The Organized Efforts
of the Colored Women of the South
to Improve Their Condition
May 1893 — The Congress of Women, Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
In this age of development and advancement all the forces which have been accumulating for centuries past seem to be concentrated in one grand effort to raise mankind to that degree of intellectual and moral excellence which a wise and beneficent Creator designed that he should enjoy. No class of persons is exempt from this great impulse. The most unlettered, the most remote and obscure, as well as the most refined and erudite seem to have felt the touch of an unseen power, and to have heard a mysterious voice calling them to ascend higher in the scale of being. It is not a strange coincidence, then, that in this period of restlessness and activity the women of all lands should simultaneously see the necessity of taking a more exalted position, and of seeking a more effective way of ascending to the same plane, and assuming the more responsible duties of life with her favored brother.
In organization is found all the elements of success in any enterprise, and by this method alone are developed the force and ability that have reared the grand structure of human society. God intended that man should be a social being, for he has given to no one individual the genius to construct by his efforts alone the complex edifice.
Step by step, as the dark cloud of ignorance and superstition is dispelled by the penetrating rays of the light of eternal truth, men begin to think, and thought brings revolution, and revolution changes the condition of men and leads them into a happier and brighter existence. So have the great revolutions of the age affected the condition of the colored people of the Southern States, and brought them into a more hopeful relation to the world. When they emerged from the long night of oppression, which shrouded their minds in darkness, crushed the energies of their soul, robbed them of every inheritance save their trust in God, they found themselves penniless, homeless, destitute, with thousands of aged and infirm and helpless left on their hands to support, and poverty and inexperience prevailing everywhere. To improve their social condition was the first impulse of their nature. For this purpose they began immediately to organize themselves into mutual aid societies, the object of which was to assist the more destitute, to provide for the sick, to bury the dead, to provide a fund for orphans and widows. These societies were the beginning of their strength, the groundwork of their future advancement and permanent elevation. They were constructed with admirable skill and harmony. Excellent charters were secured, and the constitution and by-laws were adhered to with remarkable fidelity. The membership increased rapidly, and the funds in the treasuries grew daily. The women, being organized separately, conducted their societies with wonderful wisdom and forethought. Their influence for good was felt in every community, and they found themselves drawn together by a friendly interest which greatly enhanced the blessings of life. Their sick and dead and orphans have been properly cared for. Thus our people have shown a self-dependence scarcely equaled by any other people, a refined sensibility in denying themselves the necessities of life to save thousands of children from want and adults from public charity; in screening them from the stinging arrows of the tongue of slander and the carping criticisms of a relentless foe.
These organizations number at least five thousand and carry a membership of at least a half-million women. They have widened into State societies, and some of the stronger bodies into national organizations, meeting in annual assemblies to transact business and to discuss their future well-being. They have in some States built and sustained orphans’ homes, and in others purchased their own cemeteries. They have built commodious halls for renting purposes; they have assisted in building churches and other benevolent institutions. They have granted large death benefits, and thus provided homes for many orphan children, and have deposited large sums in savings banks for future use. Should the question be asked what benefit has accrued from these organized efforts, we answer, much in every way. Their organizations have bound the women together in a common interest so strong that no earthly force can sever it. Organization has taught them the art of self-government, and has prepared the way for future and grander organizations. By their frequent convocations and discussions their intellectual powers have been expanded and their judgment has been enlightened. Organization has given hope for a better future by revealing to colored women their own executive ability. It has stimulated them to acquire wealth by teaching them to husband their means properly. It has intensified their religion by giving them a more exalted idea of God through a constant survey of his goodness and mercies toward them. It has refined their morality through adherence to their most excellent constitutions and by-laws. It has assisted in raising them from a condition of helplessness and destitution to a state of self-dependence and prosperity; and now they stand a grand sisterhood, nearly one million strong, bound together by the strongest ties of which the human mind can conceive, being loyal to their race, loyal to the government, and loyal to their God.
Having thus provided for their future well-being, their attention was turned to the spread of the gospel. With hearts glowing with the love of God, they longed to assist in building up his kingdom on earth. Many devout women joined themselves into missionary societies to obtain means with which to send the gospel to other parts of the world more destitute than their own. They were auxiliary to the churches of various denominations, and multiplied until their scanty donations amounted to sums sufficient to accomplish much good in the Master’s cause. On the women’s part in the African Methodist Episcopal church they have donated the sum of thirty thousand dollars, and a like amount in each of the five other leading denominations. The Presbyterian Home and Foreign Missionary Society sustains missions in West Africa, the West Indies, the Bermuda Islands, South America, and the islands of Hayti and St. Thomas. The home missions of the various denominations occupy the time of more than one thousand ministers. About the year 1890 the women of the African Methodist Episcopal church formed a mite missionary society, which has its auxiliary branches all over the Union. They now labor assiduously for the advancement of the foreign missions they had prayed for. They believe in him who blessed the widow’s mite, and who pronounced a divine benediction on the modest disciple who had done what she could.
