Mary Church Terrell

The Duty of the National Association of Colored Women to the Race - Aug. 14-16, 1899

Mary Church Terrell
August 14, 1899— Chicago, Illinois
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aug 14-15-16-1899

Chicago, Ill

The Duty of the National Association of Colored Women to the Race.

Address of Mary Church Terrell, Pres. of National Association of Colored Women.

The National Association of Colored Women has at this its second Convention every reason to rejoice and be exceeding glad. From its birth in July 1896 tell the present moment its growth has been steady and its march ever onward and upward to the goal of its ambition. An infant of but three years is this organization, over which I have had the honor to preside, ever since it saw the light of day in the Capital of the Nation, and yet in those three short years it has accomplished a vast amount of good. So tenderly has this child of the organized womanhood of the race been nurtured, so wisely ministered unto by all who have watched prayerfully and waited patiently for its development, that it comes before you tonight a child hale, hearty and strong, of which tis fond mothers have every reason to be proud.

As individuals, colored women have always been ambitious for their ace. From the day when shackles first fell from their fettered limbs till tonight, as individuals, they have often single handed and alone, struggled against the most desperate and discouraging odds, in order to secure for their loved ones and themselves that culture of the head and heart, for which they hungered and thirsted so long in vain. But it dawned upon us finally, that individuals working alone, or scattered here and there in small companies, might be never so honest in purpose, so indefatigable in labor, so conscientious about methods, and so wise in projecting plans, they would nevertheless accomplish little, compared with the possible acchievement of many individuals, all banded strongly together throughout the entire land, with heads and hearts fixed on the same high purpose, and hands joined in united strength.

As the result of a general realization of this fact, the National Association of Colored Women was born.

Though we are young in years, and have been unable to put into execution some plams, on which we had built high hopes, the fruits of organized efforts are already apparent to all. If in the short space of three years, the National Association had done nothing but give an impressive object lesson in the necessity for and the efficacy of organization, it would have proved its reason for existence and its right to live. But, seriously handicapped though we have been, both because of lack of experience and lack of funds, our efforts have for the most part been crowmed with success.

In the kindergartens established by some of our organizations, children have been cultivated and trained. A Sanatorium with a training school for nurses has been set on such a firm foundation in a southern city, and has given such abundant proof of its utility and necessity, that the municipal government has voted it an annual appropriation of several hundred dollars. To our underprivileged poor benighted sisters in the Black Belt of Alabama we have gone, and have been both a help and a comfort to these women, through the darkness of whose ignorance of everything that makes life sweet or worth the living no ray of light would have penetrated but for us. We have taught them the A.B.C. of living by showing them how to make their huts more habitable and decent with the small means at their command, and how to care for themselves and their families more in accordance with the laws of health. Plans for aiding the poor indigent, orphaned and aged have been projected and in some instances have been carried to a successful execution. Mother’s meetings have been generally held and sewing classes formed. Abuses like Lynching, the Convict Lease System, and the Jim Crow Car Laws have been discussed with a view of doing something to remedy these evils. Right here in Chicago magnificent work has been done by your own Federation, through whose instrumentality schools have been visited, truant children looked after, parents and teachers urged to cooperate, with each other, public institutions investigated, rescue and reform work engaged in, to reclaim unfortunate women and tempted girls, garments out, made and distributed to the needy poor. In short, what our hands have found to do, that we have cheerfully done. It is not, therefore, because I feel that the National Association of Colored Women has been derelict, or has failed that I shall discuss tonight its duty to our race, but because I wish to emphasize some special lines of work, in which it is already engaging, but to which I would pledge its more hearty support.

The more closely I study the relation of this Association to the race, the more clearly defined becomes its duty to the children.

Believing in the saving grace of the kindergarten for our little ones [illegible] our first Convention, as some of you may remember, I urged with all the earnestness I could command, that the Association should consider the establishment of kindergartens as the special mission it is called upon to fulfill. The importance od engaging extensively in this effort to uplift the children, particularly those to whom the opportunity of learning by contact what is true, and good, and beautiful could come through no other source, grows on me, more and more every day. Through the kindergarten alone, which teaches its lessons in the most impressionable years of childhood, shall we be able to save countless thousands of our little ones, who are going to destruction before our very eyes. To some the task of establishing kindergartens may seem too herculean for the Association to undertake, because of the great expense involved. Be that as it may, we shall never accomplish the good it is in our power to do, nor shall we discharge our obligation to the race, until we engage in this work in those sections, at least, where it is most neede.

