Mary Church Terrell

President's First Address to the National Association of Colored Women - 15 Sept. 1897

Mary Church Terrell
September 15, 1897
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First Address to Nat Asso as President.

Delivered in Nashville, Tenn

Sept. 15, 1897

President’s First Address,

In Union there is strength is a truism that has been acted upon by Jew and Gentile, by Greek and Barbarian, by all classes and conditions alike from the creation of the universe to the present day. It did not take long for men to learn that by combining their strength, a greater amount of work could be accomplished with less effort in a shorter time. Upon this principle of union governments have been founded, and states built from time immemorial. Our own republic teaches the same lesson. Force a single one of the United States to stand alone, and it becomes insignificant, feeble, and a prey to the rapacity of every petty power seeking to enlarge its territory and increase its wealth. But form a republic of United States, and it becomes one of the great nations of the earth, strong in its might and terrible in its power of self defense.

Acting upon this principle of concentration and union have the colored women of the United States bonded themselves together to fulfill a mission to which they feel peculiarly adapted and especially called.

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 ravages made by practices that sap our strength, and preclude the possibility of advancement, which render other circumstances could easily be made. We call ourselves an association to signify that we have joined hands one with the other to work together in a common cause; to proclaim to the world that the women of our race have become partners in the great 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 individuals virtue no of his vice, which neither is a stamp neither of one’s intelligence nor of ignorance, but we refer to the fact that this is an association of colored women, because our peculiar status in this country at the present time seems to demand that we stand by ourselves in the special work for which we have organized. For this reason it was thought best to invite the attention of the world to the fact that colored women feel their responsibility as a unit, and together have clasped hands to assume it.

Special stress is laid upon the fact that our Association is composed of women, not because we wish to deny rights and privileges to our brothers in imitation of the example they have set us for so many years, but because the work which we hope to accomplish can be done better we believe by the mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of our race than by the fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. The crying need of our organization of colored women is questioned by no one conversant with our peculiar trials and perplexities, and acquainted with the almost insurmountable obstacles in our path to those attainments and acquisition to which it is the right and privilege of every member of every race to aspire.

It is not because we are discouraged at the progress made by our people that we have uttered the cry of alarm which has called together this band of earnest women assembled here to night. In the unprecedented advancement made by the negro since his emancipation, we take great pride, and extract there from both courage and hope.

From a condition of dense ignorance but thirty years ago, we have advanced so far in the realm of knowledge and letters as to have produced scholars and authors of no mean repute. Tho penniless as a race but a short while ago, we have among us today a few men of wealth and multitudes who own their homes and make comfortable living. We therefore challenge any other race to present a record more creditable, and show a progress more wonderful than that made by the ex slaves of the United States and that too in the face of prejudice, proscription, and persecution against which no other people has ever had to contend in the history of the world. And yet while rejoicing in our steady march onward and upward to the best and highest things of life, we are nevertheless painfully mindful of our weakness and defects. While we know the negro is no worse than other races, equally poor, equally ignorant and equally oppressed, we would nevertheless see him lay aside the sins that do so easily beset him, and come forth clothed in all those attributes of mind and graces of character that stamp the real man. To compass this end through the simplest, swiftest, surest methods the colored women have organized themselves into this Association, whose power for good let us hope will be as enduring as it is unlimited.

Believing that it is only through the home that a people can become really good and truly great, the N.A.C.W. shall enter that sacred domain to inculcate right principles of living and correct false views of life. Homes, more homes, purer homes, better homes is the text upon which our sermons to the masses must be preached. So long as the majority of a people call that place home in which the air is foul, the manners bad and the morals worse, just so long is this so called home a menace to health, a breeder vice, and the abode of crime. Not alone upon the inmates of these hovels are the awful consequences of their filth and immorality visited, but upon the heads of those 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 discourage us. Side by side with these facts and figures of crime, I would have presented and pictured the miserable hovels from which these youthful criminals come.

Crowded into alleys, many of them the haunts of vice, few if any of them in a proper sanitary condition, most of them fatal to mental or moral growth, and destruction of healthful, physical development as well, thousands of our children have a wretched heritage indeed. It is, therefore, into the home, sisters of the Association, that we must go, filled with all the zeal and charity which such a mission demands.

To the children of the race we owe, as women, a deft which can never be paid, until herculean efforts are made to rescue them from evil and shame, for which they are in no way responsible. Listen to the cry of the children, my sisters. Upon you they depend for the light of knowledge, and the blessing of a good example. As an organization of women, surely nothing can be nearer our hearts than the children many of whose lives so sad and dark, we might brighten and bless. It is the kindergarten we need. Free kindergartens in every city and hamlet of this broad land we must have, if the children are to receive from us what is our duty to give.

Already during the past year kindergartens have been established and successfully maintained by several organizations, from which most encouraging reports have come. Let their worthy example be emulated till in us branch of the Association shall the children of the poor be deprived of the blessings which flow from the kindergarten [a]lone.

