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Lifting As We Climb

In the 1890s women formed national women’s club federations, most of which were dominated by upper-middle-class, educated, northern women. Few of these organizations were bi-racial, a legacy of the sometimes uneasy mid-nineteenth-century relationship between socially active African Americans and white women. Rising American prejudice led many white female activists to ban inclusion of their African American sisters. The black women's club movement rose in answer in the late nineteenth century. The segregation of black women into distinct clubs produced vibrant organizations that promised racial uplift and civil rights for all blacks, as well as equal rights for women.

Black women did not have the economic resources that white women enjoyed. But although black women lacked money, they managed through their missionary societies and their clubs—through church participation and civic engagement—to bind together the black community. Many of the groups grew out of religious and literary societies as a response to intensified racism. The grass-roots organizations, made up primarily of middle-class women, provided services, financial assistance, and moral guidance for the poor.  Women involved in the club movement gained knowledge about education, health care, and poverty and developed organizing skills. Although organizations existed all over the country, they were concentrated mainly in the Northeast.  New York City clubwomen followed Ida B. Wells’ political activism against lynching. While teachers concerned about children and their problems dominated the movement in Washington, D.C., other chapters supported homes for the aged, schools, and orphanages.

The anti-lynching crusade, along with women’s suffrage, became the platforms upon which the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was founded in 1896, with Mary Church Terrell as its first president. High profile founders included Harriet Tubman, Margaret Murray Washington, Frances E.W. Harper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell. NACW adopted the motto “Lifting As We Climb,” with the intention of demonstrating to “an ignorant and suspicious world that our aims and interests are identical with those of all good aspiring women.” Terrell established an ambitious and forward-thinking agenda for the organization, focusing on job training, wage equity, and child care. The organization raised funds for kindergartens, vocational schools, summer camps, and retirement homes. In addition, the NACW opposed segregated transportation systems and was a strong and visible supporter of the anti-lynching movement. In 1912 the organization began a national scholarship fund for college-bound African American women. During that same year it endorsed the suffrage movement, two years before its white counterpart, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, increasing emphasis on structural change and electoral politics edged out self-help and social reform as the clubs’ focus for social change. In 1935 a faction of the NACW, led by Mary McLeod Bethune, formed the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) to put pressure on the political system to improve conditions for African Americans. The NCNW came to dominate both the politics of the club movement and the national political agenda of black women. Although both the NACW and the NCNW continued to be central to black women's political activity, the social conditions and context for organizing had changed dramatically by the 1930s. As the reform efforts of African-American women became more explicitly political, both the local and national club movements declined in importance.

“I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another.

I leave you respect for the use of power. I leave you faith.  I leave you racial dignity.”

                                                                                    -  Mary McLeod Bethune

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© 2019 by the Women's Museum of California