to the National Association of Colored Women
July 1901 — National Association of Colored Women, Buffalo NY
Five years ago the National Association of Colored Women was an experiment. To night it is a magnificent success. In July 1896 this organization was considered a possibility, perhaps and a probability at best. Tonight it is a living, breathing, and beautiful reality.
Five years ago our most sanguine friends had a sigh in the heart, a tear in the voice and an awesome solemnity about them when they ventured to express the hope that the baby which had been christened in Washington as the National Association of Colored Women might live and thrive. Tonight the trained nurses and physicians who make a speciality of children’s diseases and growth declare that this baby had passed the dangerous period in an infant’s life and has developed into a vigorous, active child.
There were prophets of evil who in July, 1896 horoscoped the National Association and solemnly assured us that it would soon die a speedy death. After intently studying the stars these soothsayers reported that it would not even have the pleasure of wasting away gradually by a lingering disease, but the signs indicated that it would be carried off suddenly by some ailment which would do its deadly work of destruction in a trice. But the prophets who expected to see the National Association whisked off this mundane sphere by galloping consumption or its twin sister must admit now that the stars played a trick upon them and their power of divination failed, for this child whose speedy demise was foretold is the liveliest corpse they ever saw.
For growth and development of the National Association of Colored Women all who are interested in the welfare of the race must be devoutly thankful. The more civilization advances, the more clearly is it demonstrated that women by their influence make or mar the home. This is simply another way of saying that the moral status of a people depends to a large extent upon the women. For the policy and the principles of a nation are but reflections of the practices and the precepts of its homes. The responsibility resting upon all women therefore, is serious and great. But upon none does duty call more loudly for active service and cheerful sacrifice than the colored women of this country from the very nature of the case. The denser the ignorance, and the greater the degradation of the masses of a people, the harder should the more favored portions strive to illumine the minds and improve the morals of those whom it is in their power to uplift.
It is occasion for congratulations and ground for hope that the women of the poorest, the most illiterate and the most oppressed race in this country are keenly alive to the duties which rest upon them and are eager to discharge their obligations well.
As an exponent of the earnestness and effectiveness of colored women the National Association is not only a refutation of the charge that as a race we do little or nothing to help ourselves, but it is a solid foundation upon which to build bright hopes for more brilliant achievements in the future. When we think of the obstacles which the National Association has had to overcome and then consider the service which it has actually rendered, there is every reason why we should defy failure and banish fear.
Having aimed at the stars five years ago, the height to which we have ascended may seem insignificant and small. But before judgment is passed upon the progress made, the effort required to reach the position occupied must be balanced and weighed. Greater exertion and more redoubtable courage are necessary to clamber only half way up the steep and rugged side of some mountains than to scale the summits of others. It would be impossible to approximate how much more might have been accomplished by the Association than can be placed to its account to night, if conditions peculiar to the race had not existed. There is no doubt that the well directed efforts to increase its sphere of usefulness which have been put forth by some of our most active workers, instead of being deprived of much of their power and force, would under other circumstances have been crowned with far richer success.
We have been handicapped from within on account of lack of experience and lack of means. It has also been necessary to overcome the inertia of some of our brainiest and most reliable women. They saw clearly how much good might be accomplished by a national organization of colored women, but they did not believe that we had yet reached that stage in our development where such a thing was possible. So seriously did they doubt that union and cooperation among us could be effected that it has been difficult to persuade them to join us and to night they can scarcely believe the evidence of their own eyes.
Though the National Association has not entirely escaped the criticism, of which all good things and worthy people are sometimes the victims, its progress has not been greatly impeded thereby. The world no longer frets itself about those unfortunately constructed mortals, whose eyes are holden, so that the good which is done, they cannot see, even when it rises like a mountain before them, but whose optics would put to blush the powerful magnifying glass in a first rate microscope, when it comes to detecting the bad, even though it is no larger than a mustard seed. The world has also weighed in the balance and found wanting the chronic faultfinders, whose tongues wag ever in blame, but never in praise.
