Select Page

The Coloured Women of America

October 11, 1877 — Fifth Annual Women’s Congress, Case Hall, Cleveland OH


The storm cloud of battle rolled away. The thunder of contending batteries ceased to crash and vibrate on the air, when, upon the threshold of a new era, stood millions of men, women, and children, newly endowed with freedom, but facing an uncertain future. Very soon the coloured man was permitted to exchange the fetters on his wrist for the ballot in his right hand. Before him were the stimulus of hope and the spur of opportunity, and if he were strong enough he might open for himself the gates of enterprise, endeavour, and achievement, and struggle up from the plantations of the South into the council chambers of the nation. With the coloured woman there had been, it is true, a great change of condition. The chattel slave had received her personal freedom, but was retained in political thraldom. Yet freedom itself is a great advantage. To elevate the man was, in a measure, to lift up the woman. So close is the duality between man and woman, that they must ever rise or fall together. You cannot raise one side without giving an upward inclination to the other. In the new condition of things, the coloured man vaulted into power, You cannot raise one side without giving an upward inclination to the other. In the new condition of things, the coloured man vaulted into power, the coloured woman was left behind to serve. Born under a despotism where he had seen the coloured woman treated as an article of mer chandise, the coloured man had himself emerged from a wretched school in which to have learned a gentle and tender reverence for the sacred claims and rights of her womanhood. Nor did he invariably seem to have very fine ideas about the ”subjection of women,” and he maintaining of that subjection by force. “You must whip them or leave them.” “I always thought that a woman’s or lady’s head was unfinished,” are remarks which have fallen on my ear in the South. As a lecturer, part of my teaching has been the very alphabet of civilisation, of better treatment of woman, and regard for the marriage relation. If a race would grow in the right direction, it must plant the roots of progress under the hearthstone. But if it be said, the coloured woman only changed or rather increased her masters, yet freedom brought her one great advantage. It gave her opportunity for social advancement and individual development. Trodden under foot for ages, with indignities heaped upon her that well might crimson the cheek of honest womanhood with shame, the question may be asked, is there power enough of self-redemption in the coloured woman to enable her to take her place in the great ranks of American woman hood, not as the fag end of creation, but as a woman and a sister, adding her intelligence to the great reservoirs of national thought, and her quota of usefulness to the progress and development of the country? A man, in pursuing a journey, can tell the progress he has made by the milestones he has passed; and so, in estimating the advancement of the coloured woman, it is just to take into consideration the starting points of our race-ife in this country, and the helps and hindrances in our way. It would not be just to demand that a woman weighted down with a hundred pounds’ weight should run as swiftly as one who starts on the same race with unfettered limbs and unretarding gar ments. Behind us, as a race, are the barbarism of heathendom and the inferior civilisation of slavery, and their mournful outcome was the subjection of the coloured woman to almost irresponsible power, where her rights, as maiden, wife, and mother, could be ruthlessly invaded. The Hon. Horace Mann, in one of his works, tells of a girl who was sold six time in seven weeks in Maryland and Virginia for her beauty’s sake, but proving sublimely and heroically intractable, she was redeemed from slavery, and after the healing time of her journey was over, her body was found marked with whip marks, because she would not permit herself to be dragged into sin and shame. As a woman the iron could enter her soul, as it could never enter the soul of a man, and yet, amid the gloom of slavery, there was one ray of light shimmering amid its darkness, a golden thread, woven amid the sombre tissues of life, and that was faith in God. “My husband,” said a woman, “asked, if God is a just God, how can such things be? “and something said to him, such should not always be, and you could not beat it out of his head that the spirit spoke to him. I was acquainted with a woman who had planned running away, and had packed up her bundle, but something reasoned within her, and said, “stand still, and see what I am going to do for you,” and so real to her was the voice that spoke to her inner consciousness, that she unpacked her bundle, and desisted from her flight, and was redeemed from slavery by her son, who, after an absence of years, had obtained money enough to purchase her freedom. She believed, trusted, and was delivered. “Do you not feel bitter toward those people?” I asked of another. “God or Jesus,” she replied, “says I must forgive,” and that seemed to settle the whole question. “I felt,” said another woman, whose child had been separated from her, “as if I was going to my grave, but I felt that if I could not get justice here, I would get it elsewhere, or in another world.”

