This speech was delivered several different times from 1890-1920 and exists in several different drafts, all of which are available at the Library of Congress for those who wish to do further research.
The Progress and the Problems of Colored Women.
[Jan. 11, 1920]
If and one should ask what special phase of the Colored-American’s development makes me most hopeful of his ultimate triumph over present obstacles, I should answer unhesitatingly, it is the magnificent work the women are doing to regenerate and uplift their race. Though there are many things in the Colored-American’s status to discourage him, he has some blessings for which to be thankful. Not the least of these is the progress of the women in everything which makes for the culture of the individual and the elevation of the race.
From the moment colored women’s fetters were broken, and their minds released from the darkness of ignorance in which they had been held for nearly three hundred years; from the moment they could stand erect in the dignity of womanhood, no longer bond, but free till to day, colored women have forged steadily ahead in the acquisition of knowledge and in the cultivation of those graces of character which make for good. To use a thought of the illustrious Frederick Douglass, if judged by the depths from which those blessed with centuries of opportunity have attained, colored women need not hang their heads in shame.
If one considers the almost insurmountable obstacles which colored women have been obliged to surmount in their effort to forge ahead, he must admit that the work they have accomplished and the progress they have made will at least bear favorable comparison with that of their more fortunate sisters, from whom the opportunity of acquiring knowledge and the means of self-culture have never been entirely withheld. Indeed it is impossible to place a just estimate upon the progress made by colored women, unless one remembers that they have not only been handicapped on account of sex, but they have been baffled and mocked practically everywhere on account of their race. Desperately and continuously they have been forced to fight a relentless prejudice which neither their merit nor their necessity seems able to remove. Not only because they are women, but because they are colored women are discouragement and disappointment meeting them at every turn.
In a very striking manner women of the dominant race have recently shown the world how bitterly they resent the injustices and how keenly they feel the disabilities imposed upon them on account of their sex. When one recalls the discriminations which white women claim have so seriously handicapped them and the humiliations to which they say they have been subjected solely on account of their sex, it is not difficult to imagine how stupendous would be the obstacles and how heavy would be the burdens borne by a group of human beings “double-crossed”, so to speak, by both sex and race.
But, in spite of the opposition encountered and the obstacles opposed to their acquisition of knowledge and to their accumulation of property, the progress made by colored women along these and other lines has never been surpassed by that of any woman under similar conditions, since the world began. Densely ignorant at the close of the Civil War, so insatiable has been the colored woman’s thirst for knowledge and, so herculean have been her efforts to secure it that there are to day in the United States hundreds of them who have graduated from first class academies and excellent schools of various kinds, while many held diplomas from the best universities and colleges in the land. From Wellesley, Ann Arbor. Oberlin, Cornell, Vassar and Smith, from the best High and Normal Schools throughout the North, East and West, colored girls have been graduates with honor and have forever settled the question of their capacity and worth.
Some years ago in Chicago a large number of young men and women of the dominant race and only one colored person, a colored girl, competed for a scholarship which entitled the successful competitor to an entire course through the Chicago University. As a result of the examination which was held, the only colored person among them stood first and thus captured this great prize.
A godly number of young colored women are wearing Phi Beta Kappa pins which they have won by superior scholarship in the best universities, where they have been allowed to measure arms with their brothers and sisters of the dominant race.
In a Spelling Bee held in Cleveland Ohio in which pupils from all over the country participated, a little colored girl took the first prize as being the best speller in the public schools of the United States. A San Francisco newspaper offered a prize to the individual who would suggest the best name for the Panama Exposition. A colored girl only eleven years old sent in the name “Jewel City” and won it.
About five years ago in a Brooklyn Public School a colored girl completed the course of study in six and a half years, the first time this feat had been performed, since the school was founded more than two hundred fifty years ago. This record-breaking colored girl also won a bronze medal in a Spelling Bee. In that same Brooklyn School another colored girl took the silver medal for proficiency in German at the mid-year promotion. There were 108 pupils in the class and 18 of them were of German descent. The German medal was the highest honor and was given by the German-American National Bund. When the German gentleman who was presenting the medal saw a small, fourteen-year old, brown-skinned girl walking toward him to receive it, he nearly lost his breath, but the large audience enjoyed the incident and roared with applause. These were the only two prizes offered in that school and they were both taken by the only two colored pupils in the class. As a rule, wherever colored girls have studied their instructors bear cheerful testimony to their intelligence, their diligence and their success.
