Mary Church Terrell

Address Delivered at the National Council of Women Convention - April 9, 1905

Mary Church Terrell
April 09, 1905
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Address Delivered at the National Council of Women Convention,

Sunday afternoon, April 9th, 1905

Let the future of Colored Women be judged by the past since their emancipation, and neither they nor their friends have any cause for anxiety. Though there are many things in the colored man’s status in this country to discourage and perplex him, there are some features in his development for which he should be thankful. Not the least of these is the progress of our women in everything which makes for the culture of the individual and the elevation of the race.

For years, either banding themselves into small companies or struggling alone, colored women have worked with might and main to improve the condition of themselves and their race. But it dawned upon us finally that individuals working alone or in small companies scattered here and there might be never so honest in purpose, so indefatigable in labor, so conscientious about methods or so wise in projecting baas, they would nevertheless accomplish little compared with the possible achievements of many individuals all banded together throughout the entire land, with heads and hearts fixed on the same high purpose and hands joined in united strength. This it happened that in the summer of 1896 the National Association of Colored Women was formed by the Union of two large organizations, each of which had done much to show our women the advantage of concerted action. We have become national, because from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Maine to the Gulf, we wish to set in motion influences that shall stop the ravage made by practices that sap our strength and preclude the possibility of advancement which under other circumstances could easily be made. We call ourselves and Association to signify that we have joined hands one with another to work together in a common cause; to proclaim to the world that the women of our race have become partners in the firm of progress and reform. We denominate ourselves colored, not because we are narrow, and wish to lay special emphasis on the color of the skin, for which no one is responsible, which of itself is proof neither of an individual’s virtue nor of his vice, which is a stamp neither of one’s intelligence nor of one’s ignorance, but we refer to the fact that ours is an Asociation of Colored women, because our peculiar status in this country at the present time seems to demand that we stand by ourselves in accomploshing [sic] the special work for which we have organized. For this reason and for tha [that] reason alone it was thought best to invite the attention of the world to the ract that colored women feel their responsibility as a unit and that they have clasped hands to assume it. Special stress is laid upon the fat fact that our Association is composed of women, not because we wish todeny our poor, benighted brothers rights and privileges in imitation of the example whuch men have set women for so many years, but because the work we hope to accomplish can be dbetter done, we believe, by the mothers, wives, daughters and sisters of our race than by the fahters, husbands, brothers and sons. The crying need of an organization of colored women is questioned by no one conversant with our peculiar trials and perplexities and acquaited with the almost insurmountable obstacles in our pathto those attainments and acquisitions which it is the right of every human being to aspire.

Though our association has been handicapped both on account of lack of experience and lack of means, our efforts for the most part have been crowned with success. In the kindergartens established by some of our irganizations children have been cultivated and trained. A Sanitarium with a training school for nurses has been set upon such a firm foundation in New Orleans and has given such abundant proof of its utility and necessity that the municipal government of that southern city has voted it an annual appropriation of several hundred dollars. To our poor, benighted sister in the Black Belt of Alabama we have gone. We have been a comfort and a help to some of these women through the darkness of whose ignorance of everything that makes life sweet or worth the livign, no ray of light might have penetrated but for us. We have taught them the A.B.C. of living by showing them how to make their hovels more habitable and decent wh with the small means at their command; how to care for themselves and the children more in accordance withthe rules of health. Plans for ministering unto the indigent, orphaned and aged have been projected and in some instances have been carried into successful execution. Sewing classes have been formed, and mothers meetings held.

Believing that it is only through the home that a people can become really good and truly great the National Association of Colored Women has entered that sacred domain, hoping to inculcate right principles of living and to correct false views of life. Homes, more homes, better homes, purer homes is the text upon which our sermons have been and will be prea. So long as the majority of a people call that place home, in which the air is foul, the manners bad abd the morals worse, so long is this so called home a menace to health, a breeder of vice and the abode of crime/ Not alone upon the inmates of these hovels are the awful consequences of their filth and immorality vicited, but upon the heads of the rich and powerful who sit calmly by and make no effort to stem the tide of disease and vice will vengeance as surely fall. The colored youth is vicious, we are told, and statistics showing the multitudes of our boys and girls who fill the penitentiaries and crowd the jails appall and dishearted us. But - side by side with these facts and figures of crime I would have presented the misrable hovels from which these youthful criminals come. Crowded into allies, many of them the haunts of vice, few if any in a proper sanitary condition, most of them fatal to mental or moral growth and destructive of healthful physical development as well, thousands of our children have a wretched inheritance indeed. Make a tour of the settlements of colored people here at the National Capital, who, as is the case in many othe[r] cities in this country, are relegated to the most noisome sections permitted by the municipal government and behold the mites of humanity who infest them. Here are our little ones, the future representatives of the race, fairly drinking in the pernicious examples of their elders, coming in contact with nothing but ignorance and vice, till at the age of six, evil habits are formed which no amount of civilizing or Chriastianizing can ever completely break. As long as the evil nature alone is encouraged to develop while the higher nobler qualities of little ones are deadened and dwarfed by the very atmosphere which which they breath, the negligence pitiless public is responsible for the results and to a certain extent is partner of their crimes. And so in minitation of the Great Teach of men who could not offer himself as a sacrifice, until he had made an eternal plea for the innocence and helplessness of childhood, colored women all over the United States are reaching out after the waifs and strays who without their aid and influence may be doomed to lives of evil and shame.

Terrell, Mary Church. 1905. “Address Delivered at the National Council of Women Convention." Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress.