Women’s Interracial Conference
October 8, 1920 — Women’s Interracial Conference, Memphis TN
I don’t know exactly why Mrs. Johnson has left me to be the last speaker when so many, many things have been said. I don’t see how you can expect anybody to say any more than has been said. I want to emphasize what Mrs. Haynes said. I am very grateful for this opportunity. At Tuskegee, when we met, these wonderful two consecrated women, I believe Mrs. Johnson and Miss Haskins both discovered that I was a little radical but at the least sincere. The things I uttered were the things I believe. You heard from Mrs. Washington yesterday afternoon, who represents the most conservative type of our Negro women in this country. And then you heard from Mrs. Moton directly and we all know what Dr. Moton stands for, and now you have heard from Mrs. Haynes. I, perhaps, represent a little different type than those in this particular. North Carolina gave me my birth but I grew up in New England. I love the State of North Carolina and, until very recently, I felt that there wasn’t a State in the Union that was better than North Carolina. All of us feel that there isn’t a better man in the world than Governor T. W. Bickett.[A] We feel that he is one man that has been willing to dare anything for law and order and for justice. He is one of the few white men who can stand up and face the Negro and say, “I cannot think of anytime in my life when I have done anything unkind to a Negro or said anything unkind to a Negro.” I grew up in the City of Cambridge. It gave me an opportunity to study the white race in a way that I could never have studied them if I had remained in the South. I don’t want to be one bit egotistic but having gone back into my native state and meeting what any colored woman meets, it took time to convince the white people in that particular section in which I was that what I wanted for the boys and girls of my race was just a fair chance, not what they termed social equality. I did want those boys and girls trained in the right way. Having an opportunity to know the white people, I do not believe that today in [the] North there is a single colored women who has more friends than I have been able to get in Guilford County, where my school is located. I think, my friends, that that one instance in itself proves that if we can find some point of contact, simply get close enough together to know each other, that it makes no difference in what section of the country we are, we can work out amicable relations.
I came to Memphis crushed and humiliated. I have been very optimistic. My heart has sung within me. But on my way to this conference, I went into the station at Greensboro and I told the man I was coming to this conference and that I had to be on the train overnight. I had just opened school that day, had been working all day and I needed a night’s sleep. I wasn’t going into that sleeper because I wanted to be with white people. Nine times out of ten, in taking a sleeper, I don’t go anywhere near the dressing room. And so I took a sleeper just as I had taken one before and I said to the agent, “Do you think it is all right to go on to Birmingham?” He said, “Yes”. I stayed in the sleeper, until I thought we were perhaps a few hours away from Birmingham. I had a premonition of trouble and I got out of my berth. I saw a young colored girl sitting in the car and I said, “We won’t occupy two seats, I am going to sit beside you”, and so as I sat there as we rode into Anniston, Ala., and while backing out, three or four young men began to walk up and down the aisle and by and by they gathered more and they began to stand at one corner and then at another and my heart began to fill up with fear. I began to tremble and I began to pray. “Lord, thou knowest me on what errand I am bound, and I am asking you to take care of me now.” Finally the group of three or four young men grew into eight or ten and then I counted twelve men. They represented in their forces the finest type of white men I have seen. One or two in the group were older men; they went first to the conductor and then to the porter. These twelve men came to look after two poor colored women. Will you just put yourself in my place. Just be colored for a few moments, and see yourself sitting down in a seat, helpless, with twelve young white men sitting around. A young man leaned forward and said, “We have wired ahead to have you taken off this train. Now, we give you your choice, to get off of this car right away and go into the day coach, or be taken off.” I said, “I don’t want any trouble.” He said, “You must get up and go or we will take you.” I said, “Let me see the conductor for a moment.” They said, “No.” So friends, not wishing to create a scene, wishing to get there, I said, “I want to get to that meeting. I want to tell those women that are gathered there that the women whom you had asked to come here and talk on race relations had to go through such an experience.” The leader of the crowd said, “Let’s march,” and these young men got in front of us and two or three behind and we were ushered into the colored day coach. Friends, I came here with a feeling of humiliation and I was so glad that Mrs. Johnson didn’t call on me yesterday. Last night I prayed and poured out my soul to my God, and I want to tell you that it was a struggle, But finally I said, “God forgive those young men for I believe they were lacking in soul.”