Ever since a book was published in 1773, entitled Poems on Various Subjects by Phyllis Wheatley, Negro Servant of Mr. John Wheatley of Boston, colored women have given indisputable evidence of a more remarkable record in the history of literature than that made by this clever young slave girl, the first woman with African blood in her veins to win distinction as a writer in the United States and perhaps the first in the world.
At seven years of age she was packed like a sardine in a slave ship sailing from Africa and was taken to Boston. A Mrs. Wheatley, who was looking for a young girl to replace an old servant who could no longer do the work, bought her out of sheer compassion, when she saw the wretched, little, black girl shivering with cold, wrapped only in a small piece of carpet, as she was being exhibited for sale one cold bleak day in Boston. Nine years after she had landed in America, ignorant of the language, unable to read and write, Phyllis was writing verses fill with references to mythology and showing she had a thorough knowledge of Geography, Astronomy and History.
Phyllis wrote a poem to George Washington in which she sang his praises rapturously. The Commander in Chief of the American Army and the future President of the United States acknowledged receipt of this poem and replied as follows; Miss Phillis: Your favor of the 28th of October did not reach my hands until the middle of December; time enough you will say, to have given answer ere this. Granted. But a variety of important occurrences, continuously imposing to distract the mind and withdraw the attention, I hope will apologize for the delay and plead my excuse for the seeming neglect. I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice in the elegant lines you inclosed; and, however undeserving I may be of such encenium and panegyric, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your poetical talent; in honor of which and as a tribute justly due you, I would have published the poem, had I not been apprehensive that while I only meant to give the world this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of vanity. This and nothing else determined me not to give it place in public print. If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the muses and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensation. I am with great respect, your obedient, humble servant,
(Signed) George Washington.
In Sculpture colored women are represented by one upon whom Italy has set her seal of approval. At the Centennial in Philadelphia in 1876 one of the works of art most admired was a statue of Cleopatra which had been carved by Edmonia Lewis, a colored woman. Believing that prejudice against her race in the United States would preclude the possibility of success as a sculptor, if she remained here, Miss Lewis went to Italy to study, then decided to live there and achieved considerable fame. The Marquis of Bute, known far and wide as a connoisseur of art, considered Edmonia Lewis’s Madonna one of the finest pieces of sculpture he possessed.
There is living in Massachusetts to day another colored woman who has achieved success as a sculptor. After graduating from the Philadelphia School of Art Meta Vaux Warrick, as she was known, went abroad and studied with some of the best teachers in Paris. Some of Miss Warrick’s pieces attracted the attention of the great sculptor, Redin [Rodin] and he became so interested in them that at her request he appointed a day to examine them. When he came to the figure in “Silent Sorrow”, he paused, examined it critically then said with conviction and enthusiasm, “Mademoiselle, you are a sculptor. You have the sense of form.” One of Miss Warrick’s best pieces was exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1903. In commenting upon some of her sketches in the Art Nouveau a well-known critic of the Figaro declared that they proved beyond doubt that the young woman who moulded them was a really great artist. In May 1917 Mrs. Meta Warrick-Fuller took second prize in a competition under the auspices of the Massachusetts Branch of the Woman’s Peace Party- her subject being Peace Halting the Ruthlessness of War.
In Painting the race is represented by a colored woman who was one of Bougoureau’s [Bouguereau] pupils and her work also was exhibited in a Paris Salon. On several occasions colored women have won prizes in this country which entitled them to a course of instruction in art, but they have not always been allowed to avail themselves of it, when it was discovered with what race they were identified. A very talented colored woman submitted some drawings on which she was admitted to a school of art in the National Capital some years ago. A ticket of admission was sent to her and an easel actually assigned her. But, when she presented herself to take the course she had won by her drawing, she was told she would not be admitted, because she was colored.
In Music colored women hold diplomas from the best conservatories in the country and they have established several institutions for the study of music themselves. One of them is located in Washington, D.C.
In the professions there are dentists and doctors whose practice is lucrative and large. In business colored women have achieved signal success, in spite of lack of experience and lack of capital as well. A few months ago there died in New York City a colored woman reputed to be worth a million dollars. At the time of her death she was living in a palatial residence on Riverside Drive which is the last word in modern architecture and was designed by a colored architect who graduated from Cornell. This colored woman’s history reads like a page in fiction- the thrilling kind at that. Only fifteen years before she moved into her beautiful residence on Riverside Drive, she was a washerwoman. But, just as white people have made fortunes by discovering ways and means of injecting curls and generating frizzes into locks that hang straight as a poker from the feminine head, so Mme. Walker laid up riches galore for herself by discovering a method which would iron the curl out of refractory hair.