In many cities and towns the kindergarten has already been incorporated in the public school system. Here it may not be necessary for the Association to work. But, wherever the conditions are such that our children are deprived of the training, which they can receive from the kinderbarten alone, deprived of that training which from the very nature of the case, they so sorely need, there the Association should establish these schools, from which so much benefit to our little ones will accuse.

Side by side in importance with the kindergarten stands the day nursery, a charity of which there is an imperative need among us. Thousands of our wage earning mothers with large families dependent upon them for support are obliged to leave their infants all day, to be cared for either by young brothers and sisters, who know nothing about it, or by some good natured neighbor, who promises much, but who does little. Some of these infants are locked alone in a room, from the time the mother leaves in the morning, until she returns at night. Their suffering is, of course, unspakable. Not long ago, I read in a southern newspaper that an infant thus locked alone in a room all day, while its mother went out to wash, had cried itself to death. Recently I have had under direct observation a day nursery, established for the infants of working women, and I have been shocked at some of the miserable little specimens of humanity, brought in by mothers, who had been obliged to board them out with either careless or heartless people. In one instance the hands and legs of a poor little mite of onlt fourteen months had been terribly drawn and twisted with rheumatism contracted by sleeping in a cold room with no fire during the severe winter, while the family with whom it boarde enjoyed comfortable quarters overhead. And so, I might go on enumerating cases, showing how terrible is the suffering of infants of working women, who have no one with whom to leave them, while they earn their daily bread. Establishing day nurseries is clearly a practical charity, of the need of which there is abundant proof in every community where our women may be found.

What a vast amount of good would be accomplished, if by every branch of the Association, a home were provided for the infants of working women, who no matter how tender may be their affection for their little ones are forced by stern necessity to neglect them all day themselves, and at best, can only entrust them to others, from whom in the majority of cases they do not receive the proper care. It would not only save the life, and preserve the health of many a poor little one, but it would speak eloquently of our interest in our sisters, whose lot is harded than our own, but to whom we should give unmistakeable proof of our regard, our sympathy, and our willingness to render any assistance in our power. When one thinks of the slaughter of the innocents which is occurring with pitiless persistency every day, and reflects upon how many are maimed for life through neglect, how many there are, whose intellects are clouded because of the treatment received during their helpless infancy, the establishing day nurseries can seem neither necessary nor far fetched, but must appeal directly to us all.

[Illegible] To each and every branch of the Association, then, I recommend the establishment of a day nursery, as a means through which it can render one of the greatest services possible to humanity and the race.

For the sake of argument, let us suppose that absolute lack of means prevents an organization from establishing either a kindergarten or a day nursery. Even under such circumstances a part of its obligation to the children may be discharged.

For no organization is so poor both in mental resources and in money that it cannot form a children’s club, through which we can do a vast amount of good. Lessons may be taught and rules of conduct impressed, while the children of a neighborhood are gathered together for amusement and play, as in no other way. Both by telling and reading stories, teaching kindness to animals, politeness to elders, pity for the unfortunate and weak, seeds may be sowm in youthful minds, which in after years will spring up and bear fruit, some an hundred fold. What a revolution we should work, for instance, by the time the next generation stands at the helm, if the children of to day were taught that they are responsible for their thoughts, that they can learn to control them, that an impure life is the result of impure thoughts, that crime is conceived in thought, before it is executed in deed.

No organization of the Association should feel entirely satisfied with its work, unless some of its energy, or some of its brain, or some of its money is used in the name, and for the sake of the children, either by establishing a day nursery, a kindergarten, or forming a children’s club- which last is possible to all.

Let us remember that we are banded together to do good, to work most vigorously and conscientiously upon that, which will redound most to the welfare and progress of the race. If that be true, I recommend to you the children, I plead to you for the children, for those who will soon represent us, for those by whom as a race, we shall stand or fall in the estimation of the world, for those upon the hope of every people must necessarily be built. As an Association, let us devote ourselves enthusiastically, conscientiously to the children, with their warm little hearts, their susceptible little minds, their malleable, pliable characters. Through the children of to day, we must build the foundation of the next generation upon such a rock of integrity, morality, and strength, both of body and mind, that the floods of proscription, prejudice, and persecution may descend upon it in torrents, and yet it will not be moved. We hear a great deal about the race problem, and how to solve it. This theory, that and the other may be advanced, but the real solution of the race problem, both so far as we, who are oppressed, those who oppress us, are concerned lies in the children.

