The Conditions of the Women
in the Rural Districts of Alabama:
What is Being Done to Remedy that Condition
July 18, 1902 — Hamptons Negro Conference, Hampton Institute, Hampton VA
For nine years my interest has been centered in building a school on one of the old plantations in Montgomery county, Ala. Most of the seven hundred children who have been reached by the school during that time have come from the surrounding plantations, and the only women with whom I have come in contact have been the mothers of these children. I beg leave then to confine myself to the plantation women of my community at Mt. Meigs Village, Alabama.
Many of these women, born before the war, grew up, married the man picked out for them by master and mistress, and lived on the same old plantations. Large families of children were reared in what is called “Quarters,” long distances from the “Big House,” in which master and mistress lived. Some of the boys and girls were half grown before ever seeing the face of a white man. The mothers left home with their husbands to work in the fields long before it was day. Women, side by side with the men, cleared new ground, cut down big trees, rolled logs, dug ditches, plowed, hoed, and picked cotton. From these women came the mothers of the present generation.
The mother born on free soil and breathing free air, what is her condition to-day? She is on the same old plantation, perhaps still in the “Quarters.” “The Big House,” once owned by master and mistress, is now occupied by a dozen or more Negro families. The grandchildren of the original owners of these plantations still hold them and rent the places out to Negroes, taking the crops made for rent and food.
The women are all field hands and still leave home very early for the day’s work. At noon each day the women carry home on their backs the wood to cook the dinner, the husband hurries to get under a shady tree and sleep until dinner is ready then eats and afterward has a smoke. The wife must be ready to go back to the field with him when the noon hour is out. The house was left out of order in the morning, the cooking things scattered about the hearth just as they were used, and the few dishes on the old table are unwashed too. When the mother takes all the children to the field, the house is locked up and the one window barred, but thanks to the builder the cracks are still there and the air will play through all day.
At dinner no time yet is given to washing dishes or making beds, so after sunset the wife brings wood to cook supper and a light-wood knot to give light. No lamps or oil are used unless some one is sick. Next the woman drags up the cow and milks, brings water for the night, the begins the supper. Perhaps the dishes will get washed for supper. After this nature overcomes the strongest and sleep is sought by all the family, in those same unmade beds or pallets.
Girls grow up in such homes, marry early and in turn make others just like them in which to rear their children. Such a woman is a real drudge, not only for her children, but for her husband, and one of the most surprising things to me is that he grows tired of her and quits, leaving six or eight children to be cared for by the mother.
The mother before the war had no time to rear children, or chance to send them to school or church. She, with the children, belonged to master body and soul. The free woman with the church, school, teachers, preachers and the Bible, what is her excuse for her present condition? This woman too has a large family of children, a worthless husband, a one-roomed log house and no kitchen. The mortgage for food and a few clothes is still made. The wife and children are worked very hard every year to pay it off. Where the family is large they are only half fed and clothed, the mother has to hustle all through the winter, in order to get anything. These people handle very little money; whenever they work by the day or month a written order is given by their employers to some store in the village, and they get their food and their clothing too on this. The great excuse of the mother is that it takes all of her time and money to get food, so she cannot educate the children, but she is trying.
The real condition of the women in the rural districts is beyond my power of description. It is worse than anything I ever heard of. There is hardly any bright side to their lives to be seen, even if we searched with a lighted candle. Within a radius of ten miles from our school, hardly a half-dozen families own their own homes.
What is being done to remedy the present condition of these women? Perhaps you will be interested to hear of some of the things attempted, and judge for yourself how far they reach the end in view.
At Mt. Meigs, and in fact all over the state, as far as I can learn, are a great many organizations, whose object is to care for the sick members and bury the dead members. Some of these societies number over two hundred members, and one in the city of Montgomery reaches over four hundred. The women outnumber the men in almost every case. Members are cared for by a good doctor when sick. He is paid from their treasury. Whenever a member dies, the whole society turns out in uniform and gives a very nice burying. These societies are kept up by a monthly fee from each member. Our women will always find money to pay these fees. Everything at home, and even church dues are scarified to the societies. The woman who is not a member of one of these is pitied and considered rather out of date.
The Woman’s District Association is purely a Baptist church organization, and has for its object the support of Selma University, the great Baptist school of the state. Every loyal Baptist woman is a member and, however poor, is obliged to pay a monthly fee which is given entirely to this one school.