In St, Louis, Mo. there is another large business enterprise, the success of which is largely due to a woman, Mrs. Aaron Malone. The Pero College, as this Hair Emporium is called carries on its extensive operations in a building which it owns and which is worth at least $250,000. It affords employment to a large number of the race in its branches all over the United States. In Alabama there is a large milling and cotton business owned and controlled by a colored woman. A few years ago the principal ice plant in Halifax was managed by a colored woman. Some of the finest modistes and milliners in the country are colored women, who run mammoth establishments in the largest cities. They are very successful undertakers and several are conceded to be as expert embalmers as can be found in the United States.
In Richmond, Va. there lives a colored woman, Mrs. Maggie Walker, who, for many years has been president of a flourishing bank. She has the reputation of being as safe, sane and successful a financier as can be found anywhere in the State. When panics have caused other banks to totter, if they did not actually fall, the one over which this colored woman presides has always stood firm. Mrs. Walker is also president of the Order of St. Lukes, a large beneficial organization which has hundreds of colored people in its employ. Under the head of financial efforts of a commendable work done by the National Association of Colored Women may be mentioned. Under its president Mrs. Mary Talbert, a mortgage was removed from Cedar Hill the home of, Frederick Douglass in Anacostia, Va., where he lived for many years. Cedar Hill will be converted into a suitable Memorial to this great man whose native ability and remarkable attainments did so much to cause the world to place the race he so brilliantly represented upon a higher plane.
Thousands of dollars are raised by colored women every year through their societies in the various churches and through their clubs and this money is used not only for the support of the church but for the upkeep of the schools, hospitals and charitable organizations which colored people maintain. The colored woman is devoted to her church and will spend the last dollar for its support.
Although colored women deserve great credit for applying themselves so assiduously to their studies and cultivating their minds, they deserve still greater credit for the use to which this knowledge has been put. No sooner had the favored few availed themselves of such advantages as they could secure than they hastened to enlighten the less fortunate of their race. With the increase of wisdom there sprang up in the hearts of colored women an ardent desire to do good. With tireless energy and eager zeal they have been continuously prosecuting the work of educating and elevating their race, as though upon themselves alone devolved the accomplishment of this great task. Of the colored teachers engaged in instructing the youth, it is no exaggeration to say that at least 70% are women. In the backwoods remote from the civilization and comforts of the city and town, on the plantations reeking with ignorance and vice, colored women may be found battling with those evils which such conditions always entail. Many a dusky heroine of whom the world will never hear has thus sacrificed her life to her race amid surroundings and in the face of privations which only martyrs can bear.
When the venerable Dr. Mayo was Commissioner of Education some years ago, he declared that colored women had no superiors as teachers and very few equals. He explained this statement by saying that for nearly 300 years slave women had been nurses, had crooned over and cared for the children of their masters, so that the mother instinct had been developed and cultivated in them to a high degree. There are thousands of southern white people to day who will testify cheerfully to the tender care and affection lavished upon them by their colored nurses, both before and after the Civil War. This ability to minister affectionately and carefully to children has been transmitted from the slave women to their descendants who are the school teachers of to day.
Indefatigably and conscientiously in public work of all kinds colored women engage for the benefit of their race. Shirking responsibility in this respect is a fault with which they cannot be truthfully charged. By banding themselves together in the interest of education and morality and, by adopting the most practical and useful means to this end, during the last forty years these women have been a tremendous power for good. One of the most useful and successful organizations among them is the National Association of Colored Women which was formed in 1896 and now has a membership of more than 100,000. In 39 States there are State Federations. Where there are no State Federations, there are organized clubs affiliated with the national organization.
Magnificent service has been rendered by some of these State Federations. Through their instrumentality unsatisfactory schools have been improved, truant children looked after in those communities which make no provision for this service, parents and teachers urged to cooperate with each other, rescue and reform work engaged in, so as to uplift unfortunate women and tempted girls, garments, cut, made and distributed to the poor. By the Alabama Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs a Reformatory for their youth has been built, so that colored boys of tender years need no longer be placed upon the chain gangs to work with hardened criminals or be sent to jail or to the convict lease camps for their first infraction of the law, as has been the case heretofore.