“They shut me up,” said another woman, “because I was fretting about my husband; but God kept my child asleep and gave me His Spirit.” God was not to her some far off impersonation of law and force, an unconscious Creator of all consciousness, the unperceiving Author of all perception, but a personal Friend, who could corns near to her in her sorrows, take cognizance of her griefs, and hush her little ones to sleep. With tender, beautiful, and childlike faith, groping through the darkness, and laying its hand upon God’s robe of love and light, there might be ignorance, weakness, and suffering, but there would not be universal, brutal stupidity. There is no depth of social misery into which the love of God may not be dropped as a plummet, and faith in God had partly underlaid the life of the race. Freedom came, and with it came the opportunity for planting the church and sustaining the school, and here the coloured woman found room for the work of her hands and the love of her heart. If Northern friends sent down teachers, it was for the coloured woman to second their efforts, and it has been said, in the South, ” The coloured woman would be ashamed not to send her children to school; and it is one of the most hopeful sights to see the number of children who attend the day and Sunday schools, bearing apparently the impress of motherly care and attention. If the religious pioneer commenced writing a new spiritual history over the ruins of the slave pen and auction block, again she stood by his side and rendered efficient aid. The editor of the Christian Recorder, the organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an organisation which, commencing in an humble blacksmith’s shop, has since spread from New England to Texas, pays the sisters of his church the following touching and beautiful tribute: “They are as zealous as Martha, and loving as Mary. Could our first preachers in the West give evidence, we well know what would be their tale. They would say, in true Methodist style, I came to this sister’s house, and I was hungry, and she fed me, dividing even the last loaf. My feet were cold, well nigh frosted; she administered unto me. To keep me comfortable at night, she and her husband forsook their only bed, and when morning came, the best their larder could afford was given unto me. They would tell us how they laboured to have the preacher decently clad, giving themselves, and then, taking the lead, urged others to give. Nor rested till the patched trousers, the threadbare coat, the worn out hat, and soleless boot were laid aside. Nor would these pioneer African itinerants cease till they had told how she had laboured to build the little chapel and have it snugly put in trim. Full one-half of the honour is due to her for making the African Methodist Episcopal Church, under God, what it is. What the Methodist sisters have been in the past they are now. In labours spiritual and temporal she has proved the equal of her brethren. She has bought one half the bricks in all our churches, and offered well nigh one-half the prayers.” One of the most imposing temples of worship which I saw in Washington is the coloured Catholic Church. Before that church was built, a few coloured women conceived the idea of having a coloured Catholic school, which could subserve the double purpose of chapel and school. That building has been superseded by one of the most stately temples in the city of Washington. One of the most efficient helpers in our church building is Mrs. Madison, who, although living in an humble and unpretending home, had succeeded in getting up a home for aged coloured women. By organised effort, coloured women have been enabled to help each other in sickness, and provide respectable funerals for the dead. They have institutions under different names; one of the oldest, perhaps the oldest in the country, has been in existence, as I have been informed, about fifty years, and has been officered and managed almost solely by women for about half a century. There are also, in several States, homes for aged coloured women; the largest I know of being in Philadelphia. This home was in a measure built by Stephen and Harriet Smith, coloured citizens of the State of Pennsylvania. Into this home men are also admitted. The city of Philadelphia has also another home for the homeless which, besides giving them a temporary shelter, provides a permanent home for a number of aged coloured women. In looking over the statistics of miscellaneous charities in the circular of information No. 6,1875, prepared by Mrs. Martha Canfield, out of a list of fifty, seven charitable institutions, I see only nine in which there is any record of coloured inmates. Out of twenty-six Industrial Schools, I counted four. Out of a list of one hundred and fifty-seven orphan asylums, miscellaneous charities, and industrial schools, I find fifteen asylums in which there is some mention of coloured inmates. More than half the reform schools, in 1874, had admitted coloured girls. Except the Home for the Homeless in Philadelphia, I know of no public institution (I have been informed since writing these lines thai the Cleveland retreat does this) which receives coloured girls or fallen women. Here, an erring coloured girl would be received and restored to the paths of rectitude. Surely we may hope, for the honour of our common Christianity, that there are a number of such places. Among the homes of the Woman’s Christian Association I have heard of one, where a coloured girl lias been accommodated with board, and that one was in Boston; but we may hope the time may speedily come when professed Christian women will realise, in their treatment of the coloured, what is meant by the Apostle Peter, when he said, “But God hath showed me that I should call no man common or unclean.” Among the legacies which Slavery left us is a vast dower of ignorance; but the veil is being lifted, and light is dawning upon our long-benighted race, and I have been often reminded of those grand and beautiful words of our President: ” Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Miss Schofield, of South Carolina, in a letter says: “The coloured women in this State, and I suppose elsewhere, are a great power; though the race, having missed the one link of book knowledge, have not yet been able to present this fact to the world. The women, as a class, are quite equal to the men in energy and executive ability. In fact, I find by close observation, that the mothers are the levers which move in education. The men talk it, especially about election time, if they want an office for self or their candidate, but the women work most for it. They labour in many ways to support the family, while the children attend school. They make great sacrifices to spare the help of their own children during school hours. I know of girls from sixteen to twenty-two who iron till midnight, that they may come to school in the day. Some of our scholars, aged about nineteen, living about thirty miles off, rented land, ploughed, planted, and then sold their cotton, in order to come to us. A woman near me urged her husband to go into debt 500 dollars for a home, as the titles to the land they had built on were insecure, and she said to me, ‘We have five years to pay it in, and I shall begin to-day to do it, if life is spared. I will make a hundred dollars at washing, for I have done it.’ Yet they have seven little children to feed, clothe, and educate.” In the field the women receive the same wages as the men, and are often preferred, clearing land, hoeing, or picking cotton with equal ability. The baby is carried to its mother to nurse, by the child from nine to thirteen, who has charge of it. A coloured woman’s time is always too valuable to take care of her own child ; with the first she has a brother or sister, or even hires a small boy or girl. I have seen them at the age of ten take entire charge; wash, dress, feed, and keep them all day while the mother is absent. The women have no political power. They are loyal to the government that gave them freedom. They never forget that, and count no sacrifice too great. I know women struggling against starvation, with helpless babes clinging to them for support. Their husbands were murdered in the last campaign. They had to run away from their homes with little or nothing, and now sleep on floors, and some walk five miles a day to get cotton to pick, to earn bread for their little ones. Their household goods were stolen or destroyed. Yet these women bear this with a heroism equal to anything in history. In hiring a man, the employer asks about his wife, and, when told, the woman keeps right up with her husband, and he does not do much without her knowing; the situation is generally given him or them ; for here families keep together; a man, his wife, sons, and daughters are often all seen in the field together. There is much more that ought to be brought to light. I wish it could be. The world has no idea, because these things make no display! but future generations will be proud of the perseverance, courage, and heroism of the women in this. One great fact is over-looked. Southern white people, with all their prejudices, seldom if ever employ whites. They cannot trust them. If poor and needy, they will help, but they never employ them about their homes. Yet they will leave large amounts of silver, jewellery, money, &c., in the entire care of blacks; trusts that are undreamed of at the North are here put in their keeping, and very seldom betrayed.

