Black Women’s Political Influence Beyond Emancipation

 

By Dawn Boykin

During the 1890’s after the Holocaust of enslavement, Black Women’s National Club Movement emerged among African American women. As racial oppression intensified after reconstruction, they turned greater attention to the struggle for social justice. This stemmed from African Cultural traditions which stressed collective concern and responsibility to family and community. This led to free black women establishing an array of mutual aid societies.  In 1896, the first National Conference of Colored Women of America organized, establishing the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) with Mary Church Terrell being the first president. Other major figures in this movement include Mary McLeod Bethune and Ida B. Wells. As its president from 1924-1929, Mary McLeod Bethune was enlightened with the vision of a more powerful organization.  From this, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) was organized and founded in 1935. As a journalist, author and anti-lynching activist, Ida B. Wells, played an important role in exposing the white terrorism and masking the self- serving sexual ideologies of white racists (Carby, 1987:110 ff; 17.)  White racists were determined to keep black people inferior at all costs and this led to the African American women formation of certain coalitions to fight against this.

It was the merger of two coalitions, the Colored Women’s League founded in 1892 and the National Federation of African American Women founded in 1895, representing 201 organizations in all which created the basis for the NACW. The concerns of the NACW was based on its model “Lifting as We Climb” and involved activities around: 1) education; 2) lynching of Black men, women, and children; 3) white sexual abuse and attacks on the oral character of Black women; 4) health care; 5) child care services and housing for orphans; 6) care for the elderly; 7) job training and 8) the broad struggle for social justice and equal rights. Within a twenty year time span of its initial founding, the NACW represented over 1,000 clubs and 100,000 Black, women.

With the creation of the NCNW, Bethune worked tirelessly in areas of race, women, education and youth (Giddings, 1984:215) But Bethune was also for the welfare of the masses of Black people and directed the development of the NCNW towards service to Black people. “We need an organization to open new doors for our young women which when it speaks its power will be felt” she proposed (Giddings, 1984:212) Expressing her commitment to vision and the development of women, she stated, “I am interested in women, and I believe in their possibilities. We need vision for larger things, for unfolding and reviewing of worthwhile things” (Giddings, 1984:214)

After emancipation, racial violence, discrimination and abuse continued. Blacks encountered continued white terrorism and violence evidenced in lynchings and racial riots by whites (Tolnay and Beck, 1995; Patterson, 1998). In the summer of 1919, often called the “Red Summer,” there were twenty incidents of white mob violence of riots, against Blacks in the North and South. In her autobiography, Crusade fir Justice, Ida B. Wells recounts in detail the vicious practices of lynching and her tireless crusade against it. She also produced three pamphlets against lynching, Southern Horror (1892), Red Record (1895) and Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900) which was important in providing both statistical and literary information of terror and critical analysis of race and gender relations in the US during that time. In the first year of the century, there were only one hundred reported lynching of blacks, but by 1914, there were more than 1,100 lynching reported.

At the end of the 1930s, black found themselves at the brink of political transition. The more dramatic collective action of blacks during the Depression and the new deal placement hierarchy has overshadowed their contributions in previous decades. The racist policies of the National American Suffrage Association continued in the 1920s with its successor organization, the League of Women Voters, to discourage black participation. Even with organizing for elected official for whom they campaigned, Black women encountered racism. Black women’s discontent and frustration with white women’s organizations, with the Republican Party, and with a racist society in general during the 1920s concluded with the abandonment of politics. This emerged into new leadership, alliances and strategies.

 

References

            Carby, Hazel. (1987) Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American   Women Novelist, New York: Oxford University Press

Giddings, Paula. (1984) When and Where I Enter: The impact of Race and Sex in   America, New York: William Morrow & Company.

Tolnay, Stewart E. and E.M. Beck, (1995) A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of    Southern Lynchings 1882-1903, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

 

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