Let no one suppose that I would have a large organization, like ours a body of one idea, with no thought plan or purpose except that which centers about the children. I am an optimist, because I see how we are broadening and deepening out into the various channels of generosity and beneficence, which indicate what a high state of civilization we have already reached. Homes for the orphaned and aged must be established, sanatoriums, hospitals, and training schools for the nurses founded, unfortunate women and tempted girls encircled by the loving arms of those, who would woo them back to the path of rectitude, classes formed for cultivating the mind, schools of domestic science opened in every city and village in which our women and girls may be found. All this is our duty, all this is an obligation, which we should discharge as soon as our means will permit. But in connection with such work let us not neglect, let us not forget the children, remembering that when we love and protect the little ones, we follow in the footsteps of Him, who when He wished to paint the most beautiful picture of Beulah Land it is possible for the human mind to conceive, pointed to the children and said- “Of such is the kingdom of Heaven”.

It is frequently charged against the more favored among us, who have been blessed with advantages of education and moral training superior to those enjoyed by the majority, that they hold themselves too much aloof from the less fortunate of their people. Without discussing the reasons for such a condition of things, it must be patent to the most careless observer hat the more intelligent and influential among us do not exert themselves as much as they should to uplift those beneath them, help their underprivileged sisters as it is plainly their duty to do.

It has been suggested and very appropriately, I think, that this association should take as its motto- Lifting as we climb. In no way could we live up to such a sentiment better than by coming into closer touch with the masses of our women, by whom whether we will or not the world will always judge the womanhood of the race. Even though we wish to shun them, and hold ourselves entirely aloof from them, we cannot escape the consequences of their acts. So that, if the call of duty were disregarded altogether, policy and self preservation would demand that we go down among the lowly, the illiterate, and even the vicious, to whom we are bound by the ties of race and sex, and put forth every possible effort to uplift and reclaim them.

It is useless to talk about elevating the race, if we do not come into closer touch with the masses of our women through whom we may correct many of the evils which militate so seriously against us, and inaugurate the reforms, without which, as a race, we cannot hope to succeed. It is often difficult, I know, to persuade people who need help most to avail themselves of the assistance offered by those who wish to lift them to a higher plane. If it were possible for us to send out a National Organizer, whose duty it should be to form clubs throughout the length and breadth of the land, it would be no easy matter, I am sure, to persuade some of our women to join them, even though they knew that by so doing they would receive just that kind of instruction and counsel, which they greatly need. This fault is not peculiar to our women, but us common to the whole human race. Difficult, though it be for us to uplift some of our women, many of whose practices in their own homes and in the service of their employers rise like a great barrier to our progress, we should nevertheless work unceasingly to this end, until we win their confidence, so that they will accept our aid.

Through such clubs as I have just mentioned, the attention of our women might be called to the alarming rapidity with which they are losing ground in the world of labor- a fact patent to all, who observe and read the signs of the times. So many families are supported entirely by our women, that if this movement to withhold employment from them continues to grow, we shall soon be confronted by a condition of things, serious and disastrous indeed. It is clearly the duty of this, the only organized body of Colored women in the country to study the labor question, not only as it affects the women, but also as it affects the men. When those who formerly eemployed Colored women as domestics, but who refuse to do so now are asked why they have established what is equivalent to a boycott against us, they invariably tell us that Colored women are now neitherr skilled in the trades, nor reliable as working women? While we know that in the majority of cases Colored women are not employed, because of the cruel, unreasonable prejudice which rages so violently against them, rather than because of lack of skill there is just enough truth in the charge of poor workmanship and unreliability to make us wince when it is preferred.