With respect to education, schools have sprung up like wells in the desert dust. Teaching, once done under the cover of darkness, now openly seeks daylight, and men and women are not forced to hide their books in secret places as if they were manuscripts of treason and conspiracy. Some time since I met a woman in Mississippi whose teaching in freedom was a continuation of her work in slavery. Then she kept a private school, private enough for her to hangf up ner bed covering before the window, lest the light should stream out into the street, and her work be discovered. During one of my Southern trips, I was told of a woman who had been badly treated in the days of slavery, had suffered hunger bitter enough to gather up the scraps for the dogs. At last she fell into sin. Perhaps hunger and want, more than anything else, had done the work of degradation; but freedom came, with its new and glorious opportunities. There was room for another woman to struggle, and, out of the depths, join in the great ranks of race progression. She obtained work and wages, managed to get some education, and became a teacher. The principal of the Coloured High School in Philadelphia was born a slave in the District of Columbia; but in early life he was taken North, and as if a great cry were urging through her soul, “Let me learn, let me learn,” she resolved to get knowledge. When about fifteen years old, she obtained a situation as a house servant, with the privilege of going every other day to receive instruction. Poverty was in her way, but instead of making it a stumbling-block, she converted it into a steppine-stone. She lived in one place six years, and received seven dollars a month, but like a nautilus outgrowing its shell, she wanted a more stately temple of thought and action. A col jured lady presented her a scholarship, and she entered Oberlin as a pupil. When she was sufficiently advanced, Oberlin was brave enough to accord her a place as a teacher in the preparatory department of the college, a position she was able to maintain with credit to herself and honour to her race. At present she is principal of the coloured High School of Philadelphia, a position which she has held for several years, graduating almost every year a number of pupils, a part of whom are scattered abroad as teachers in different parts of the country. Nearly all the coloured teachers in Washington are girls and women, a large per centage of whom were educated in the district of Columbia. Nor is it only in the ranks of teaching that coloured women are content to remain. Some years since, two coloured women were studying in the Law School of Howard University. One of them, Miss Charlotte Ray, a member of this body, has since graduated, being I believe, the first coloured woman in the country who has ever gained the distinction of being a graduated lawyer. Others have gone into medicine and have been practising in different States of the Union. In the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, two coloured women were last year pursuing their studies as Matriculants, while a young woman, the daughter of a former fugitive slave, has held the position of an assistant resident physician in one of the hospitals. Miss Cole, of Philadelphia, held for some time the position of physician in the State Orphan Asylum in South Carolina. In different departments of business, coloured women have not only been enabled to keep the wolf from the door, but also to acquire property, although poverty, prejudice, and ignorance, have virtually assigned us the lowest places and the humblest positions; and in some cases the coloured woman is the mainstay of the family, and when work fails the men in great cities, there is often an oppor. tunity to keep pauperism at bay by the money which the wife can obtain by washing, ironing, and other services. And I do not suppose, considering the state of her industrial lore and her limited advantages, that there is among the poorer classes a more helpful woman than the coloured woman as a labourer. When I was in Mississippi, I stopped with Mr. Montgomery, a former slave of Jefferson Davis’s brother. His wife was a woman capable of taking on her hands 130 acres of land and raising one hundred and seven bales of cotton by the force which she could organise. Since then I have received a very interest ing letter from her daughter, who for years has held the position of Assistant Postmistress. In her letter, she says: “There are many women around me who would serve for models of executiveness any. where. They do double duty, a man’s share in the field and a woman’s part at home. They do any kind of field work, even ploughing, and at home the cooking, washing, milking, and gardening. But these have husbands; let me tell you of some widows and unaided women: —