For years the work of bringing the light of knowledge and the gospel of cleanliness to the benighted women on some of the plantations of the South has been conducted with signal success. Those who have rendered this great service have directed their efforts to plantations comprising thousands of acres of land, on which live hundreds of colored people still in the darkness of ignorance and the grip of vice, miles away from churches and schools. Under the evil influence of certain plantation owners who believe it is more profitable to keep their “hands” as near the brute creation as possible, and through no fault of their own, the condition of colored women in some sections of this country is not much better now than it was at the close of the Civil War. Those who work in behalf of these plantation women give them object lessons in the proper way to sweep, dust, cook, wash and iron, show them how to make their huts more habitable and comfortable by converting boxes into bureaus or washstands or tables, also how to make screens, so as to inculcate lessons of modesty. These ignorant plantation women are taught how to clothe and feed their children properly according to their means, what food is the most nutritious and are given other useful information pertaining to household affairs.
Talks on Social Purity are also made for the benefit of those mothers who sometimes fall short of their duty to their children, not because they are vicious and depraved, as is so frequently asserted by those who either do not know the facts or deliberately distort them, but because they are ignorant and poor.
Dotted all over the country are institutions of various kinds, charitable and otherwise which either been established or are being maintained by colored women- just how many it is difficult to state. There is imperative need of reliable statistics bearing on the progress, the possessions and the prowess of colored women, since not only are white Americans ignorant of the work of all kinds which their dark-skinned sisters are doing, but it is difficult for colored people themselves to secure information and data of great value and importance to the race.
Among institutions founded by colored women may be mentioned the Hale Infirmary of Montgomery Alabama, the Carrie Steele Orphanage of Atlanta, the Reed Orphan Home of Covington, both in the State of Georgia, the Old Folks Home in Memphis Tenn., a Home for Aged Colored Women in Pittsburg, a Colored Orphan’s Home in Louisville, Ky., and others equally creditable to the women who have either founded or are maintaining them.
Some years ago the Phyllis Wheatley Club, an organization of colored women in New Orleans established a Sanatarium with a Training School for nurses which has given abundant proof of its utility and success. The conditions which caused the colored women of New Orleans to choose this special field in which to operate were such as obtained in other cities and towns. From the city hospitals colored doctors were excluded altogether, not even being allowed to practice in the colored wards. Colored patients, no matter how ill or how wealthy, were not received into the City Hospital at all, unless they were willing to go into the charity wards. The establishment of this Sanatarium, therefore, answered a variety of purposes. It provided a well-equipped institution to which colored patients might go who did not care to be treated in the charity ward of the City Hospital and it afforded colored medical students an excellent opportunity of gaining a practical knowledge of their profession.
In the surgical department, which is supplied with all the modern appliances, hundreds of operations have been performed, nearly all of which have resulted successfully under the colored surgeon-in-chief. During an epidemic of yellow fever in New Orleans some years ago Phyllis Wheatley nurses rendered such excellent service that they have been employed by the best people of that city ever since. This Sanatarium with its training school for nurses which was established by a few energetic, public-spirited colored women of New Orleans has proved to be such a blessing to the city as a whole, without regard to race or color, that the municipal government has voted an annual appropriation of several hundred dollars with which to help defray the current expense.
Mt. Meigs Institute is an excellent example of a work originated and carried into successful execution by a colored woman. The school was established for the benefit of colored people in the black belt of Alabama, because of the 700,000 colored people living in the State at that time, probably 90% were outside of the cities. Waugh was selected. because in the township of Mt. Meigs, the population is practically all colored. Instruction given in this school is the kind best suited to the needs of the people for whom it was established. Along with their scholastic training girls are taught everything pertaining to the management of the home, while boys learn practical farming, wheelwrighting, blacksmithing and have some military training. Having started with nothing, the trustees of the school now own many acres of land and well-constructed buildings in which several thousand pupils have received instruction, who would in all probability have remained densely ignorant, had it not been for the industry, the energy and the sacrifice of one colored woman.
In Augusta Ga. there is a coeducational school for colored youth founded by Miss Lucy Laney who has devoted her entire life to the elevation of her race. Having struggled heroically against desperate odds, Miss Laney finally graduated from Atlanta University. After teaching several years and saving every penny of her small salary not actually needed for self support, Miss Laney rented a two-story frame house in Augusta, which she used as a dormitory and converted an old barn on the premises into recitation rooms. For years Miss Laney toiled under the most depressing conditions and frequently had no money with which to pay her teachers who depended entirely upon their salary for support. But, she had shouldered this responsibility with a determination and a tenacity which simply mocked defeat.