To stem this tide of popular disfavor against us should be the desire and determination of every Colored woman in the country, who has the interest of her race at heart. It is we, the National Association, who must point out to our women how fatal it will be to their highest, best interests, and to the highest, best interests of their children, if they do not build up a reputation for reliability and proficiency. By establishing schools of domestic science, as soon as our means will permit, and it is the duty of this Association to raise funds to start a few of these schools immediately, we should probably do more to solve the labor question, so far as it affects the women than by using any other means we could possibly employ. Let us explain the situation as we may, the fact remains, that trades and almost exclusively to our men and women are gradually slipping from their grasp.

Whom does such a condition of things affect more directly and disastrously than the women of the race? As parents, teachers and guardians, we teach our children to be honest and industrious, to cultivate their minds, to become skilled workmen, to be energetic and then to be hopeful. It is easy enough to impress upon them the necessity of cultivating their minds, and becoming skilled workmen of being energetic, honest and industrious, but how difficult it is for colored women to inspire their children with hope, or offer them an incentive for their best endeavor under the existing condition of things in this country.

As a mother of the dominant race looks into the innocent sweet face of her babe, her heart thrills not only with happiness in the present, but also with joyful anticipations of the future. For well she knows that honor, wealth, fame and greatness in any vocation he may choose are all his, if he but possess the ability and determination to secure them. She knows that if it is in him 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 all his, without the asking. From his birth he is a king in his own right, and is no suppliant for justice.

But how bitter is the contrast between the feelings of joy and hope which thrill the heart of the white mother and those which stir the soul of her Colored sister. As a mother of the weaker race clasps to her bosom the babe which she loves with an affection as tender and deep as that the white mother bears her child, she cannot thrill with joyful anticipations of the future. For before her babe she sees the thorny path of prejudice and proscription his little feet must tread. She knows that no matter how great his ability, or how lofty his ambition, ther are comparatively few trades and avocations in which any one of his race may hope to succeed. She knows that no matter how skillful his hand, how honest his heart, or how great his need, trades unions will close their doors in his face and make his struggle for existence desperate indeed. So rough does the way of her infant appear to many a poor Colored mother, as she thinks of the hardships and humiliations, to which he will be subjected, as he tries 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 over drawn, as those who have studied the labor question in its relation to our race can testify. What, then Sisters of the Association, shall we do? Shall we sit supinely by, with folded hands, drooping heads, and weeping eyes, or shall we be up and doing, determined to smooth out the rough roads of labor, over which tiny feet that now patter in play will soon stumble and fall? To our own youth, to our owm tradesmen, we must preach efficiency, reliability, thorough preparation for any work in which they choose to engage. Let us also appeal directly to the large-hearted, broadminded women of the dominant race, and lay our case clearly before them. In conversing with many of them privately I have discovered that our side of the labor question has never been made a living, breathing, terrible reality to them. In a vague way they know that difficulties do confront Colored men and women, in their effort to secure employment, but they do not know how almost insurmountable are the obstacles which lie in the path of the rank and file, who want to earn an honest living. Let us ask these women both to follow tthemselves and teach their children the lofty principles of humanity, charity and justice which they profess to observe. Let us ask that they train their children to be just and broad enough to judge men and women by their intrinsic merit, rather than by the adventitious circumstances of race or color, or creed. Let this Association of Colored women ask the white mothers of this country to teach their children, that, when they grow to be men and women, if they deliberately prevent their fellow creatures from earning their daily bread, 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 our children, let us ask, also, that they do all in their power to secure for our youth opportunities of earning a living and of attaining unto the full stature of manhood and womanhood, which they desire for their own. In the name of justice and humanity, in the name of the innocence and helplessness of childhood, black childhood, as well as white childhood, let us appeal to the white mothers of this country to do all in their power to make the future of our boys and girls as bright and as promising as should be that of every child, born on this free American soil.

As individuals, we have presented our case, again and again. Let us now try the efficiency of organized effort. On this I build great hope. Organization is one of the most potent forces in the world to day, and the good it is possible for the National Association to accomplish has not yet been approximated by those most sanguine of its success.

And now I must briefly call your attention to a subject fraught with interest to us all. The health of our race is becoming a matter of deep concern to many, who are alarmed by statistics, showing how great is the death rate among us, as compared with that of the Whites. There are many reasons why this proportion is so great among us- chief of which are poverty and ignorance of the laws of health. Our children are sent illy clad through inclement weather to school, for instance. Girls, just budding into womanhood are allowed to sit all day in wet boots and damp skirts, in both the high and graded schools which they attend. Thus it happens that some of our most promising and gifted young women succumb to diseases, which are the result of carelessness on the part both of parents and teachers. We must call the attention of our mothers to this fact, and urge the school officials to protect the health of our children as far as possible by wise legislation, and thus stop the awful ravages made by diseases, which a little care and precaution might prevent.