Though the Association has not suffered to any great extent from criticism, it has been seriously affected by the doubts and fears of the timid. Not only have the astrologers and the prophets of evil paid their respects to us, but the Association has been the victim of philosophers as well, and their syllogisms have almost scared some of our women to death. With an air of superior wisdom they have looked over their glasses at us and declared with great profundity that such and such effects always follow such and such a cause. Ergo this and therefore the other, the conclusion of the whole matter being that since the National Association was not pursuing the course which they had advised, it would speedily come to naught. Everybody who has made a special study of womankind knows that there are only two things in the world which will [frighten] whole army of them and put them to flight in a trice. One of them is a poor little mouse and the other is the cold reason and stern logic of logicians and philosophers of either the male or the female persuasion, who are considered the alpha and omega of all wisdom. The National Association has not wasted much time in trying to answer, either seriatim or otherwise, the points raised against it by the philosophers and logicians, but it has gone right on, relying upon woman’s infallible intuition which teaches her to find a way or to make it. The success of this organization is another proof of the fact that an ounce of honest, earnest effort to do good with the small means at hands is worth more than a pound of logic and a ton of philosophy in the abstract.
After all what do you women propose to do? Is a question which is frequently asked.
Should I attempt to answer this in detail, I should take more of your time than it is right for me to consume. The National Association has striven from the very first to implant in our women a stronger desire to help themselves than they had previous to its organization. For many years the conviction had been growing upon our more thoughtful women that if the eyes of the women of the race were opened to the dangers lurking in certain practices and habits, peculiar to all peoples, whose condition in life is similar to our own that battle against them would be already half won. But how shall the women be most quickly reached and most directly influenced was the question. Some of our women whose vision was clearer than that of their less illumined sisters declared that these was only one way to answer this question and that was by organizing them all over the country. Though they themselves were unable to carry this suggestion into execution, their efforts in this direction were not without avail. The idea of consolidation of forces started to take root. After a short while our women began to make practical application of knowledge which they had possessed theoretically for a long time–namely that a single individual is weak but a combination of individuals is strong. The National Association has not only succeeded in implanting in our women a stronger desire to help themselves, but it has demonstrated to them that upon union of forces and oneness of purpose hang for us as colored women all the law and the prophets. Isolated from each other’s sympathy, separated in thought and divided in purpose, we shall be a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal, but with community of interests and solidarity of place all things are possible to us. We have learned a valuable lesson from that great organization of women, to whose unremitting zeal, constant agitation against unjust restrictions imposed upon the weaker sex, and to whose heroic self sacrifice every woman in this country and many beyond the seas are indebted for opportunities offered and privileges enjoyed. While we too have fallen heirs to some of the rich legacy bequeathed us by the pioneers in women’s cause, we are cheated out of so much of our inheritance on account of the prejudice, that it is just as necessary for us to contend against injustice and battle with wrong as it was for our more favored sisters sixty years ago.
On general principles what is stated about union is true, you say, but have you anything tangible to show us as the result of this union among colored women? Come with me to many cities and towns throughout the North, East, South, and West, and you may see for yourself what has been accomplished. Let me conduct you to meetings held by our women, who are bending all their energy to improve the mental and moral tone of the home. Some of them are mothers, whose hearts are heavy with burdens rolled there by an unrelenting prejudice which makes it difficult for them to rear their children and provide for their future as they should. With so much to degrade and discourage our boys and girls, how we shall train them to become self respecting men and women? Inspite of the cruel mandate of the Trades Union, which is driving our boys from so many of the gainful occupations, how shall we prepare to make an honest living and thus save them from lives of shame? How shall we protect our girls? How shall we best inculcate lessons of virtue and instill habits of thrift? These and other questions are being asked by our women with an intensity and earnestness which seem to indicate that the very happiness of their lives depends on satisfactory reply. These mothers[‘] meetings which have been established largely through the instrumentality of the National Association have already done a vast amount of good, but will yet be the means of salvation to many a child.
