For nearly 200 years clubs, mutual aid societies, sororities, and organizations established by African American women have played active and positive roles in communities across the United States and throughout the diaspora. In 1818 members of the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem, Massachusetts, declared that they had formed their organization to “be charitably watchful over each other.” This phrase captures the spirit of cooperative work that has characterized most of these organizations, which often made available needed social services to black women,...
For nearly 200 years clubs, mutual aid societies, sororities, and organizations established by African American women have played active and positive roles in communities across the United States and throughout the diaspora. In 1818 members of the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem, Massachusetts, declared that they had formed their organization to “be charitably watchful over each other.” This phrase captures the spirit of cooperative work that has characterized most of these organizations, which often made available needed social services to black women, children, and families. At the same time, members of these organizations have frequently been middle- and upper-middle-class women seeking to provide role models and opportunities for less fortunate sisters—in the words of one well-known slogan, “Lifting As We Climb.”The Salem society was one of many small local associations that existed during the nineteenth century. Most of the earliest ones were located in free black communities in Northeastern cities; Philadelphia alone had twenty-seven by 1830. Some of these early organizations were mutual-relief associations that allowed members to pool their small resources. Others were benevolent societies, in which women who belonged worked to help people in their communities. Still others were literary societies, where women wrote poetry and essays to share with one another, often giving them a rare forum to express their political opinions.The clubs grew in importance after Reconstruction, when the few social services that the government had begun providing for ex-slaves were eliminated. At the same time, black women were quickly realizing that the gains the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments had brought to black men did not extend to them—and that the clubs were some of the only places women could become leaders and speak out for change. In 1895, after a white Southern journalist wrote a widely publicized letter accusing activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett in particular and black women in general of “having no sense of virtue and of being altogether without character,” another purpose for the black women's groups began to emerge: to defend black womanhood.Women from across the country responded to this letter by calling a conference in Boston to discuss ways to combine their efforts, and their 1895 meeting led to the founding of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in the following year. The new prominence of the clubwomen's movement and the corresponding surge in public activity and activism by black women helped define the 1890s as the “Woman's Era” in African American history. In addition to Wells-Barnett, such clubwomen as Josephine Saint Pierre Ruffin, Mary Eliza Church Terrell, and Margaret Murray Washington reached national audiences with their messages of social responsibility and racial uplift.New types of women's organizations began to appear just after the turn of the century. The Associations for the Protection of Negro Women (later the National League for the Protection of Colored Women), founded in 1904, helped black Southern women migrants to find decent jobs and safe housing in the North. Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black sorority, was founded at Howard University in 1908, and soon Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, and Sigma Gamma Rho were added to the spectrum of black women's clubs. By this point, the club movement was solidly defined as middle-class, and professional organizations began to spring up alongside the college sororities. But most clubs, including the sororities, continued to emphasize a commitment to service.In the mid-twentieth century, activist Mary McLeod Bethune changed the clubs' scope yet again as she began to explore their potential for influencing real political change. After serving as president of the NACW during the 1920s, in 1935 she founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), a new umbrella organization that emphasized political activism. The NCNW immediately began lobbying for domestic and international causes, such as the founding of the Federal Employment Practices Commission and the establishment of the United Nations. Under president Dorothy Height, it has become an international organization that works to support black women across the diaspora.The network of black women's clubs, sororities, and professional societies remains strong today. The NACW, now the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, celebrated its one-hundredth anniversary in 1996, and like the NCNW has branches across the country. Modern clubs and sororities provide college scholarships to young women, run women's employment resource centers, and sponsor preschools and health clinics in underserved areas. They also continue to provide African American women with an important space for networking, supporting, and fellowshipping with one another as they work together toward common goals, still inspired to lift as they climb.See also Diaspora and Displacement; Fifteenth Amendment; Fourteenth Amendment; Fraternities and Sororities, Black, in the United States; Free Blacks in the United States.
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