Before closing, I must not neglect to mention another duty, which the Association owes the race, and which it must not fail to discharge. Creating a healthful, wholesome public opinion in every community in every community in which we are represented is one of the greatest services we can render. The duty of setting a high moral standard and living up to it devolves upon us, as Colored women in a peculiar way. Slanders are circulated against us every day, both in the press and by the direct descendants of those, who in years past were responsible for the moral degradation of their female slaves. While these calumnies are not founded in fact, they can nevertheless do us a great deal of harm, if those, who represent the intelligence and virtue among us do not, both in our public and private life, avoid even the appearance of evil. In spite of the fateful inheritance left us by slavery, in spite of the manifold temptations and pitfalls, to which our young girls are subjected all over the country, and though the safeguards usually thrown around maidenly youth and innocence are in some sections entirely withheld from Colored girls, statistics compiled by men, not inclined to falsify in favor of my race, show that immorality among Colored women is not so great as among women in countries like Austria, Italy, Germany, Sweden and France.

If I were called upon to state in a word, where I thought the Association should do its most effective work, I should say unhesitatingly – in the home. The purification of the home must be our first consideration and care. It is in the home, where woman is really queen, that she wields her influence with the most telling effect. It is through the home, therefore, that the principles which we wish to promulgate, can be most widely circulated, and most deeply impressed. IN the mind and heart of every good and conscientious woman, the first place is occupied by home. We must always remember in connection with this fact, however, that observation has shown and experience has proved that it is not the narrow- minded, selfish woman, who think of naught save their families and themselves, who have no time to work for neglected children, the helpless sick and the needy poor, it is not such women I say whoe exert in their homes the most powerful influence for good.

And now, finally, sisters of the Association, let us be up and doing, wherever a word may be spoken for principle, or a hand lifted to aid. We must study carefully and conscientiously the questions which affect us most deeply and directly. Against lynching, the Convict Lease System, the Jim Crow Car laws, and all other barbarities, and abuses, which degrade and dishearten us, we must agitate with such force of logic and intensity of soul that the oppressor will either be converted to principles of justice, or be ashamed to openly violate them. Let loyalty to race, as displayed by employing and patronizing our own, in refusing to hold up our own to public censure ridicule and scorn, let allegiance to those, whose ability, character, and general fitness qualify them to lead be two of the cardinal principles by which each and every member of this Association is guided. If we are to judge the future by the past, as dark as that past has sometimes been since our emancipation, there is no reason why we should view it with despair. Over almost insurmountable obstacles, as a race we have forged ahead, until tonight there is hardly a trade, a profession, or an art, in which we have not at least one worthy representative. I challenge any other race to show a such wonderful progress along all lines, in so short a time, under circumstances so discouraging as that made by the ex-slaves of the United States of America. And though tonight some of us are cast down by the awful barbarities constantly inflicted upon some of our unfortunate race in the South, who have been shot and burned to death by mobs said to be composed of the best citizens of that section, though who took no pains to establish the guilt of their victims, some of whom were doubtless innocent, we must remember that the darkest hour is just before the dawn.

As an Association, by discharging our duty to the children, by studying the labor question, in its relation to our race, by coming into closer touch with the masses of our women, by urging parents and teachers to protect the health of our boys and girls by creating a wholesome, healthful public sentiment in every community in which we are represented, by setting a high moral standard and live up to it, by purifying the home, we shall render the race a service, by whose magnitude and importance, it is not in my power to express.

Let us love and cherish our Association with such loyalty and zeal that it will wax strong and great that it may soon become that bulwark of strength and source of [inspiration] to our women that it is destined to be.

In spite of rock and tempest’s roar, in spite of false lights on the shore,

Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!

Our hearts, our hopes are all with thee,

Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,

Our faith, triumphant oer our fears,

Are all with thee, are all with thee.

Mary Church Terrell

Washington D.C.

Aug. 1899.

Terrell, Mary Church. 1899. "The Duty of the National Association of Colored Women to the Race." Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress.