The Negro Home
October 1920 — Memphis Women’s Inter-Racial Conference, Memphis TN
It affords me great pleasure to be here this afternoon, and to be able to say a word or two in the interest of the women of my race, and therefore in the interest of the South, which I love and of which I am a definite part: for I was born in the state of Mississippi, educated in the state of Tennessee, and am a citizen of the state of Alabama.
There is no question which affects any part of the South in which I am not interested and for which I am not willing to give both time and strength.
There are a great many important subjects to which I might call your attention, but the time is too short, and I am going straight to the question which above all others appeals to me–“The Negro Home”–the Negro Home Life.
If there is any one thing in which we are lacking as a race it is in our ideals of home life. It is not necessary to say why this is; I do not lay the blame at the door of any one, but we have come up in a system, which so far as our race was concerned, did not take into consideration our home or family life.
The great difference between your women and my women is that from their earliest childhood they were taught the sacredness of the hearthstone, and my women were left to drift and to pick up their ideals and ideas too, by chance. Slavery was a system which considered the mistress and not the maid, and today in this conference you and I are facing this fact, and I am sure with the courage which the women in this conference must have, and with the desire which the women of my race have, we are going to be able to meet the difficulties which surround our race in their home life and bring about an improvement.
In every home there must be a father and mother and the children in that home must be taught respect for both mother and father, and certainly mother and father must be taught that children have certain rights.
In all of our schools this question of the home life is receiving special attention, because those of us who are teachers realize that our civilization depends upon the training which we receive for the making of homes and for the carrying out of high home ideals. You will find that younger colored women are bending their energy now more than ever, to building up the right sort of home and making the right home life for their women and for their people in general.
A definite illustration may not be out of place. Some ten or fifteen years ago we visited a large plantation several miles out from where the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute now stands, which was populated by hundreds of tenants, men, women, boys and girls. At that time many of the people working on this plantation had been taken from the jails in the county seat and were working out their time on this place. There were at that time many such plantations, many such conditions, and many of these people had been convicted of crimes, some of them small and some of them large. This particular plantation had no real home life; they were just little cabins which had come to the plantation from the days of slavery. Men, women, boys, and girls took up their abode in any one of them. The people on the plantation had little or no idea of the proper way in which to bring up their children; they had little or no idea of the sort of food necessary for the body; they gave little or no thought to their moral or spiritual life. It made very little difference to the people on that plantation whether there was in those cabins a legal husband or wife or not. These people had simply been left to themselves to drift, as it were, without any training, without any guidance, without any help whatever from the people who at that time controlled the plantation.
Many women from our school spent the week end on this plantation for more than twelve years, going from cabin to cabin teaching Sunday school, organizing boys’ clubs, organizing sewing classes for girls, organizing mothers’ clubs, conducting newspaper reading clubs for men, and doing all the things to improve the people physically, spiritually, morally and educationally. The result is that the life of the plantation is entirely changed; the people have their schools, have their churches; they have larger and better homes; they have changed their ideals altogether and they are therefore happier, and they are a pride to themselves, and they are a pride to those of us who have given them our time.
Our women are responsive, they want to improve, they want better homes, they want higher ideals in their home life. We can help them in this matter if we can be assured of the sympathy and co-operation of the women present at this Conference.
I often wonder if white women realize that the colored women living side by side with them, bringing up their children, not under the proper influence, not living the right sort of lives, not interpreting the ideals set for them, influence their children and their family. If more of them realized this I am sure we would have a greater number who would be willing to take hold of these women and children and their families and help create for them the ideals in their homes which they should have.
Too many of our friends regard us in an entirely different light from themselves: they appear to imagine that although they have had two or three hundred years ahead of us in education, in moral training, and in all things that go to make up decent citizenship; that we can start out behind them and with little or no help, with little or no attention, with little or no training, can keep up with them. This is not fair, and I cannot but believe that the women in this conference see the unfairness of a situation like this. We would have to be endowed more highly than you to be able to start out two hundred fifty years after you and then catch you under the present circumstances.
We are a responsive people, we are an imitative people; we have been taught that what you do is correct; we still think that to a great extent. What responsibility therefore rests upon the white women of the South. It is somewhat as the responsibility of mother and father to their children. You are the people who have had the opportunity, you have had the chance, and naturally one feels that the women who have had the chance are the women who know what to do.
I would like to see our home put upon a different plan; I would like to see better streets, better houses, better police protection for our homes: in fact we will never satisfy the women of this conference until we have a better chance in the towns and places where we live to work out our destiny on the same plane that every other woman works hers out.
One other thing that is very closely allied with the home life of our people, and that is the education and training of our children. I wonder how many women in this room know that all over the South in the country districts that the average limit of the public schools for our children is about four months, and in some districts not quite as much: and I wonder how many women in this room feel that it is fair for the average white child to have the chance to go to school seven or eight months in the year, when the colored child only has four months? We would have to be a very superior people if in any way with this difference between us we could cope with you.
I believe that you expect our children to be decent citizens: they cannot do it if there is no improvement made in the amount of character and education now given them.
I wonder how many of you realize that in many country districts our children are still being taught in the churches; our teachers are still in the country districts very poorly paid and very poorly trained? Can you imagine some of those colored teachers not having gone thru the fifth grade: have you ever thought of the country girl whose mother happens to be a servant in some one’s family securing a position as a teacher in the rural district, simply because something must be found for the daughter of the cook or washer woman?
A great many people complain that we are leaving the farms, we are leaving the country, we are: it is not because we prefer the city, but we want improved conditions for our children: we want better school houses, longer terms, and better educated teachers. Scientific cooking, dressmaking and agriculture are subjects that should be in all of our schools in the country districts, and the child at a very early age should be taught in these subjects.
School houses in the rural districts should be a social center, a place where parents, children, and friends get together and discuss the various phases of life and so bring understanding to all concerned.
We are living here in the South together; you in your home and I in mine. This is exactly as it should be, I think, but we can be interested in the things which have to do with the development and growth of each other and of our beloved South. I think I can appreciate your difficulties from your stand point, and I hope I shall never reach the point where I have the feeling that I am right and other people are all together wrong. We both have our grievances, but in this conference we have taken the first step to correct these grievances. Let us make no mistake, let us realize that we are two separate races living in a country side by side, each equally responsible for the good citizenship of the country, and therefore each equally deserving of a fair chance and fair play in every way, and I believe that there are women in this room this afternoon who are going to stand courageously for this chance, for this deal to a group of women who have had less than you have had.
Give us a chance, play fair with us, and we promise you we will do our best to make good; but we are going to keep right at you until you do give us this chance, until you do recognize that we must have this chance; for if we are to be the law abiding, well balanced, well educated citizen[s] that the South needs and wants, and must have, if it is going to take its rightful place in the citizenship of this country.
We are going away from this meeting encouraged, and we are grateful to the women gathered here for your interest and for whatever steps you may deem wise to take in our behalf.
Source: Margaret Murray Washington, “The Negro Home,” a speech at the Memphis Women’s Inter-Racial Conference, October 1920, Papers of Margaret Murray Washington, Frissell Library, Tuskegee University (N.A.C.W. Microfilm, reel 6, frames 47-52).