[B] The thing that I have been praying for is that I may not lose hope in you, that I may not lose faith in God Almighty. My friends, will the religion of the Lord, Jesus Christ fail us in this awful time? To whom are we going to turn if we cannot turn to the American white man and have you interpret to us the teachings of Jesus Christ? I feel that I want to know God so well, I want to be on such familiar terms with Jesus Christ that when I come to you, I can realize that I can represent Him. I am going to tell you, my friends, it took courage. I have gotten over that feeling of resentment. I have asked the Lord to take away any feeling that I might have had toward those young men who could do me like that, because I feel that deep down in their souls, friends, there is something lacking. I can appreciate that there can be certain prejudices but you can never make me believe that any man who believed in God could lead two innocent women out in that humiliating manner, that those men had any of the spirit of Jesus Christ in them. And now, my friends, I want you to know that I do not think for a moment that these young men are in the majority. There is another thing, I don’t know whether or not there are any women here who were on that train, but the thing that grieved me most was that there were women in the car and there wasn’t a dissenting voice. I want to tell you that I grew up without any prejudice. I am going to tell you something right now. Mrs. Haynes referred to it. The greatest struggle on the part of Dr. Washington and other leaders of the Negro race in the South today was to keep prejudice away from our own souls. That is the very thing we are trying to fight. The younger people in our schools are getting to the place where they don’t want to hear a member of your race preach. You hear the young people say, “I don’t want any white man to preach to me.” That is unfortunate for them, for you, for us all. Isn’t it possible for people to work together for the good of all without allowing prejudice to control their souls? I believe in separate schools for the South, that is the best thing for both races. It gives us an opportunity and I want to refer to just one thing, the gentleman from Louisiana said. You people of the South owe a debt of gratitude to those Northern white women that you can never pay, for suppose they had waited as long as you have waited to wake up to the situation? What situation would you have down here today? You would have a mass of ignorant Negroes that would be a disgrace to the South. Those of us who are here today, not only us, but nearly one hundred thousand Negro women in the South today who are at the heads of their homes, who have had some training, they owe their training to those consecrated women who were willing to take their lives in their hands and come down here and teach. Of course, after the war, something had to be done. I picture particularly the slave mother, her little bark was simply thrust out to sea, with her little children around her, tossed here and there. She looked down in the deep sea and said, “Oh, God, before I’d go back to the life that I have led, I will drown myself in this sea.” There was held out to her a helping hand by those women of the North.
We are grateful to you for what you have done but I am going to tell you, my friends, that you missed a big opportunity and I say, “Thank God you are waking up today.” You have inefficient servants. Why do you have to put up with such inefficiency? Haven’t you gone on for years without paying any attention to the Negro schools around you? They paid no attention to us at all in Greensboro until someone announced the fact that there was an industrial school. What is the result of that school? People live at the telephone in Greensboro, N.C., asking me to furnish them with maids and nurses. They have not thought for a moment that they have not, until recently, given one dollar to that school. If shiftless Negro men and women when they were boys and girls could have been taken hold of at the proper time, you would not be today reaping the rewards of inefficient service that you are.
You speak about our Negro criminality. A great many of these Negroes are criminals. I am willing to admit it. The Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs started a movement to have a home for Negro boys. Our Governor was kind enough to send a statement to the paper approving of this act and we stirred up sentiment through the white papers in the State so that in his recent recommendation to the Legislature, one of the main things he has said is that we want a Reformatory for the Delinquent Negro boy. These children have been growing up without care while the colored woman has held to her bosom the white child. These little children that are left at home and on the street should be taken care of. I want to tell you one little instance. A little boy, handicapped with only one arm, was working around the place where his mother was a cook and this little boy, passing through the dining room of the restaurant, took a biscuit. The proprietor saw him. The proprietor wanted to make an example of this one-armed boy and had him arrested and that one-armed boy was taken to the county jail. That happened in North Carolina. That little boy stayed in jail for sometime.
Friends, what do you say about the cold-heartedness that we have felt? I told you to begin with, that we have become a little bit discouraged. We have begun to feel that you are not, after all, interested in us and I am going still further. The Negro women of the South lay everything that happens to the members of her race at the door of the Southern white woman. Just why I don’t know, but we all feel that you can control your men. We feel that so far as lynching is concerned that, if the white woman would take hold of the situation that lynching would be stopped, mob violence stamped out and yet the guilty would have justice meted out by due course of law and would be punished accordingly. We do not condone criminality. We do not want our men to do anything that would make you feel that they were trying to destroy the chastity of our white women and, on the other hand, I want to say to you, when you read in the paper where a colored man has insulted a white woman, just multiply that by one thousand and you have some idea of the number of colored women insulted by white men.
There is nothing fast looking about me. And yet I can tell you that more than a hundred times in twenty years I have had to speak up and say, “Mister, you have missed your woman.” I want to ask my friends, that while you want to see the criminal who sets upon you punished, won’t you help us, friends, to bring to justice the criminal in your race who is just as much criminal when he tramps on the womanhood of my race. I want you to know, my friends, that we are anxious to work with you to bring about a better citizenship.
The term “Mister” and “Mistress” has been referred to here. I do not want to give any more time to it. Two years ago, one of the editors in Greensboro said several nice things about the school and in an editorial he referred to Mrs. Brown. He told me afterwards that numbers of white women called him up and censured him for referring to a Negro woman as “Mrs.” The next time there was an article about Charlotte Hawkins Brown and right on that page it said Louise McWhorter bootlegging, and I said to the man, “Don’t you think you should make a little difference between me and Louise McWhorter?” He said, “Yes, but it is the policy of our paper not to put in Mr. or Mrs. before the name of any colored person.[“] So I said, “Will you make a compromise for the sake of the Negroes that are interested in the school?” I finally said, “If you will keep my name in the paper, won[‘]t you please put ‘Principal’ before it, so the Negroes who are selling whiskey will feel that you at least look upon those of us who are struggling with higher respect than those who are doing nothing at all?”
I tell you that the fault of a great many of us is, with all the advancements of these fifty years, you are still thinking of the Negro in the terms of 1860. I have some idea of what bitter times the reconstruction days were. But we do not tell to our children the horrible stories of slavery that come down to us. I know that slavery in the U.S. may have been far from beneficient than in any other place but yet I know too that there were some horrible crimes committed against our people. But I say, you and I are not particularly concerned with reconstruction days. I should not have hatred or feeling against you because of things that happened in slavery, neither should you have things against me because of the days of reconstruction. If I refuse to tell you the things my grandmother told me, aren’t you willing to forget those horrible things of reconstruction and not pass them on to your children? You are not going to let me be bigger than you? We are trying to put back of us all of the things that have happened to us. We are trying to keep these away from our children. I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ so muc[h], my friends. I am not going to hate you. I must meet my God. Every day of my life I must kneel and ask God for the support of that little school up in North Carolina. Do you think I am going to destroy the possibility of a personal friendship with Jesus Christ, do you think I am going to tear that out of my life by hating you, or by failing to love you? I believe that “Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.” I ask you who is the rightful neighbor of the Southern white man if it isn’t the Negro? You haven’t got to teach us love. May your God in Heaven help you to teach your children to love us. Tell them about the beautiful things the colored women have done for them. Tell them what occurred right in Georgia. A deal[?], little colored woman who had nursed for years in a white family. The children had crawled upon her knees and known her as “Mammy”. She had stopped working for the family but she would go in occasionally to see them. Finally the children began to stand off and she began to find out that the mother was teaching the children that, while they were little, it was all right to cuddle up to old mammy but now that they were getting older they mustn’t do it because she was a Negro. The thing I want to ask you, white women all over this country, North and South, is to put yourself in my place, and then, friends, I want you as Christian women, to ask yourself the question “What would Jesus do if he were in my place?” That is the question. I ask myself about those twelve men. I remember what he did. He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” That is the conclusion to which I’ve come. I do not believe that people who really understand the teaching of the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, would mistreat me.
I am teaching our children to put out their heart-aches, to pour out their sorrows, their misunderstandings, at the feet of Jesus Christ, and I know that if you are Christian women, that in the final analysis you are going to have to reach out for the same hand that I am reaching out for but I know that the dear Lord will not receive it if you are crushing me beneath your feet.
Source: Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Speech Given at the Women’s Interracial Conference, Memphis, Tennessee, 8 October 1920, Commission on Interracial Cooperation Papers, Atlanta University Center, Robert W. Woodruff Library, (Commission on Interracial Cooperation, 1919-1944, microfilm, reel 20, frames 932-39), 8 pp.