1st. Mrs. Hill, a widow, has rented, cultivated, and solely managed a farm of five acres for five years. She makes her garden, raises poultry, and cultivates enough corn and cotton to live comfortably and keep a surplus in the bank. She saves something every year, and this is much, considering the low price of cotton, and unfavourable seasons.

2nd. Mrs. Hill, whose husband died in the service during the war, cultivated one acre, making vegetables for sale, besides a little cotton. She raises poultry, spins thread, and knits hose for a living. She supports herself comfortably, never having to ask credit or to borrow.

3rd. Mrs. Jane Brown and Mrs. Halsey formed a partnership about ten years ago, leased nine acres and a horse, and have cultivated the land all that time, just the same as men would have done. They have saved considerable money from year to year, and are living independently. They have never had any expenses for labour, making and gathering the crops themselves.

4th. Mrs. Henry, by farming and peddling cakes, has the last seven years laid up seven hundred dollars. She is an invalid, and unable to work at all times.”

Speaking of the respective ages of these women, the first, the writer says, is not less tfian seventy years old. The second perhaps sixty-five. The third forty and sixty-five, and the fourth sixty. Of her mother, she observes, she is still cultivating, but not so extensively as she used to do in 1867, ’68, and ’69. She cultivates from 25 to 100 and 150 acres, making on an average 75 bales a year.