Instead of being named for its founder this institution is known as the Haines Industrial and Normal School in honor of a friend who greatly assisted Miss Laney in time of need. The school owns substantial buildings worth many thousand dollars and has in attendance more than a thousand pupils from all parts of the South. Ex-President Taft delivered an address a few years ago and the newspapers which reported it quoted him as saying he was deeply impressed with the prodigious amount of work this colored woman had done.
In Daytona Florida there is the Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls established by one of the brightest women the race has produced. On Oct. 3rd 1904 Mary Mcleod Bethune started her work with one dollar and a half. By dint of perseverance, tireless energy and burning zeal she stands to day at the head of an institution worth not less than $100,000 and she is making plans for greatly enlarging her work. But, the value in dollars and cents is nothing compared with the influence for good this school exerts upon the colored youth of the State.
In Lincoln Heights, D.C., a suburb of the National Capital, there is a National Training School for Women and Girls founded by Miss Nannie Burroughs who raised the funds for purchasing the beautiful grounds and erecting the substantial, well-appointed buildings of this educational plant, which is worth $85,000 at least. But, so far as the schools established by colored women are concerned, these are only a few bright and shining lights with innumerable lesser rays twinkling and burning all over the South. The number of schools established by colored women is literally legion. So inadequate are the educational facilities for colored children in many cities and towns of a large section of this country, that thousands of them would remain in the densest ignorance, if it were not for these private schools established by the women of the race.
A great variety of work is done by colored women through the medium of their clubs. By some of them Day Nurseries have been established- a charity of which there is imperative need. The proportion of wage earners among colored women is greater than that among women of any other racial group in the United States. Thousands of wage-earning mothers with large families dependent almost entirely, if not wholly, upon them for support are obliged to leave their children all day, entrusted either to the care of small brothers and sisters who do not know how to look after them properly or to some good-natured neighbor who promises much, but who does little. Some of the infants are locked alone in the room, from the time the mother leaves in the morning till she returns at night. It is painful to think of the suffering these babies endure.
When one thinks of the slaughter of the innocents which is occurring with pitiless persistency every day and reflects upon the multitudes who are maimed for life or are rendered imbecile by the treatment received during their helpless infancy, treatment for which their mothers are frequently not responsible, it is evident that by establishing Day Nurseries colored women will render one of the greatest services possible to humanity and to the race.
By some of the clubs kindergartens have been established and are being successfully maintained. For, nothing lies nearer the hearts of colored women than the children and they are trying to promote the welfare of their little ones in every possible way. They know that the more unfavorable the environment of children, the more necessary it is that steps be taken to counteract baleful influences upon innocent victims. They realize increasingly how imperative it is that colored women inculcate correct principles and set good examples for their own youth whose condition in life is exceedingly hard, from the nature of the case, whose opportunities are comparatively few and whose temptations are very great. Special efforts are being made by some of the leaders to reach out after the waifs and strays whose evil natures alone are encouraged to develop and whose better qualities are deadened and dwarfed by the very atmosphere which they breathe. At the second convention of the National Association of Colored Women held in Chicago in 1899 the first president started a “Kindergarten Fund”. She hoped to raise a sufficient sum to send out a Kindergarten Organizer, whose duty it should be to arouse the conscience of the women to the necessity of saving children and to establish kindergartens where means therefor could be secured.
One of the most serious obstacles to the equitable adjustment of racial conditions is the attitude of the children of the two races toward each other. Seeing the treatment accorded colored people by their elders and the various ways in which colored people are circumscribed and set aside white children, without being conscious of it, early learn to look upon their dark-skinned brothers and sisters with scorn and contempt.
On the other hand, colored children who feel the sting and smart from the wounds inflicted by race prejudice early learn to look upon white people as innately hostile to them and unkind. Every now and then one hears and reads the opinions of those who tell us “How to Solve the Race Problem”. This theory, that and the other may be suggested. But the real solution of the race problem, both so far as those who handicap and those who are handicapped are concerned lies in the children. So long as the children of the two races are allowed to grow up misunderstanding and hating each other, the problem can never be solved.
