Mary Church Terrell

A Colored Woman's Visit to the Countess of Warwick - 1904

Mary Church Terrell
January 01, 1904
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[ca. 1904] A Colored Woman’s Visit to the Countess of Warwick.

At last the day had come. The article modifying day in this first sentence should be printed in italics. and underlined, for it was a red letter day in my life. For years I had been reading about this famous English woman, first as a great beauty, at whose feet the flower of the British aristocracy as well as royalty felt proud to bow and then as a philanthropist, consecrating her time, her beauty and her high position in society to the service of women less fortunately situated than herself. Doubtless there will be some inquiring minds who will wonder how in the world the Countess of Warwick happened to know a Colored woman who lives in the United States and then why on earth she invited her to call. Nobody but a wicked old ogre refuses to gratify legitimate curiosity and I am not a wicked old ogre.

The Countess and I were invited to address the International Congress of Women recently held in Berlin Germany. Since we were to both to discuss subjedcts closely resembling each other, we were placed in the same section and were booked to speak the same morning. Unfortunately for the Congress, and to the bitter dissapointment of a multitude of women, the Countess was ill and could not come to Berlin. It goes without saying, however, that the audience which greeted the other speakers who addressed the meeting that morning was none the smaller, because the Countess of Warwick was expected to appear. Thus did the distinguished lady learn of a Colored woman who came from the United States to address the International Congress of Women in Berlin. Then her ladyship was informed that the same individual would go to London, after the convention adjourned. And so it happened that I received a letter one day, while I was in Paris, containing a most cordial invitation from the Countess to pay her a visit, when I reached London. She had gone to her country seat, she said, but she would be glad to return to her London residence to see me. In answer to her questions I told her when I would reach London and how long I planned to stay and then she appointed a certain Thursday afternoon in July for me to call. But just as I was about to leave the hotel to keep my engagement that afternoon, the maid knocked at my door to tell me that Lady Warwick had telephoned that she could not possibly receive me that day, as she had been suddenly called out of the city. The man servant who sent the message told the hotel clerk that her ladyship would write me immediately and make another appointment.

Since I was to remain in London but a few days longer, I was keenly dissapointed, of course, because I feared my opportunity to see the beautiful Countess of Warwick was gone. The promised letter from my distinguished friend never came. “I am a very poor correspondent,” said the Countess in explaining why she did not write. Instead of the letter came a telegram which read as follows: “I had to leave town, important pressing business, Shall return Monday. Can you call to see me Monday afternoon six oclock? So very sorry about Wednesday Lady Warwick.” This message was sent to me from Easton, Dunnow, Essex. I wired her I would be glad to call at that hour and I did. And so, as I said in the beginning, the day had actually come, when I was to make the acquaintance of the far-famed English beauty, the active, generous philanthropist and the acknowledged society queen, all in one.

The Countess’s London residence is in St. James’s Square, just a minute’s walk from Buckingham Palace, where the King and Queen of England reside. The door was opened by a tall, well proportioned man with a matchless complexion, whom one would call handsome,. He lead the way and asked me to ascend a broad staircase which was carpeted with red velvet. When the top of this staircase was reached, I was ushered into what must be the Countess’s private reading and writing room. It can hardly be called a library, for it had only a few books lying here and there, as though they had just slipped from their fair mistress’s hand. As I looked at the pretty little desk, there was something about it which impressed me with the fact that it had been frequently used. This room was a veritable bower of flowers. It looked like a bit of fairy land let down into a dwelling of mortals. There must have been at least ten vases filled with the choicest and most beautiful flowers imaginable. Roses, pink and yellow, lilies, orchids, and sweet peas peeped at one from corners and angles where the effect would be most artistic. I could not help wondering whether this room was so decorated every day. It probably is, since these flowers doubtless came from the Countess's country seat. I had just time enough to look around at the dainty French furniture, when the soft rustling of garments announced the approach of the Lady I had come to see. I will not say she was as beautiful as a picture, or the she appeared like a vision, when she entered the room, although it is a temptation to do so. No matter how entrancing the picture of a woman may be, it is not half so satisfying to the eye of the average human being as is the real live object itself. And so long as visions are intangible and lack the power of a speech, they should not aspire to be compared with pretty woman, who have.

As the Countess advanced toward me, she extended her hand and gave me the most cordial welcome. "How kind and good you are to come see me," she said. "I was greatly disappointed in not being able to keep my first engagement with you, but I was suddenly called away, and I was obliged to go." Before I reached the Countess's residence, I had prepared a few remarks which I thought might do to begin the conversation that I was to have my distinguished friend. I knew it was proper to address her as "Your ladyship," and I had decided to do precisely as well bred Romans do, so long as I remained in Rome. But I must confess that I was so overcome by the Countess's assertion that I had displayed an excess of kindness and goodness in calling on her, that I forgot the speech I had so carefully planned to make. I have a suspicion amounting to a positive conviction that in my confusion, instead of addressing the Countess of Warwick as "Your ladyship," I used the plain, informal, American "You." It is a consolation to feel, however, that I succeeded in displaying my knowledge of the proper English form, after the first embarrassment had passed.

The Countess had no sooner seated herself upon a white satin lounge, which had here and there a touch of pink than she arose and walked toward the door, explaining as she did so that she had left her little dog outside. When the door was opened, in ran the smallest excuse of a canine that I ever saw. He was light chocolate in color with long silken hair which completely concealed his eyes. After mature deliberation I have concluded that Tiddle Winks (for that was his dogship's name), must depend entirely on his sense of hearing and smell for purposes of locomotion, since it is impossible for him to see. When the Countess had seated herself on the divan again, Tiddle Winks curled himself up snugly in a small round ball, laid himself on the train of his mistress's elegant, white robe, went fast asleep, and did not stir for an hour and a half.

The Countess of Warwick is as willowy as a girl sixteen, as fair as a lily, and as beautiful as her pictures represent her to be, which is saying a great deal. She was clad in a gown of some filmy, clinging material, the yoke and the sleeves of which were made of real lace of some kind. She wore a large picture hat with a delicate pink rose in front, around which a very pale blue veil had been drawn and tied in a loop on her bosom. As I looked at her, I wondered how it was possible for a woman to approach more nearly the ideal of perfect beauty than did she.

"Please tell me something about the work in which you are engaged for the women of your race," she began. "I am deeply interested in it, I assure you. I cannot understand many phases of the race problem in the United States, I must confess. I do not see why there should be so much prejudiced against well educated, cultivated men and women of color, for instance." Eager to explain this side of the subject as fully and clearly as I could, I gave as many whys and wherefores as it is possible to produce. But the more I discussed this point with the Countess, the more evident it became to me that my explanations did not explain and that she was hopelessly groping in the dark. "I could not understand," continued the Countess, "why the President was so criticised and abused, because he invited Booker Washington to dine with him at the White House. In my effort to get some light on this matter, I have talked with several Americans, and I have asked them why President Roosevelt was so severely censured." "What did they say," I asked. "Most of them said they objected to it personally, because the President had done something for which there was no precedent. But," she said, and she paused a moment as though the mystery in which the subject was shrouded had deprived her of the power of speech, "I have never been able to comprehend it all."

The Countess had heard about my article on lynching which appeared in the June number of the North American Review, but she had not read it. Naturally and imperceptibly she drifted toward that. "It cannot be possible," she said, "that colored men, women and children are still being hanged, burned, and shot in the United States by mobs." I was obliged to answer in the affirmative, of course. It is surprising how little even the most intelligent foreigners know about many phases of the race problem in the United States. I felt it my duty to emphasize the fact that out of every hundred colored men who are lynched, only 12 or at the most 15 are even accused of what is so falsely and maliciously called the usual crime by the South. The Countess expressed great astonishment at this, as did the majority of foreigners with whom I talked. Those who seem to realize that mob violence still prevails to such an alarming extent in the United States believe almost without exception that the victims meet their horrible fate because of the commission of a single unmentionable crime, and it is impossible to persuade them otherwise. Without passing any criticism whatever upon the country in which such lawlessness is tolerated and such atrocities are perpetrated with impunity, the Countess expressed her horror of them in no uncertain terms.