Since then she has been engaged in planting sweet potatoes and raising poultry and hogs. Last year she succeeded in raising 250 hogs, but lost two-thirds by disease. She furnished eggs and chickens enough for family use, and sold a surplus of chickens, say fifty dozen chickens. On nine acres she made six hundred bushels of sweet potatoes. The present year she has planted ten acres of potatoes. They are all in growing order. She has one hundred hogs, thirty dozen chickens, a small lot of ducks and turkeys, and also a few sheep and goats. She has also a large garden under her supervision which is planted in cabbages. She has two women and a boy, to assist. Of herself, Miss Montgomery says she cannot say much. “I have constantly been engaged in book-keeping for eight years, and for ten years, as assistant P.M., doing all the work of the office. Now, instead of book-keeping, I manage a school of 133 pupils, and I have an assistant, and I am still attending to the post-office.” Of her sister, she says she is a better and swifter worker than herself; that she generally sews, and that last year she made a hundred dozen jars of preserved fruit for sale. An acquaintance of mine, who lives in South Carolina, and has been engaged in mission work, reports that, in supporting the family, women are the mainstay; that two-thirds of the truck gardening is done by them in South Carolina; that in the city they are more industrious than the men; that when the men lose their work through their political affiliations, the women stand by them, and say, “Stand by your principles.” And I have been informed by the same person that a number of women have homes of their own, bought by their hard earnings since freedom. Mr. Stewart, who was employed in the Freedmen’s bank, says he has seen scores of coloured women in the South working and managing plantations of from twenty to one hundred acres, they and their boys and girls doing all the labour, and marketing in the fall from ten to fifty bales of cotton. He speaks of a mulatto woman who rented land which she and her children worked until they had made enough to purchase a farm of 130 acres. She then lived alone upon it, hiring help and working it herself, making a comfortable living, and assist ing her sons in paying for land which they had bought. The best sugar maker, he observes, he ever saw, was a stupid-looking coloured woman, apparently twenty-five years old. With a score or more of labourers, she was the boss, and it was her eye which detected the exact consistency to which the syrup had boiled, and, while tossing it in the air, she told with certainty the point of granulation.

In literature and art we have not accomplished much, although we have a few among us who have tried literature. Miss Foster has written for the Atlantic Monthly, and Mrs. Mary Shadd Cary for years edited a paper called the Provincial Freeman, and another coloured woman has written several stories, poems, and sketches, which have appeared in different papers. And yet I would not imply that every aspect of our race-life is rose-tinted and rainbow-hued; what we need is truth more than flattery. Slavery left the coloured woman some sad inheritances, which it behoves Christian women to aid her in removing. It trampled on her self-respect, and taught her to lightly regard the marriage relation; and if it is too often the case that there is among them a lack of reverence for a pure and strong love, a preference of show to substance, let it be a labour of love among those who have been more highly favoured, to show unto us a more excellent way. We have been too apt scholars in a school which sacrificed the interests of one class to the supposed advantages of the other, and the shadows of the past are still projected into our lives. Let the more favoured mothers and wives of this Republic, if they would insure the best interests of humanity and the true strength and prosperity of the nation, resolve that neither pride of caste, nor contempt of race, shall crush or keep dormant the self- respect of any class of women in the land; that the true glory of this Republic shall not consist in the abundance of its resources, the amplitude of its wealth, the strength of its fleets, the power of its armies, or the magnificence of its culture, but in its pure homes, its upright men, and virtuous women.

In art, we have Miss Edmonia Lewis, who is, I believe, allied on one side to the negro race. She was one of the exhibitors at the Centennial, and the author of several pieces of statuary, among which is Cleopatra, which was on exhibition.

I would also add that the coloured women of Philadelphia have formed a Christian Relief Association, which has opened sewing-schools for coloured girls, and which has been enabled, year after year, to lend a hand to some of the more needy of our race, and it also has, I understand, sustained an employment office for some time.



Source: The Victoria Magazine, conducted by Emily Faithfull, November-April (London: Victoria Press, 1878), pp. 229-238.