If you will go with me to New Orleans, La. I shall show you a monument to the industry, the self sacrifice and the courage of a handful of colored women. It is a sanitarium with a training school for nurses. It was established, so that our women might learn the profession of nursing the sick, and that colored patients who are able to pay might secure suitable, private apartments during their illness, a thing which could be obtained by them in no hospital in the city. In Memphis Tenn. you may stand upon a plot of ground, which has been purchased and every cent of it paid for by the colored women of that city, who intend to erect upon it soon an Old Folks Home. In St. Louis Mo. you may behold colored women industriously striving to found a Children[‘]s Home. In Chicago you will see our women engaged in various works of reform. Some of them among their unfortunate sisters whom a vicious enviroment has dragged into the mire of vice; some among the poor and needy, whom their charity relieves; some among careless and unworthy parents of the children of the public schools who are being urged to inculcate in the home the lessons which are taught in the school. In these and various other activities and charities our women are earnestly engaging, because they are feeling more and more a deep responsibility for the unfortunate and the illfavored of the race.
What has so aroused their interest and stirred their hearts [?] Those who have seen the glowing eye and the eager enthusiasm of the women, who have attended our meetings in the past have some idea of the source from which all this zeal springs. We must cherish the National Association of Colored Women as the apple of our eye. Between the Scylla of unjust criticism and the Charybdis of internal strife, we must steer it straight to the haven of progress toward which we have already sailed so far. It will be unavoidable perhaps, that difference of opinion may arise among us from time to time, but so long as we are intent upon the good for which we are banded to gether, and are charitable one to the other, there need be no fear that our beloved organization will ever be torn asunder by dissension and strife. The society, whose members are wise and honest enough to bow to the will of the majority may live as long and grow as old as the rockribbed and ancient hills.
But as the organization which numbers in its folds even a few of those high-handed individuals who know no law but their own wills, verily it has a mill stone tied about its neck, which when the waves of discussion and difference run high will prevent it from reaching a shore of safety and may drag it to the bottom of the sea. The Father Omniscient has made his creatures so to differ one from the other physically that no two are alike we are told. It is certain that the difference in the mental composition of men is radical and pronounced. It is folly therefore to expect perfect unanimity of opinion among even a few individuals who are equally intelligent and equally good. It is impossible to secure such unanimity among many individuals who differ so widely one from the other in intellectual capacity, in environment and in the interest which they bear an organization to which they belong. It would be a pity, if we all thought alike, for we should soon find ourselves in the monotonous calm of stagnation instead of being borne rapidly along by the stiff breeze of progress.
Difference of opinion in an organization is only a sign of healthful progress and growth, when the members abide by the law, and are generous enough to credit those who cannot subscribe to their views with the same honesty of purpose which they themselves profess. In using their God given powers of reason it is expected that some of the members of this Association will not reach conclusions arrived at by others, and some will not see the wisdom of plans to which others are willing to pin their faith, and they will be frank enough to say so. On this account critics who set up a standard of unanimity which no organization has ever reached may declare that there is so much dissatisfaction and bickering in our ranks that the Association does not deserve support of good people. But let not your hearts be troubled, so long as the spirit of tolerance is exhibited by the members of the Association one toward another, when we cannot all think alike. In laying down the presidency of the Association which I have held for five years, I wish to congratulate you heartily upon the harmony which has thus far existed in your ranks, and I hope that peace may ever abide with us. If a little ripple has appeared upon the placid stream of our existence, the little eddies have spent their force long before they were able to do any harm.
The Association has been both earnest and effective in the past, but its members must redouble their energy, in order to enable it to do all that it is possible for it to accomplish in the future. The world has a right to expect far greater things of us in the five years to come than we have been able to achieve in the five years that are past, now that we are firmly established and are so much richer in experience. There are many other things to which we must attend. Our constitution deserves a more careful and a more prayerful consideration that it has yet received. If there are provisions in it which are inimical to the highest interests of the Association they must be eliminated. We must add to those already made, if after discussion of the matter we decide that its efficiency will be increased thereby. Would that all the work which lies before us were as easy of accomplishment as that pertaining to the constitution. What a large and varied field of usefulness lies before us only those know who are conversant with our needs and see how few there are to minister to them.
As long as there is a system in this country which for a trivial offence drags men and women of our race into cells, whose air space is less than the cubic contents of a good size grave, there is something for thoughtful charitable colored women to do.
As long as hundreds of colored children are born in the Convict Camps of the South, breathe the polluted atmosphere of disease and crime from the time they utter their first cry into the world, until they are released from its horrors by death, idleness on our part is sin. It is an established fact that colored people in some parts of the South are sentenced to [the] penitentiary for life for light transgressions of the law. That is they are sent to the Convict camp for ten years or more, and it is a matter or record that it is impossible for any human creature to live in some of these camps longer than ten years, and only a few are able to endure their horrors so long. In the face of such injustice and inhumanity shall we remain silent? Shall we not try to arouse the conscience of the country against this great wrong?
The joy and pride we experience in the moral rectitude of our own daughters must be alloyed with a certain sorrow and shame, if we do nothing to save the girls of other women, who are ruined, both because the temptations to which they are subjected are particularly great and because the men who wrong them know that they can escape punishment with ease. It is our duty to expose the laxity with which laws enacted to protect all womankind are executed, when the victim is a colored girl. Silence is something golden, but the silence which seals the lips of colored women, so that they fail to expose the snares set and the temptations laid for their own girls is the basest kind of dross. When we know that colored girls are sacrificed to the lust of libertines who can sin against them with impunity, our duty is two fold. We should present the ugly facts to the public and we should do all in our power to change the public sentiment of those sections, which because it winks at the destruction of colored girls, is to a large extent responsible for it. Public sentiment is moulded by the stronger and not by the weaker element in society, you may say, and colored women certainly belong to the weaker. In this particular case, it will be difficult for the weaker element to raise to the moral standard of that stronger which during two hundred and fifty years of slavery was schooled to look complacently upon the wholesale prostitution of the women of the enslaved race. We can agitate, and plead our cause, however, even though we are helpless, weak minority. No great revolution was ever wrought in the world, which was not started by this helpless, weak minority. By dispassionate appeals to the intelligence and the charity of those, whose eyes they tried to open, and whose hearts they strove to touch, this helpless, weak minority swelled into a triumphant majority at last.
We are here to night, no longer bond, but free, because only a handful of men and women contended against slavery with such zeal and desperate earnestness that the thousands who were hostile or luke warm at first were converted to the cause of right, so that freedom finally triumphed in the land. Let us exert ourselves strenuously to mould public opinion in our favor, and let us plead neither inability nor weakness as an excuse for our idleness. It is better to try and fail than not to try at all.
Last winter a colored woman was suspected of knowing something about a pocket book containing a sum of money which her brother had found. The brother could not be apprehended, so the mob seized the woman, riddled her with bullets and threw her body into the river. It is a reproach to us, her sisters, if we sit in calm serenity at our own firesides without making an effort to secure for those less fortunate than ourselves the same protection of the law which we ourselves enjoy. No matter how earnest and courageous colored women are, they cannot hope to suppress lynching, you say.
Lynching is spreading rapidly, and is taking a firmer hold upon the people every day. But the magnitude of a wrong does not excuse those who see how heinous it is from trying to crush it, no matter how firm a hold upon the people it may have. It is too much to expect, of course, that colored women will be able to suppress lynching solely through the efforts which they themselves put forth. I believe a vast amount of good would be done, however, if colored women petitioned regularly the legislatures of those states in which lynchings occur most frequently and should appeal to those in authority to throw around the colored criminal the same protection of the law which the white criminal enjoys.
There is a crying need of kindergartens. Hundreds of colored children are reared in the hot beds of vice and sin, whose highest ideals are the criminals and the moral degenerates with whom they come in daily contact. When we clasp to our bosom our own little darlings can we do so with a happiness unmixed with pain, if we put no effort to rescue these unfortunate little mites, some of whom it is in our power to save? How easy it would be for the women of every organization in the Association to become ministering angels unto the feet of children who are helpless or lamps unto the feet of those whose little lives are shrouded in the darkness of ignorance and sin. It is easy enough for you to suggest these utopian schemes, some may say, but kindergartens cannot be established without money and colored women are poor. Dollars and cents are necessary for the prosecution of any work of reform. It is amazing how much can be accomplished for the moral uplift of children without the outlay of a large sum of money. Have you but observed how easy it is to raise funds for any object in which you are interested heart and soul?