Believing that it is only through the home that any people can become really good and truly great, colored women who have the interests of their race at heart are exerting themselves strenuously to raise the standards and purify the atmosphere of the home. Homes, more homes, better homes, purer homes is the text upon which sermons have been and will be preached. There have been determined efforts to have heart to heart talks with the women, so that they may learn to strike at the root of evils, many of which lie at their firesides. If the women of the dominant race with all the centuries of education, culture and refinement back of them, with all the wealth of opportunity ever present with them feel the need of a “Mothers’ Congress”, so that they may be enlightened concerning the best methods of rearing their children and conducting their homes, how much more do colored women from whom the shackles of slavery have but yesterday been stricken need information on the same vital subjects. Efforts are being made, therefore, to establish “Mothers’ Congresses” on a small scale, wherever colored women may be reached.
Questions affecting their legal status as a race have been sometimes agitated by colored women. In Tennessee and Louisiana colored women have several times petitioned the legislatures of their respective States to repeal the obnoxious “Jim Crow Car” laws. They are also calling attention to the barbarity of the Convict Lease Systems, of which colored people and especially the female prisoners are the principal victims, with the hope that the conscience of the country may be touched and this stain upon its escutcheon be forever wiped away. Against the one-room cabin some of the leaders have inaugurated a vigorous campaign. When families of eight or ten men, women and children are all huddled promiscuously together in a single room- a condition common among the poor all over one large section- there is little hope of inculcating morality or modesty. It is easy to give many other illustrations of the fact that colored women who have had the advantages of education and training are keenly alive to the needs of their race and are trying to meet them the best they can.
One of the most serious problems confronting colored women is their inability to secure employment in pursuits in which they are fitted by native ability, education and training successfully to engage. Temporarily, the colored woman’s industrial status was suddenly changed for the better by labor conditions brought on by the great World War. Pursuits were then opened to colored people which had previously been closed against them hard and fast. But, in many instances, the opportunities for employment which colored women enjoyed during the World War are being speedily withdrawn and denied them to day. For instance, during the War colored girls operated the elevators in the largest and best department stores in the National Capital. But they have been dismissed and these jobs have been given to white girls. Colored girls were also used as bundle wrappers in these stores, but they too have lost their jobs. The arch enemy, race-prejudice, is rapidly training his deadly machine guns on them and is driving them back from the strongholds they thought they could keep.
With the exception of teaching, sewing, nursing there is practically nothing that a colored girl can get to do in the United States, no matter how well-educated, or skillful or prepossessing she may be, and no matter how great her need, unless she is willing to engage in one of the menial pursuits. While the women of the dominant race have a variety of occupations from which they may choose, the women through whose veins one single drop of African blood is known to flow is limited to a pitiful few. Previous to the World War, so overcrowded were the pursuits in which colored women were allowed to engage and so poor was the pay in consequence that only the barest livelihood could be eked out by the rank and file. The fact that colored women are already being removed from places given them during the World War seems to indicate that history is repeating itself in this respect now.
To colored women who are obliged to earn their living race-prejudice which excludes them from most of the gainful occupations and limits them to an unlucrative few means in many cases misery and despair. The printed report submitted a few years ago by the Vice Commission of Chicago throws a flood of light upon this phase of the colored woman’s life in the United States. This report states that owing to prejudice against them on account of their race colored girls are frequently forced to accept positions as maids in houses of ill fame.
“Employment agents do not hesitate to send colored girls to these houses,” the Vice Commission reports. “They make the astounding statement that the law does not allow them to send white girls to these immoral places, but they can furnish colored help. It is an appalling fact”, reads the printed report, “that practically all of the male and female servants connected with disreputable houses are colored.”
A few years ago Miss Frances Keller [Kellor], then Director General of the of the Intermunicipal Committee on Household Research, made a thorough investigation of conditions under which domestics live in the United States. After carefully informing herself she declared that colored domestics are more friendless than any other racial group in the North and are subjected to greater dangers than those besetting any other women in this country except perhaps the most ignorant of immigrants. Owing to this flagrant discrimination against colored girls who seek employment and, in many instances, owing to the lack of protection afforded them by the law, colored mothers who have high ideals for their daughters find the task of properly rearing them increased an hundred fold. Colored women are hoping that after a while those who are interested, not especially in the moral welfare of the colored girl, but in the moral welfare of the nation as a whole, will realize the necessity of doing everything in their power to create a healthful, wholesome public sentiment in the colored girl’s behalf, so that she may have the same chance of earning an honest living as girls of other races enjoy. So long as the womanhood of any race is sacrificed with impunity upon the altar of prejudice, prescription or passion, so long will the womanhood of no race be absolutely secure.