To an Englishman lynching must be particularly difficult to understand. No one can travel far in England without being impressed the Englishman's reverence for the law. From the lowest and roughest specimens in Great Britain to the King, there is a reverence and a veneration for the law which is ingrained into the very marrow of their bones. In the most crowded thoroughfares of London, where it seems impossible to get a pin's head between the innumerable busses, wagons, and vehicles of every description which are trying to pass each other, a single policeman has but to lift his little finger, and everything stops in the twinkling of an eye. And it stays in status quo, until the sweep of the same officer's hand gives the signal for the procession to move again. This digression from the Countess of Warwick's horror of lynching to the English reverence for law is not so great after all, so that an apology is hardly in order. As quickly as possible I turned the conversation from lynching into more agreeable channels, so that the pleasure of my visit should not be destroyed. No one enjoys expatiating upon the weakness and the wickedness of his country in a foreign land, unless he feels sure that by exposing certain evils, it is possible to have them remedied or removed. It occurred to me the Countess might get a wrong impression about the attitude of the colored people toward the United States, after she had heard about their ill treatment in certain sections of the South. In order to set her right I emphasized the fact that in spite of the hardships endured in the present and the cruel bondage to which they had been subjected in the past, there are no truer patriots in the United States of America to day than are the ten millions of Colored people who know and love no fatherland but this. If the Countess's expression was an indication of her feelings, she was both touched and pleased to learn this.

The great Frederick Douglass used to say that a bore is a man who talks about himself, when you want to talk about yourself. Remembering that definition of a bore I decided to turn the conversation away from myself and my race, so that I might learn more about the wonderful work in which the Countess herself is engaged. "Please tell me something about the Agricultural College your ladyship has founded," I said. "Some years ago," replied the Countess, "it occurred to me that there were comparitively few occupations in England in which educated women who want to earn their living might successfully and profitably engage. After thinking the matter over for a long time, I decided to establish an Agricultural Training College for Women so that those who take the course there may know how to manage a farm. There are many reasons why women are especially fitted for this kind of work and it is certainly conducive to health. "Of what does the course in the Agricultural College consist?" I asked. "The students are taught everything pertaining to the dairy," she said; "how to raise vegetables and fruit, how to cultivate flowers and how to take care of poultry and bees. They are also taught how to trade in their produce to the best advantage." "Please tell me about the Lady Warwick Agricultural Association of Women," I said. "There is not much to say about that," was the reply, "It was founded to create an interest in farm work for women, to disseminate information on the subject and to secure situations for those who want to engage in this work and who are to competent to do so. In 1903, the Institution was established in Studley Castle, which is quite near Warwick Castle, you know. Will you be here next Wednesday?" asked the Countess. I told her I would not. "I am very sorry," said she, "for we shall have the closing exercises of the Agricultural College then. There will be speaking and several interesting exercises, which you would enjoy, I know. I shall go to the school Tuesday, spend the night there and I wish you could go with me." If it had been possible to take another steamer immediately after the one on which I had already engaged passage sailed, I should have remained to attend the closing exercises of this Agricultural School for women without doubt.