The more unfavorable the environments of children, the more necessary is it that steps be taken to counteract the fateful influences upon innocent victims. How imperative is it then that we inculcate correct principles, and set good examples for our own youth whose little feet will have so many thorny paths of prejudice, temptation and injustice to tread.

Make a tour of the settlements of colored people who in many cities are relegated to the most noisome sections permitted by the municipal government, and behold the mites of humanity that infest them. Here are our little ones, the future representatives of the race fairly drinking in the pernicious example of their elders, coming in contact with nothing but ignorance and vice, till, at the age of six, evil habits are formed that no amount of civilizing and christianizing can ever completely break. As long as the evil nature alone is encouraged to develop, while the higher, nobler qualities of little ones are dwarfed and deadened by the very atmosphere which they breathe, the negligent, pitiless public is responsible for the results and is partner of their crimes.

“Suffer little children to come unto me,” said our Saviour, as he tenderly folded them to his bosom, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of heaven. What a sermon, what a world of meaning, what a revelation of a nation’s duty to its young, do these wards contain. The great heart of the Son of God bled for the children, and altho his words on earth were few, he could not offer himself as a sacrifice, until he had made an eternal plea for the innocence and helplessness of childhood. Let the women of the National Association see to it that the little waifs and strays of the alleys come in contact with intelligence and virtue, at least a few times a week that the noble aspirations with which they are born may not be entirely throttled by the evil influences from which these poor little victims are powerless to escape. The establishment of free kindergartens! you exclaim. Where is the money coming from? How can we do it? This charity you advocate tho beautiful in theory is nevertheless impossible of attainment. Let the women of the race once be thoroughly aroused to their duty to the children, let them be consumed with ardent desire to save them from lives of degradation and shame, and the establishment of free kindergartens for the poor will become a living, breathing, saving reality at no distant day.

What movement looking toward the reformation and regeneration of mankind was ever proposed, that did not instantly assume formidable proportions to the faint hearted? But how soon obstacles that have once appeared insurmountable dwindle into nothingness, after the shoulder is put to the wheel, and united effort determines to remove them! In every organization of the Association let committees be appointed, whose special mission it will be to do for the little waifs of the alleys what is not done by their mothers, who in many instances fall far short of their duty, not because they are ignorant and poor.

Through mothers meetings which have been in the past year and will be in the future a special feature of the Association, much useful information in everything pertaining to the home will be disseminated. Object lessons in the best way to sweep, to dust, to cook and to wash should be given by women who have made a special study of the art and science of housekeeping. How to clothe children neatly, how to make, and especially how to mend garments, how to manage their households economically, what food is the most nutritious and best for the money, how to ventilate as thoroughly as possible the dingy, stuffy quarters which the majority are forced to inhabit, all these are subjects on which the women of the masses need and are wanting instruction and advice. Let us reach mothers of families how to save themselves wisely. Let us have heart to heart talks with our women that we may strike at the root of evils, many of which lie alas at the fireside.

If the women of the dominant race with all the centuries of education, culture and refinement back of them, with all their wealth of opportunity ever present with them, if these women recently felt the necessity of calling a Mother’s Congress that they might be enlightened as to the best methods of rearing children and conducting their homes, how much more do the women of our own race from whom the schackles of slavery have just fallen need information on the same subjects? Let us have Mother’s Congresses in every community in which our women can be found. Among other practical suggestions as to their duty in the house, let us urge upon our mothers the necessity of increasing the self respect of our children. Let the reckless, ill advised and oftentimes brutal methods of punishing children be everywhere condemned. Let us teach our mothers that by punishing children inhumanly, they destroy their pride, crush their spirit and convert them into hardened culprits whom it will be impossible later on to reach or touch in any way at all. More than any other race at present in this country we should [illegible] strive to implant feelings of self-respect and pride in our children, whose spirits are crushed and whose hearts saddened enough by indignities, from which as victims of an unreasonable, cruel prejudice it is impossible to shield them. Let it be the duty of every friend of the race to teach children who are humiliated on learning that they are descendants of slaves that the majority of races of the earth have at some time in their history been subjects to another. The keen edge of humiliation will be dulled, when our children are taught that the proud Anglo Saxon from whom the slaveholders themselves descended once bound under a bondage as cruel as that under which our African fore parents groaned.

Let it be our duty to teach the children of the race that as descendants of African Ancestors there is in the record of their dusky grand parents much of which they may justly be proud.; that while our Anglo Saxon progenitors have wrought gloriously for the advancement of civilization, there is much for which as their descendants we may well hang our heads in shame. It is indeed unfortunate that this race question should ever be thrust upon the minds of children, but the estimate places upon us is often so uncomplimentary and so untrue that it is our duty to disabuse the minds of little ones of the impression that they are identified with a race hopelessly ignorant and totally depraved. To handicap children with such an opinion of their people as this, at the very beginning of their career is nothing less than race suicide.