This organization raises two thousand dollars annually, sustaining two or three missionaries in Hayti, and assists in the Bermuda and West African missions. The aggregate of all the money raised annually by the colored churches amounts to over half a million of dollars, and by far the greater share is raised by the women.
Many a benighted heathen has heard the gospel through their instrumentalities. By their efforts they themselves have become better informed concerning the gospel, and better acquainted with the world and its inhabitants. In trying to raise others they have learned to look up from their toilsome and abject present to a brighter and more glorious future. They have learned to exalt the goodness of God as manifest in the sanctification of their work to his honor and glory. This has raised in them a holy ambition to accomplish greater good for their fellow-men.
The colored women of the Southern States have not been indifferent to the necessity of guarding their homes against the pernicious influences of the drinking system. They have begun to fortify themselves against the most powerful of all enemies — strong drink. Woman’s Christian temperance unions have been formed in all Southern States, into which many hundreds have gathered, who work with much patience and diligence. Hospital work, prison work, social purity, and flower mission work, and the distribution of literature among all classes of persons have been performed faithfully, and many erring and destitute souls have felt the tenderness and shared the bounty of the benevolent hearts and ready hands of the colored women of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Unions.
These organizations have accomplished much in forming temperance sentiment among the people and in the churches, and have helped materially in changing votes at the polls for prohibition.
Again, when this fair land was distracted by contending factions, and military forces left desolation and ruin in their pathway, while enemies met in deadly conflict on the fields of battle, the expiring soldier longed for the soothing touch of woman’s hand, and his heart yearned for the consoling words of woman’s prayer. It was then on the blood-drenched field that the colored women showed the deepest sympathy for suffering humanity and the highest valor and loyalty by stanching the bleeding wounds, and cooling the parched lips with water, and raising the fainting head, and fanning the fevered brow, and with tender solicitude watching by the dying couch, and breathing the last prayer with him who had laid down his life for his country. The colored men often endangered their lives by passing the line of the enemy to carry messages to the officers of the Union army, so that a part of the army was saved not once nor twice but often by their daring valor. And when her loyal and chivalric brothers, of whose loyalty and valor she was justly proud, returned from the conflict with halting limbs and shattered frames, and victory perched on their banners, they were content to lie down and die, and leave their widows and orphans to the care of a merciful God and their brave comrades. When the women of the nation proposed to form relief corps to assist the needy comrades of the Grand Army of the Republic and care for their orphans and widows, the colored women did not hesitate, but when opportunity offered they organized, and they have many active and industrious corps accomplishing much noble work, in assisting the needy, decorating graves, presenting flags to schools, and in many ways instilling patriotism.
If we compare the present condition of the colored people of the South with their condition twenty-eight years ago, we shall see how the organized efforts of their women have contributed to the elevation of the race and their marvelous advancement in so short a time. When they emerged from oppression they were homeless and destitute; now they are legal owners of real estate to the value of two hundred and sixty-three millions of dollars. Then they were penniless, but now they have more than two millions in bank. In several States they have banks of their own in successful operation, in which the women furnish the greater number of deposits. Then they had no schools, and but few of the people were able to read; now more than four millions of their women can read. Then they had no high schools, but now they have two hundred colleges, twenty-seven of which are owned and conducted by their own race.
These feeble efforts at organization to improve our condition seem insignificant to the world, but this beginning, insignificant as it may seem, portends a brighter and nobler future. If we in the midst of poverty and proscription can aspire to a noble destiny to which God is leading all his rational creatures, what may we not accomplish in the day of prosperity?
Hark! I hear the tramp of a million feet, and the sound of a million voices answer, we are coming to the front ranks of civilization and refinement.
Five hundred thousand girls and young women are now crowding our schools and colleges; they are forming literary societies, Young Women’s Christian Associations, Christian Endeavor Societies, bands of King’s Daughters, and with all the appliances of modern civilization which have a tendency to enlighten the mind and cultivate the heart, they will emerge into society, with all their acquired ability, to perfect that system of organization among their race of which they themselves are the first fruits.
Source: A Historical Resume of The World’s Congress of Representative Women, (Chicago: Rand and McNally), 1894, pp. 718-724.
Also: National W.C.T.U. Annual Report, 1894, pp. 718-724.