had begun establishing kindergartens and homes for the aged. These facilities were generally staffed by NACW volunteers, and members held fund-raisers to gain additional money for their projects.While NACW members believed that the progress of the race could and should begin in the home, they were also fully aware of the constant outside injustices faced daily by black women and men. Club members supported the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and they played a key role in the antilynching campaign of the 1920s. Individual branches also led boycotts of segregated facilities and expressed other protests against racial injustices. By the time prominent activist Mary McLeod Bethune became president of the NACW in 1924, the organization had grown to 100,000 members, who were involved in social reform programs across the country.In the next few decades, however, the NACW began to decline in influence. During the Great Depression, the government finally began providing many of the services the black community had received from the NACW. And after Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, the NACW was no longer the only national black women's association. In 1957 the NACW changed its name to the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC), and narrowed its focus to educational and social services, such as providing college scholarships for young black women. The NACWC celebrated its centennial in 1996, with approximately 40,000 members in 1,500 clubs, retaining its original commitment to uplifting the black community. It remains the oldest national African American secular organization in existence today.See also Antilynching Movement; Black Women's Club Movement; Women's Organizations, Early African American.

Reference Entry.  681 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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