"You know I am a Socialist, do you not?" asked the Countess. I most certainly did not and I fear I told her with such emphasis and surprise that I showed how shocked I was to hear it. If the Countess had declared she was angel, as I looked at her that day, I should not have been surprised, and I might easily have believed her. But a socialist! Having been taught in my youth that well bred people conceal their emotions, I did the best I could to hide mine, with what success I do not care to speculate. "How did your ladyship become a socialist?" I gasped. "That is not difficult to explain" was the answer. "After a careful study of conditions as they exist in England," said she, "I was convinced that socialism is the only thing which can help the poor to help themselves. I did not reach this conclusion hastily, I assure you, and now that I am fully persuaded that socialism is the only possible solution to some of the grave problems which England must solve, it would be very difficult for me to change my mind." "Is the Earl of Warwick a socialist?" I ventured to ask. "No," said the Countess, "I am the only one in my family who believes in socialism, I am trying to convert my sister, the Dutchess of Sutherland, however, and I should not be surprised, if I succeed." "What does your ladyship's family think of your position on socialism?" I asked. The Countess laughed as heartily and as genuinely as a school girl. "Some of my friends think I'm going straight to the bad, I presume. I dare say there are many good people who do not approve of me at all." The fair face of the speaker was wreathed in smiles, as she made this remark, so that I am perfectly sure that she spends no sleepless nights worrying about the disapprobation of those who disagree with her. As I listened to her, there was something in the earnestness of her voice and there was a certain intensity in her manner which expressed the depth of her convictions. I believe it would be almost as easy to move the rock-ribbed and ancient hills as it would be to shake the Countess's faith in the efficacy of socialism in England. She is especially fortunate in that neither she nor her family suffers in the slightest degree on account of her espousal of an unpopular cause. The Countess herself is the daughter of the Earl of Roslyn and belongs therefore to an old and well-known family. She married into one of the greatest and most powerful families of which Great Britain boasts. Even if people do not approve of her views, therefore, they are obliged to treat her with courtesy and respect.

The Countess of Warwick has four children, a son twenty one, who is a war correspondent in the Russian army, a daughter, who has recently married Lord Helmsley, a small son six years old and a baby born last April. "Here is the picture of my son," said she, "taking a fine miniature of a handsome young man from her desk. He has dark hair and eyes. "And this is a picture of my daughter," said she handing me a cabinet photograph of a strikingly beautiful young woman, which was also resting on her desk. From the mantel nearby she took a picture of a small boy, who was seated on a lawn, looking up at a butterfly soaring over his head. "My little son is six years old, just the age of your daughter, Phyllis," said she. Being only a woman I felt greatly flattered that the Countess remembered the age of my little girl about whom I had told her at the beginning of our talk. The baby who saw the light of day for the first time in April did not appear in the group. As I started to leave I told the Countess that I should like very much to have her picture. "I have none here in London," said she, "You sail for home Wednesday afternoon, and this is Monday night. How can I possibly give you one?" She paused for a moment to see how the matter could be arranged. "I shall send to Warwick Castle for one tomorrow," said she, "And I shall have it taken to your hotel as soon as it comes. It will be late Tuesday night, when you receive it, but you will surely get it before you leave." The promise was kept to the letter, so that the beautiful face of the Countess of Warwick is constantly before me in my home. "You will be in England again some day, will you not?" asked the Countess. I told her I hoped I would. "If you come again," she continued, "you must write me a short while before you sail. You would enjoy a visit to Warwick Castle, I am sure. Everything in the United States is so new, that I know you are interested in the ancient, and Warwick Castle is a magnificent old pile. If you ever come again, I shall make the plans beforehand, so that we may have some delightful excursions together." When my visit

was concluded, I felt that I had been in the presence of a very charming, useful, and superior woman. One cannot talk long with the Countess of Warwick without being impressed with the depth and sincerity of her convictions, her breadth of view and her generosity of heart. Unlike the Englishmen one reads or hears about, she is enthusiastic to a degree. There is nothing in her manner the least bit suggestive of the cold reserve which is said to be characteristic of those indigenous to British soil. She is decidedly sympatica, as our Italian friends would say, and when one bids her good bye, he hopes he will meet her again.

Mary Church Terrell.

326 T St. N.W.

Washington D.C.

Honorary President of the National Association of Colored Women