The Organized Efforts
of the Colored Women of the South
to Improve Their Condition
May 1893 — The World’s Congress of Representative Women, Chicago IL
For two hundred and fifty years the negro woman of America was bought and sold as chattel. The sacred ties of wife and mother were broken and disdained. Side by side with the men of her race she toiled in the dank rice-swamps, in the cotton-fields, and the lone cane-brakes. She tilled the soil of her so-called master, enlarged his estates, heaped his coffers with shining gold, and filled his home with the splendors of the world. In character she was patient, sympathetic, and forgiving. She was counted but little higher than the brute creation that surrounded her, and was said to possess neither a brain nor a soul. Scourged by the hard hand of the slave-driver, and suffering every privation, there fell upon her a helplessness born of despair; but with an implicit trust and an unswerving faith in God, she caught the glinting light from the peak of freedom’s day.
The thoughts of a slave insurrection and the horrors of St. Domingo were in the mind of Longfellow when he penned these lines:
There is a poor blind Samson in the land,
Shorn of his strength and bound in bars of steel,
Who may, in some grim revel, raise his hand
And shake the pillars of the commonweal
Till the great temple of our liberties
A shapeless mass of wreck and ruin lies.
But our own Frances Harper, who championed the cause of the oppressed in the early anti-slavery days, sang with lips and tongue touched by a live coal:
Yes, Ethiopa shall stretch
Her bleeding hands abroad;
Her cry of agony shall reach
The burning throne of God.
Redeemed from dust and free from chains
Her sons shall lift their eyes,
From cloud-capped hills and verdant plains
Shall shouts of triumph rise.
When the first low mutterings from Fort Sumter were heard, hope sprang up within the negro woman’s breast, and when by an eternal fiat the gyves and chains of wrists and ankles were broken she stepped forth, her body scarred and striped by the lash, her intellect dwarfed and sunken into piteous ignorance, without money, clothes, or home — but a free woman.
With freedom’s first sweet draught came the thirst for knowledge. The drowsy intellect awoke under gracious influences to find itself possessed of powers hitherto unknown.
In 1865 Major-General O. O. Howard was appointed commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the bread of life was given to these hungry, starving souls. Never in the history of the world was there manifested on the part of any people such an earnest desire to obtain an education. Five years later the general made his report. It was full of interest. There were enrolled ninety-one thousand five hundred pupils, more than half of whom were women and girls. Mothers, gray-haired and bent with age, sat with the children poring over the spelling-book and reader.
Twenty-five years of progress find the Afro-American woman advanced beyond the most sanguine expectations. Her development from darkest slavery and grossest ignorance into light and liberty is one of the marvels of the age. Her friends and enemies united in declaring that she would die out under the higher refining influences of Christian civilization; but through unremitting exertions she has climbed to elevated planes, accepting all which dignifies and refines, and flourishing under it.
The negro woman has made greater progress educationally than in any other direction. We favor this as an intelligent choice, a wise decision, for what trade, profession or vocation in life may be entered upon without the basis of scholastic education? Moreover, it prepares her for her important duty in home economy, since she must mold the men of the future.
A score or more of our women have entered upon journalism. Some have reached greater heights, and rank as authors of distinction; and we point with pride to Frances Harper’s “Iola Leroy,” while Anna Cooper gives “no uncertain sound,” in “A Voice from the South.”
A poor orphan girl, left alone at an early age and forced to battle with the world, visited the city of Boston. As she gazed upon the statue of Franklin she became conscious of a latent power, and the genius within her cried out when she exclaimed, “I can make a stone man!” William Lloyd Garrison, the champion of human rights, came to her assistance, and in her studio in Rome Edmonia Lewis has converted the unpolished stone into fine statues. “Madonna with the Infant Christ,” “Hagar in the Wilderness,” and a life-size statue of Phillis Wheatley, the African poetess, attest her powers.
Europe, Asia, and Africa have heard the story of the cross sung and told by the sweet voice of Amanda Smith, the “singing pilgrim” of the race. In the darkness of the night-hour her lonely hut was made resplendent with the glory of another world, and the pent-up sorrow of a race was breathed out in songs that are immortal.
We may go to Austria for the music of a Mozart, to Belgium for that of a Beethoven, to Germany for that of a Handel and a Wagner, but when these countries call back to this land to produce her national music she must turn to the lowly slave, with the grand note of sadness resounding in her melodies, the reverberations of personal sufferings, as the only music truly and purely native American.
It was asserted that the negro was brutal, revengeful, murderous; and “the constant fear of an uprising” kept alert the vigilant patrol. In a distant city the Abolitionists were holding a meeting. Mr. Douglass, in his unrivaled eloquence, had graphically depicted the condition of the country and the gloomy outlook for the slave. In the lull that followed his earnest, burning words, Sojourner Truth calmly asked, “Frederick, is God dead?” These words of that black woman changed the whole tenor of that meeting, and they realized that God was not dead, but marching on, conquering and to conquer.
We hear Sojourner Truth, the black sibyl, prophesying the downfall of slavery when not a ray of light penetrated the gloom, when all hope seemed gone. In her own native ruggedness and homely but powerful eloquence she met in debate and defeated the solons of the Michigan Legislature. Her faith was sublime.
But let us make a tour of the Southland where the teeming millions are; pause and inspect the schools of learning and the industrial schools, where thousands of young women are receiving an education in art, science, literature, and handicraft. The mill and the factory are veritable hives of industry. The age and the race demand skilled labor, educated labor. The girls of the South are realizing that with a common education and a trade they are superior to the girl who completes the academic course and neglects the training of her hand. The girls of the South are realizing that they must refute the dark prophecies concerning the race by lives of integrity and chastity. To this end they have organized among themselves various societies, such as the Young Woman’s Christian Associations, Woman’s Christian Temperance Unions, the King’s Daughters, the Christian Endeavor, homes for orphans, for the aged and infirm, and many benevolent societies for the amelioration of the condition of the poor and helpless about them. I have come to this Congress to represent the women of the black belt of Alabama, black not on account of its numerous dark-skinned inhabitants, but black because of its ignorance, superstition, and degradation. Ten years ago Booker T. Washington founded a school at Tuskegee which has served as the one beacon-light in all the land of darkness. More than six hundred pupils have studied there.
Three hundred earnest girls bade me God-speed as I left them to come to this Congress. And if you would have a slight idea of the work they can do, they instructed me to say that you should look at the gown their representative wears, made by girls who six months ago could handle only the hoe and the plow. The whistle of the engine, the ring of the hammer, the buzz of the saw, the spinning of the wheel serve as music and inspiration to this school.
The gospel of honorable manual labor sinks into the mind with every stitch that is taken, with every nail that is driven. The dignity of labor is taught with every lesson in domestic economy, cooking, dressmaking, tailoring, nurse-training, and carpentry.
What more is needed?
Time and an equal chance in the race of life.
Ages of savagery and centuries of bondage weakened the intellect and dwarfed the faculties. The proper development of the mind, like the formation of character, must come by a slow and steady growth. What are thirty years in the history of a nation? It is but a day since Freedom blew her blast proclaiming liberty to the slave. The sound of the cannon’s breath has scarcely died upon the passing breeze; the smoke of the battlefield has hardly cleared away; the earth seems yet to tremble “neath the mighty tred of Sherman’s march to the sea.”
Talk not of the negro woman’s incapacity, of her inferiority, until the centuries of her hideous servitude have been succeeded by centuries of education, culture, and refinement, by which she may rise to the fullness of the stature of her highest ideal.
God speed the day when the white American woman, strengthened by her wealth, her social position, and her years of superior training, may clasp hands with the less fortunate black women of America, and both unite in declaring that “God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.”
Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, ed. May Wright Sewall (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company),1894, pp. 724-729.