Tribute to Celia Parker Woolley
April 7, 1918 — Abraham Lincoln Centre, Chicago IL
Mrs. Woolley belonged to that choice group of men and women who could not be happy so long as unrighteousness had sway over this country.
She conceived it to be a part of her mission in life to correct public opinion that is now either indifferent to or actively hostile against the present generation of colored people.
She also believed that the relationship between the two races could be adjusted in a way that would satisfy the demands of ethics, religion and the highest equity, for she felt that the spirit of human fellowship once understood would carry us across the superficial barriers of race lines and color lines that separate the stronger and weaker elements of human society.
But today looking back on the splendid possibilities of this noble life we cannot but ask ourselves: Were there not other fields to tempt the poetry of this ardent soul? Were there not other paths, where no shadow of sorrow sat, by which to travel towards the fullness of life? But it is right at this point where the power of choice comes to great souls, and Mrs. Woolley did not hesitate to choose between present good for self and the larger good of humanity. She knew she would be misunderstood, criticized, and even maligned, for prejudice and injustice are elements hard to combat. She established the Frederick Douglass Center and we all know how devotedly she served this cause. Her idea was always for justice and more justice. She went everywhere, prodding the American conscience to be just to the Negro and to enlarge the term citizenship so as to include all men.
Recalling those characteristics of Mrs. Woolley, it seems to me that she preeminently stood the supreme test of love to God in that she loved her neighbor as herself, without exceptions based on the mere circumstance of complexion.
Another beautiful thing to remember about Mrs. Woolley’s efforts in our behalf is that she made everything she possessed, whether of culture, associates or friends, serve the cause she had espoused. She always placed above everything her duty to that race which her own race had outraged for over two centuries.
We shall also always lovingly recall that she never faltered in her devotion or lost her sympathy and respect for this ransomed race. She had an abiding faith in the capacity of these people to rise above their limitations and prejudicial hindrances. So that after all as a race, in the midst of the degrading forces that have oppressed us, we have been wonderfully fortunate in our friends, and there is also this strange anomaly in our history that the men and women who have done most for the Negro in his evolution from slaveyr to freedom and from freedom to citizenship are the men and women who have been most exalted in this republic — and in this royal company of great souls: with [William Lloyd] Garrison, [Wendell] Phillips, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, and Lincoln, Mrs. Woolley has taken her place and received her reward.
But I cannot refrain from voicing a sense of personal bereavement in the death of Mrs. Woolley for she was my personal friend, but there is no conceit in this, for she loved us all and permitted us to read her heart. There are few in this city who could have left behind so many who could say, “She was my personal friend.” She could always be seen and heard by any one of us and her wholesome advice, her inspiring optimism, and her generous spirit of comradeship will make her name and memory a sacred heritage. As the years go on, we will again and again invoke her benignant spirit in our efforts to help ourselves and those who need our help. We shall dedicate ourselves anew to the high task of helping to give character and beauty to the Negro race. We should be able to see in Mrs. Woolley’s death the transfiguration of all our bitterness and despair into courage and hope, for she taught more by the life she lived and the death she died than is given even to shoe who have most enriched the annals of human greatness.
Source: The New Woman of Color: The Collected Writings of Fannie Barrier Williams, 1893-1918, ed. Mary Jo Deegan (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press) 2002, pp. 138-139.