And yet, in spite of these conditions so conducive to immorality, in spite of the fateful heritage of slavery, though the safeguards usually thrown around maidenly youth and innocence are in large sections of this country practically withheld from colored girls. statistics compiled by white men who would certainly not falsify in favor of the race show that immorality among colored women in the United States is not so great as among colored women in the United States is not so great as among women similarly situated in at least five foreign lands. Owing to conditions abroad brought on by the World War there is no doubt whatever that statistics comparing the immorality of the colored women in certain foreign lands would be decidedly to the advantage of the former. In fact, one of the most encouraging and convincing signs of the Colored-American’s development is the high moral standard in which thousands who have been blessed with education and moral training religiously believe and to which in their daily lives they rigidly adhere.
Another serious problem confronting colored women is the difficulty experienced both in the home and in the public schools in helping their children preserve their self respect and in encouraging them to set their standards high. This is particularly true in those sections where race prejudice manifests itself most fiercely. As soon as a colored child begins to use his eyes and his ears, as soon as he begins to think for himself, the slogan “Thus Far Shalt Thou Go and No Farther, Because You Are Not White”, confronts him like the handwriting on the wall. wherever he turns. As a teacher in the Washington High School for colored youth it was my custom to urge the pupils to secure as thorough an education as they possibly could, arguing that it would not only make them stronger mentally, but it would greatly increase their general efficiency and enhance their value, so that they would stand a much better chance of getting a good position. But, more than once my heart was saddened, when some pupil would say, “Why do you urge us to educate ourselves thoroughly? It will do us no good. It will not help us secure good paying positions. No matter what colored people know, no matter how competent they are, there are only a few things they can get to do. We cant all be doctors, lawyers, preachers or teachers. There are more teachers now than can get a living wage. We haven’t money enough to start in business for ourselves. There is nothing for colored people to do except hold menial positions and we dont need a good education for that.” This lack of incentive to put forth their best effort, because the future looms so forbidding and threatening before them, has such a depressing effect upon thousands of colored youth in this country as no human being can describe and no white American can possibly comprehend.
The average white American really believes that if colored people are unable to secure positions commensurate with their ability and attainments, it is because in some way they do not measure up to the jobs they seek, and, if they do by some unusual good luck secure them they then lose them, it is because they are inefficient and slack. It would be possible to cite case after case showing that this opinion is not based upon the facts. There are many young colored men and women whose infusion of the fatal African admixture is so slight as not to be noticed, who have for that reason secured positions which they would otherwise have been unable to obtain. Their employers have cheerfully admitted that they have entire satisfaction before their racial identity was known. But, when it was discovered that a single drop of African blood was lurking somewhere in their anatomies, these same employers have suddenly discovered that the colored people were not making good and discharged them. This does not always happen, to be sure, for all the justice-loving white people are not dead yet, but it does happen much more frequently than the average white American is aware.
To stem this tide of popular disfavor against her race in the field of labor is the desire of every colored woman who understands the situation and wants to serve her race. By their leaders wage-earning colored women are being shown how fatal it will be to their highest, best interests and to the future welfare of their children, if, as a race, they do not build up a reputation for reliability and proficiency. They are preaching the dignity of labor in season and out and are urging their youth to make themselves thoroughly proficient and absolutely reliable in whatever pursuit they engage. Nobody is more directly and disastrously affected by this industrial boycott against colored people than the is the colored woman herself.
As parents, teachers and guardians colored women instill into their children the necessity of being honest and industrious, of cultivating their minds, of becoming skilled workmen, of being energetic and then they try to make them hopeful. It is comparatively easy to impress upon colored children the necessity of cultivating their minds, becoming skilled workmen, being honest, energetic and industrious, but, how difficult a thing it is for colored women to inspire their children with hope and offer them an incentive for their best endeavor under the existing conditions in the United States.
As a mother of the dominant race looks into the innocent face of her baby, her heart may thrill, not only with happiness in the present, but also with joyful anticipation of the future. For well she knows, no matter how poor she may be, that honor wealth fame and greatness in any vocation he may choose are all his, if he but possess the ability and the determination to secure them. She knows that if it is in her baby to be great, all the exterior circumstances which can help him to the goal of his ambition, such as the laws of his country, the public opinion of his countrymen and manifold opportunities are his without the asking. From his birth he is a king in his own right and is no suppliant for justice.