The women of the Association should see to it that the youth of the race is rooted and grounded in correct views of labor. Let the dignity of labor be preached in season and out. We are teaching our Let children (learn) that work with the hand is as honorable as work with the head; that work is a blessing and idleness a curse. Let schools of domestic science be established, and our girls urged to attend them. We view with alarm the disposition everywhere apparent to refuse employment to the negro, wherever it is possible to secure servants help of any other race. Whose fault this is, why this movement to take bread and butter from the mouth of the Negro has been inaugurated, it is not my province to discuss. It is the part of wisdom to present the facts as they are, and urge those who earn their living the laboring class to do all in their power to remedy an evil and avert a calamity which would reduce us to a state of pauperism and woe. The cry for skilled labor is going up all over the land. Let us see to it that our boys and girls are prepared to answer it. Let our women urge the establishment of industrial schools in connection with the public school system, so that our boys and girls may be given trades, which in many sections they could learn in no other way. With the trades unions in league against our laborers, with the various avocations by which we might earn an honest living closed in our faces, the financial prospects of the race at times appear gloomy indeed.

Trades in which few but colored laborers formerly engaged seen in some instances to be passing entirely out of their hands. Colored waiters are being supplanted by white waiters in the hotels of many large cities in the North and East; colored chambermaids, colored cooks and colored nurses are being gradually displaced by white domestics at higher wages. Not only has the brother in white seen fit to lay heavy hands upon the trades of which colored men formerly enjoyed the exclusive monopoly, but he has made haste to change the names as well. The plain, everyday white washer of a few years ago is fast becoming absolute in favor of the Kalsominer of to day who scorns the old name. Our barbers are being swallowed up by tonsorial artists with fair hair and blue eyes. And so on down the line as breadwinners we seem to be losing ground.

It should therefore be one of the chief aims of the Association to establish industrial schools in which our boys and girls may learn trades and become skilled laborers so that they may be saved from pauperism and crime.

To the purification of the social atmosphere let us devote ourselves with might and main. Against the double standard of morality which condemns fallen women and caresses faults of immoral men let us hurl all our engines of war. As an association of women, let us protect the womanhood of the race by demanding that men who transgress the moral law shall be banished from decent society as irrevocably and inevitably as are our sisters whom they destroy. Let us deal a death blow to that old dispensation teaching that we must turn the cold shoulder upon a fallen sister, but greet her destroyer with open arms and a gracious smile. Homes for friendless and unfortunate girls should be established as soon as our means permit. The protection and sympathy of good women, coupled with the opportunity of leading pure lives, have saved many a wayward girl from a fate far worse than death.

In public questions affecting our legal status, let us engage intelligently and continuously, whenever and wherever it is possible to strike a blow for equality and right. Against atrocities like the Convict Lease System whose barbarity no tongue can utter, whose brutality no pen can portray, let us wage ceaseless war. Let the cause of temperance and morality be especially espoused in our effort to better humanity and elevate the race. Sisters of the Association, arouse, bestir yourselves, quit you like women. You have done much for the betterment of mankind in the past redouble your efforts for the future. Let us consecrate ourselves anew to the mission which we have been called to fulfill. Sorrow that we might avert or soften is clutching at the heartstrings of our sisters, who need sympathy and aid. Let them not perish of heart hunger for want of the crumb of comfort which it is in our power to bestow.

Every child that goes astray because of our indifference and neglect is a reproach and a rebuke to us.

If you tell me that we lack the means necessary to carry on a great work of reform, that we have no money to help the needy and poor, I reply, that loving hearts, generous natures, willing feet and helpful hands can, without the outlay of a single penny, work miracles in the name of humanity and right.

Money we need, money we must have to accomplish much which we hope to effect. But it is not by powerful armies and the outlay of vast fortunes that the greatest revolutions are wrought and the most enduring reforms inaugurated. It is by the silent, though powerful force of individual influence thrown on the side of right, it is by arduous, persistent effort to help those with whom we come in daily contact, to enlighten the heathen at our door, to create wholesome public sentiment in the communities in which we live, that the heaviest blows are struck for virtue and right.

Let us not only preach, but practice race unity, race pride, reverence and respect for those capable of leading and advising us. Let the youth of the race be impressed with the dignity of labor and inspired with a desire to work. Let us do nothing to handicap children in the desperate strength for existence in which their unfortunate condition in this country forces them to engage.

Let us purify the atmosphere of our homes till it becomes so sweet that those who dwell in them will have a heritage more precious than great riches, more to be desired desired than silver or gold.

And, finally, sisters of the National Association of Colored Women, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Mary Church Terrell

Terrell, Mary Church. 1897. “President's First Address to the National Association of Colored Women." Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress.