The Afro-American Mother
February 17, 1897 — First Meeting, National Congress of Mothers, Banquet Hall, Arlington Hotel, Washington DC
It is now more than thirty years since a newly emancipated people stood on the threshold of a new era, facing an uncertain future; a legally unmarried race to be taught the sacredness of the marriage relation; an ignorant race to be taught to read the Book of the Christian’s law, and to learn to comprehend the claims of the Gospel of Christ of Calvary; a homeless race to be gathered into homes of peaceful security, and instructed how to plant their strongest batteries against the sins that degrade and the vices that demoralize; a race unversed in the science of government, and unskilled in the just administration of law, to be translated from the old oligarchy of slavery into the new commonwealth of freedom. To the men of this race came the right to exchange the fetters on their wrist for the ballots in their right hands — ballots which, if not vitiated by fraud or restrained by violence, would count just as much as those of the most talented and influential men in the land. While politicians may stumble on the barren mountains of fretful controversy, and while men who lack faith in God and the invisible forces which make for righteousness may shrink from the unsolved problems of the hour, into the hands of Christian women comes the opportunity of serving the ever-blessed Christ by ministering to his little ones, and striving to teach neglected and ignorant mothers how to make their homes the brightest spots on earth and the fairest types of heaven.
The school may instruct and the Church may teach, but the home is older than the Church, antedates the school, and is the place in which to train children for useful citizenship on earth and a hope — of holy companionship in heaven. Every mother should endeavor to be a true artist. I do not mean by this that every woman should be a painter, sculptor, musician, poet, or writer, but that the mother should be an artist who can write on the tablet of childish innocence thoughts which she will not blush to see read in the light of eternity, and placed amid the archives of heaven thoughts which the young may learn to bind as amulets around their hearts and throw as bulwarks around their lives, so that in the hour of temptation and trial the voices from home may linger in their paths as angels of guidance around their steps.
As marriage is the maker of homes, its duties and responsibilities should be understood before it is entered upon. A mistake made here may run through every avenue of our lives, and cast a shadow over all our coming years. In education we may become well versed in ancient lore and modern learning, able to trace the paths of worlds that roll in light and power on high, and tell when comets shall cast their trails over our evening skies; we may learn to understand the laws of stratification well enough to judge where lies the vein of silver or where Nature hides her virgin gold; we may be able to tell the story of departed nations and conquering chieftains who have added pages of blood and tears to the world’s history; but our education is deficient if we are ignorant of how to guide the little lives intrusted to our care, and if we can not see in the undeveloped possibilities of our children gold more fine than the pavements of heaven and gems more precious than the foundations of the Holy City.
When a woman marries she helps to lay the foundation of a new home, and she should be careful in choosing the building mate. If it would be folly for a merchant to trust an argosy laden with the richest treasures at midnight on a moonless sea without a rudder, a compass, or a guide, is it not worse than madness for a woman to trust her future welfare and the happiness of her home in the unsteady hands of a man who by intemperance has lost his self-control?
We need an enlightened parenthood. The moment the crown of motherhood falls on the brow of a young woman God gives to her a new interest in the welfare of the home and the well-being of society. Society acquires an added interest in the welfare of each new member that enters it. Whether his advent shall prove a blessing or a bane, an addition to the dangerous and perishing classes, or a moral and spiritual force, making life brighter and better, depends upon the home and mother influence. Not only for the sake of our own people, but for the sake of the nation, there is need of an enlightened parentage.
You of the Caucasian race were born to an inheritance of privileges; behind you are ages of civilization, education, and organized Christianity; behind us are ages of ignorance, poverty, and slavery; and now into your hands, oh, my favored sisters, God has placed one of the grandest opportunities that ever fell into the hands of a nation or a people. Has not the colored mother a claim not simply upon your compassion, but also upon your sense of justice? If the great apostle to the Gentiles felt that he was a debtor to the Jew and the Greek, the Roman and the barbarian, have you no debt to be paid to the colored motherhood of the country? If St. Paul felt that the barbarian had made him a debtor by building the roads on which the tidings of the Gospel he loved could run with nimble feet, that the Jews had a hold upon his gratitude for preserving the idea of the unity of God the great, the grand, and central thought of the universe and the Greek for the development of a literature that added to his resources of expression, has not the negro also a claim upon a nation in which he helped build up the great cotton power, rendering the toil of his hands to the mills?
I do not ask any special favor for the colored mother. Only let us be tried by the same rules and judged by the same standards as are other people. I am not asking any material favors from a thread to a shoe latchet. But I do ask you to give what we can not touch with our hands, the ideal things that can not be measured with a line nor weighed in a balance, just those things which gold is too poor to buy — kind words and holy wishes, and the clemency of hearts inspired by love to God and man. I ask that you will do what you can to create a public opinion which will not class the worthy and the worthless together, nor say to the most intelligent and virtuous woman applying for a situation, “The color of your skin must be a badge of exclusion; no valor nor any virtue can redeem you, nothing can wipe off the ban that clings to you.” Trample, if you will, on our bodies, but do not crush out self-respect from our souls. If you want us to act as women, treat us as women. If you want us to become good Christians, teach us concerning our high origin, our relation to God, our possibilities of rising so high in the scale of moral and spiritual life that from being a little lower than the angels we may become one with God, even as Christ was one one in spirit and one in harmony.
I am not here to laud the progress of the colored woman, nor to attempt to soothe our people by humming a pleasant lullaby, saying that we are a race which has made a wonderful progress in the short space of time since our emancipation. Never before was there a race of enslaved people who lived in such a wonderful period of history. The sun is now our engraver, the swift-winged lightning our messenger, and steam our tireless beast of burden. Never before, I think, in all the history of slavery, ancient and modern, was there an emancipated people upon whom so much money was bestowed in providing them with education. Never, do I think, was philanthropy more widespread nor charity more thoughtful than it has been since the war. Nor has all this outlay been barren of results.
In 1860 the Commissioner of Education showed the number of negroes enrolled in the schools as absolutely trifling. In 1870, five years after they became free, the records of the census show that only two tenths of all the negroes over ten years of age in the country could write. Ten years later the proportion had increased to three tenths of the whole number; and in 1890, only a generation after they were emancipated not less than forty-three out of every one hundred negroes of ten years of age and over were able to read and write. These figures show a remarkably rapid progress in elementary education. In all the Southern States, except in North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, it appears from statistics that the enrollment of negro children has increased more rapidly than that of the whites.
This is the era of golden opportunity for American womanhood. It is theirs to exert their influence against the lawlessness in the land which is not merely racial, but a symptom of disease in the body politic. And now, in conclusion, permit me to entreat you that as numbers of the young women of the colored race are around you as servants, and come in constant contact with your children, that you will hold it as a sacred trust to instill into their minds the best principles, and hold up before them the highest ideals of integrity of character and purity of life. What is noblest and best to teach your daughters is not too noble and good to teach them. Close not the door of opportunity upon any on account of color or race. In domestic service place a premium on industry, virtue, and intelligence. A young girl trained as a kindergarten pupil might be of great value to a young mother as a useful assistant in the work of child-rearing. Between both branches of the human race in this country there is a community of interests, and their interests all lie in one direction.
Source: The Work and Words of the National Congress of Mothers (New York: D. Appleton & Company), 1897, pp. 67-71.