The Southern Federation of Colored Women, of which Mrs. B.T. Washington is president, is an organization devoted to the uplifting of women all over the South. This organization is made up of the federation of the several states. The State federation is made up of Women’s clubs, organized by leading women in both cities and rural districts all over the State. The state officers are a president, several vice presidents and other officers. The states hold an annual meeting to which delegates go from the different clubs, and carry donations. At this meeting reports are brought from the different clubs telling of work done and results. Ways are suggested for work and the organizing of clubs. The last meeting, held the third and fourth of July, 1902, at the city of Selma, was the best we have had. The Southern Federation also holds an annual meeting at which delegates from the several states go. The plan of the State Federation of Alabama is to use the money donated by club towards building and supporting a reformatory for boys and girls.
The club at Mt. Meigs, was made up at first of just the mothers who had children in our school, and as so was called mothers’ meeting. It was no easy task to get hold of these women, but I waked up to the fact that time was being wasted on this crowd of children who came to school each day with dirty faces, uncombed hair, ragged clothes, and that in order to get to the bottom of things I must get hold of the mothers. The mothers, on the other hand, wondered what the school-teachers wanted with them. They had never been asked to the schoolhouse except at closing exercise, so they decided not to come. But after repeated messages sent by the children from school, six or seven came. We talked things over together they opened up their hearts to me. This was nine years ago, and we have been friends ever since. I found out that those mothers were dissatisfied themselves and anxious to change things at home and do better, but had no idea how or where to begin. Some of these women looked pretty rough on the outside, but strong mother-hearts beat in their bottoms, and the keynote was struck when they found out that the school was interested in helping their children in more ways than just by the lessons from their books. Their great complaint was poverty, no money to buy clothes, no way to keep those they already had whole and no time to mend or clean up the children better before sending them to school n the morning. When I learned more about them I found the home was very scantily supplied with anything. They had no needles or sewing cotton, nor anything with which to mend old clothes. All the little bundles of cloth, sewing cotton, needles etc., that could be spared from our sewing room were given to the mothers for home use. Thus with a little encouragement in the way of learning for the children’s sake, these mothers are trying hard, and the children who come now present a much better appearance. The mothers soon learnt how to send the children to bed early in order to wash out and dry by the fire the one set of clothes, so that the little boy with one jacket could keep clean every day. These meetings became a source of information and help. We discussed practical subjects bearing on the home life: such as the care of the children, and of the girl of sixteen; the care of the kitchen and the necessity of keeping it clean, when to wash the dishes, etc. I cannot say that a community of women was changed in one day, but they have tried and many have succeeded in making their homes much better. So many of the homes had no kitchen at all, so the women went to work, cut down the trees, rived the boards and built a query looking room, but it held a stove and all the cooing things the family owned. On the road from Mt. Meigs to the city of Montgomery are two or three of these home-made kitchens, six by six feet. I know they are kitchens because there is a small stove pipe in the middle of each roof, from which the smoke is pouring out.
My friends, I have watched these women for nine years, and my conclusions in regard to the changes that must come about to better, in any effectual way, their condition, make me feel much discouraged.
The school, with its teachers, brought to the doors of the people of Mt. Meigs village is helping to bring about better things. The church, with its good upright pastor, is doing what it can, but back and beneath all these things is the home. First, in order to have any sort of a home for these mothers and their children, the work system for women must be changed. No woman can be a home-keeper that spends twelve hours of the day in the field. An appeal has been made for a girls’ home in connection with our work, where we hope to take twenty-five girls from their homes and train them in the way of house and home-keeping. The only hope for these women and our community lies in the boys and girls who, after being trained, will return to their homes and change things. Right along with the girls the boys must be trained also, since they will be a powerful actor in changing the work system for the women. A few of the young men and women have been sent from Mt. Meigs to Hamptons and Tuskegee. We hope to have them back after finishing school, to work at some trade that is needed in our community. We need Tuskegee’s and Hampton’s idea of work deep rooted in the hearts and minds of ted young people in order that when sent back to the South. they may change the old ways of farming, gardening, raising chickens and caring for stock so that where there is now all desert land, oases may be formed. Then, and not till then, will a real change take place in the condition of our home in the rural districts of Alabama.
Source: Proceedings of the Hampton Negro Conference, Number VI, July, 1902, (Hampton, VA: Hampton Institute Press) 1902, pp. 73-78.
Also: The Rhetoric of Struggle: Public Address by African American Women, ed. Robbie Jean Walker (New York: Garland Publishing), 1992, pp. 183-189.