But, how striking is the contrast between the feelings of joy and hope which thrill the heart of the white mother and the emotions which stir the soul of her colored sister. As a moth of the weaker race clasps to her bosom the baby which she loves with an affection as tender and deep as that the white mother bears her child, her heart dare not thrill with joyful anticipations of the future. She knows that no matter how skillful his hand, how honest his hear or how dire his need, pursuits of many kinds will be closed against him and that his struggle for existence may be desperate indeed. So rough does the way of her infant appear to many an intelligent, colored mother, when she thinks of the hardships and humiliations to which he will be subjected in his efforts to earn his daily bread, that, instead of thrilling with joy and hope, she trembles with apprehension and despair. This picture, though forbidding to look upon, is not overdrawn, as those who have studied the labor question in its relation to the Colored-American can abundantly testify.
Depressing though the situation may be colored women are not sitting supinely by with drooping heads, weeping eyes and folded hands. Many of them are doing everything in their power to smooth out the rough roads of labor over which tiny feet that now patter in play may soon stumble and fall. They are urging the members of their own race to make themselves thoroughly fit. They are also trying to lay their case fairly and squarely before their white sisters, whenever they get the chance. One of the difficulties under which colored women labor is their inability to inform white women about conditions which confront them, so that few of the latter know the facts. And it is not at all strange that white women should know little about either progress or the problems of their colored sisters. Those who arrange lectures for the women’s clubs will not have any subject relating to colored women discussed, as a rule. They say the members are not interested in the race problem. Managers of lecture bureaus usually say the same thing. If a writer presents the Colored-American’s side of the race problem, editor of newspapers and magazines usually return his manuscript to him so quick it makes his head swim. It is not astonishing, therefore, that altho the average white American thinks her knows a great deal about conditions confronting colored people, he really knows very little indeed.
For that reason certain prominent colored women are trying to interest their white sisters in their cause. They are appealing to their large- hearted, broad-minded sisters of the dominant race, of whom there are so many, both to observe themselves and to teach their children to observe, so far as they can, the lefty principles of justice, equality of opportunity and equality before the law, upon which this government was founded and in which, theoretically, at least, all loyal American citizens believe. Colored women beseech their white sisters to try to teach their children to judge men and women by their intrinsic merit, rather than by the adventious circumstances of race, o r color, or creed. Colored mothers are imploring the white parents of the United States to teach their children that, when they grow to be men and women, if they deliberately prevent their brothers and sisters of a darker hue from earning an honest living, the Father of All Men will hold them responsible for the crimes which are the result of their injustice and for the human wrecks which the ruthless crushing of hope and ambition always makes. In the name of the helplessness and innocence of childhood- black childhood as well as white- colored women are appealing to the white parents of the United States to make the future of their boys and girls as promising and as bright as should be that of every child born in a country which owes its very existence to the love of freedom in the human heart.
In a variety of ways colored women have given indisputable evidence that they intend to put forth earnest efforts in behalf of their race. Intelligently and conscientiously those who have been blessed with superior advantages are studying the questions which affect thier race most deeply and directly, hoping to find ways and means of reaching a just and reasonable solution for some of the vexatious problems which confront the. Against lynching, the Jim Crow Car Laws, the Convict Lease System, cruel discriminations in the various pursuits and trades they intend to agitate with such force of logic and intensity of soul that those who continue to handicap them will either be converted to righteousness and justice or be ashamed openly to violate the Golden Rule and flout the very principles upon which this government was built.
If the future of colored women may be judged by the past since their emancipation, as dark as that past has sometimes been, there is no reason why they or their friends should look forward to it with alarm. Over almost insurmountable obstacles colored women have forged steadily ahead, so that to day there is scarcely a trade or a profession in which they are allowed to engage in which they have not at least one worthy representative. In a variety of ways colored women are rendering their race a service whose magnitude and importance it is difficult to estimate or express.
Lifting as they climb, onward and upward they go, struggling and striving and hoping that the door of opportunity will be opened wider unto them ere long. With courage born of the success they have achieved in the past and a with a keen sense of responsibility which they will continue to assume, they look forward to the future large with promise and hope. Seeking no favor because of their color, begging for nothing they do not deserve, they knock at the door of justice and ask for an equal chance.
Mary Church Terrell
1323 ‘T’ St. N.W. Wash. D.C.
Terrell, Mary Church. “The Progress and Problems of Colored Women.” Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress. 11 January 1920. https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/ms009311.mss42549.0357