As long as lack of employment forces our youth to idleness or crime, it is the duty of the wives, mothers, daughters and sisters to plead for justice and knock at the gates of labor, until those who have closed them shall open them unto us. In discussing the labor question, let us look at the facts exactly as they are. Let us not try to shirk the responsibility which we ourselves should share, nor try to escape the blame which we ourselves should bear. While it is true that it is difficult for us to secure employment in the majority of cases, because of the prejudice which rages so violently against us, rather than because of lack of skill on our part, there is no doubt that the careless[,] shiftless methods of poorly equipped workmen have brought the whole race into disrepute. Let us sound the note of warning to our wage earners. Let us show them what a great injustice they do themselves and what an irreparable injury they inflict upon the whole race, when they do not make themselves proficient in whatever trade or occupation in which they engage.
Evils in the home must be corrected. In many instances whole families are huddled together in a single apartment without regard to age or sex. Some of these people would undoubtedly make an effort to improve their manner of living, if they could be brought to a realizing sense of their own degradation and could be shown at the same time how to remove the most objectionable features with the small means at hand. This is being done to some extent round about Tuskegee, I have learned. The women are being taught how to partition off their one room huts with sheets and quilts, when nothing better can be procured, how to construct washstands out of dry goods boxes, and how to make wash tubs answer every purpose of the bath.
According to statistics compiled by men who would not be inclined to make a mistake in our favor, immortality among the masses of colored women is not so great as among women similarly situated in several foreign lands. Considering our past condition and the circumstances of the present in certain sections, this is highly encouraging. From personal observation and comparison I am persuaded that there are as few scandals in families of colored people who have had the advantage of an education and training as in families of other races of the same intelligence and culture. There is still much left for us to do however, if we would improve the social atmosphere. We must insist upon it that the men who transgress the moral law shall be punished as severely and banished from decent society as inevitably as are the women whom they destroy if we would protect our girls and be true to ourselves.
All this and much more than this must be done, if as a race we would leave behind us the faults and shake off the sins which so seriously handicap us. Who can raise the standard of right living and correct thinking better than the women of the race? In the church, in the home, in the school, in society we wield an influence which can be made either a stumbling block to hinder or a lever to uplift. Let us be enthusiastic in our work. Nothing can destroy an organization so quickly and completely as the half hearted, lackadaisical support of its members. A great man declared recently that one who can plan is good, far better is the man who can stimulate. History affords at every turn some impregnable fortress that was a despair of the wise and prudent but was carried by some enthusiast by a rush. What the National Association needs most just at present is a goodly number of women who are not only earnest, but full of enthusiasm for the work which the organization is trying to do, and who can inspire others with their zeal. Members of the National Association of Colored Women, you see your duty and I believe you will do it. Talk not of failure. With hands clasped and hearts united, we cannot fail, though all the hosts of satan were in battle array against us.
Right will prevail in the end, though wrong may conquer for a time upon it, this is as true as it is trite.
Take courage therefore. Let neither height nor depth nor any other creature turn you aside from your goal. Looking through smoke glasses at the world in general and at everything which pertains to the race in particular is a contagious disease, which kills, for it destroys hope, and by hope says St. Paul we are healed. Without hope we can do nothing. Dante’s idea of hell is a place from which hope is excluded. All hope abandon, yet who enter here was written over the portal of that region to which the wicked were sent to expiate their sins. By refusing to entertain hope, let us not make of this fair earth a hell. As far as possible let us look upon the bright side of the Negro’s present status and not cultivate the habit of looking upon the dark. Let us consider the achievements in all departments of art and literature, the success in finance[,] the progress along all line which the Negro has made under such discouraging circumstances during the past forty[,] years instead of expatiating constantly upon his short coming and harping always on his woe. No great thing was ever accomplished for the amelioration of mankind by a chronic pessimist or a morbid misanthrope. Let hope be our watchword, therefore, progress our aim and work, incessant, earnest toil for those whom we can help the cornerstone of our creed.
Source: “Third Address to the National Association of Colored Women,” Buffalo, New York, July 1901, Mary Church Terrell Papers, Library of Congress (Microfilm, reel 20, frames 756-62).