Mary Church Terrell

Solving the Colored Woman's Problem - 30 August 1933

Mary Church Terrell
August 30, 1933
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Address Delivered by Mary Church Terrell at the World Fellowship of Faiths, Chicago, Ill., Wed. Aug. 30, 1933.

Solving the Colored Woman’s Problem.

Colored Women in the United States have more, larger and harder problems to solve than do those of any other racial group. One has only to know the conditions under which they lived for 250 years during slavery and those which obtain to day to understand why this is so.

When a small but noble band of women began an agitation in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, by which colleges were opened to women and numerous reforms inaugurated for the improvement of their condition along all lines, their sisters who groaned in bondage had little reason to ho[pe] that these blessing would ever brighten their crushed and blighted live[s.] For in those days of oppression and despair colored women were not onl[y] refused admission to schools, as a rule, but the law of the States in which the majority lived made it a crime to teach them to read. Not onl[y] could they possess no property, but they did not even own themselves. So pernicious were the customs, so gloomy were their prospects, so fatal the laws only seventy years ago.

But, from the day their fetters were broken and their minds were released from the darkness of ignorance in which they had been held nea[r]ly three hundred years; from the day they could stand in the dignity of womanhood, no longer bond but free till this minute, colored women have forged steadily ahead in the acquisition of knowledge and in the cultivation of these graces of character which make for good. To use a thou of the illustrious Frederick Douglass, if judged by the depths from which they have come, rather than by the heights to which their more favored sisters have attained, colored women need not hang their heads [i]n shame. The work they have accomplished and the progress they have made will bear favorable comparison, at least with that of more fortunate women from whom the opportunity of acquiring knowledge and the means of self culture have never been entirely held.

Not only are colored women handicapped on account of their sex, but everywhere in the United States they are baffled and mocked on account of their race. White women both in this country and in England showed what a heavy handicap they considered their sex in their effort to forge ahead by the desperate effort they made to secure the franchise. Particularly did the women of England fight fiercely and frantically to overcome the handicap of sex. I wonder what they would have done if they had had the burden of race as well as of sex to bear. That is exactly the plight in which colored women find themselves in this country to day. Not only because they are women, but because they are COLORED women are discouragement and disappointment meeting them at every turn. Trades, pursuits, vocations and opportunities which are opened and offered to women of practically every other race in the United States are withheld from and denied to them.

But, in spite of the opposition encountered and the obstacles opposed, the progress made by colored women along various lines of human endeavor has never been surpassed by that of the women of any other race since the world began. It is very difficult to talk about the subject assigned me, for if a colored woman tells what her group has accomplished as modestly as she possibly can, she is accused of “boasting.” “Boasting is the besetting sin of Negroes anyhow,” one school of chronic critics declares. But, if a colored woman confines herself exclusively to the difficulties and almost insurmountable obstacles which confront her and block her path to achievement, she is accused of “whining.” “Don’t you ever get tired of complaining and whining?” she is asked. It is impossible to strike a golden mean. For that reason I have decided to devote about two thirds of my talk to night to the work which colored women have actually done and the other third to the obstacles and the injustice of which we are the helpless victims.

First I want to tell you what the [rest of the sentence is cut off]. Though she was liberated from the most cruel bondage the world has ever seen, penniless, ignorant with no place to lay her head only 70 years ago, so insatiable has been the colored woman’s thirst for knowledge and so hard has she worked to satisfy it that there are to day hundreds of colored women who are well educated and some of them hold degrees from the best universities in the land. From Oberlin, Wellesley, Smith, Radcliffe, from the best High Schools and colleges throughout the North, East and West, colored women have graduated with honor and have thus forever settled the question of their intellectual capacity and their worth.

It is a fine thing to want to acquire knowledge for its cultural effect, but it is a far nobler thing to do so to advance the interests of our fellow man. And that is exactly what colored women have done. No sooner had the favored few secured the education advantages which they were able to obtain than they hastened to use their knowledge to enlighten the less fortunate of their racial group. Ever since their emancipation with tireless energy and eager zeal colored women have continuously been prosecuting the work of educating and elevating their race as though upon themselves alone devolved the accomplishment of this herculean task. Of the colored teachers engaged in instructing our youth it is no exaggeration to say that 80% are women.

In the backwoods remote from the conveniences of the city and town, on the plantations reeking with ignorance and vice our women may be found battling with those evils which such conditions always entail. Many a dusky heroine of whom this 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. Shirking responsibility has not been a fault with which colored women might truthfully be charged. By banding themselves together in the interest of education and morality and by adopting what they considered the most practical means to this end during the last thirty or forty years colored women have become a tremendous power for good.

Among other things they have been trying to elevate the standards and purify the atmosphere of their homes. They know that so lon[g] as large numbers of any group call that place home in which the air foul, the manners bad and the morals worse, so long will that home b[e] a breeder of vice, a menace to health and the abode of crime. But th[ey] also know that not only upon the head of those who live in these mi[ser]able hovels will the awful consequences of their filth and vice be v[cut off]ited, but upon the heads of those who make no effort to stem this tid[e] of disease and sin will vengeance as surely fall.

If the women of the dominant race will all the centuries of ed[u]cation, culture and refinement back of them, with all the wealth of opportunity ever present with them feel the need of a Mother’s Congre[ss] so that they may be enlightened concerning the best methods of rearing their children and conducting their homes, how much more do colored from whom the shackles of slavery have but yesterday been stric[cut off] need information on these same vital subjects. Therefore, colored wom[en] are trying to solve their problem by establishing Mothers’ Congresses on a small scale wherever and whenever they can. They know that the root of many of the evils which militate so seriously against the advancement of the race lies, alas, at their fireside. Homes, more home[s] purer homes, better homes is the text upon which their sermons have been and will be preached.

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 service have directed their efforts to plantations comprising thousands of acres of land on which live hundreds of colored people, yet in the darkness of ignorance and in the grip of sin 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 nea[r] the brute creation as possible and through no fault of their own the condition of colored people in some sections of this country is not much better than it was at the close of the Civil War.

These plantation women are given object lessons in the best way to sweep, dust, cook, wash and iron. They are shown how to make their huts more habitable and comfortable by converting dry goods boxes into bureaus, washstands or tables; how to make screens, so as to inculcate lessons of modesty and morality among families who live in one-room cabins. They are also taught hwo to clothe and feed their children properly according to their means, what food is the best and most nut[ri]tious for the money and are given other useful information concerning household affairs. Talks on social purity are also given to these mothers who sometimes fall short of their duty, not because they are vicious and depraved, as is so frequently asserted by those who either do not know the facts or willfully distort them, but because they are ignorant and poor.

One of the most useful and successful organizations in the race is the National Association of Colored Women which was founded in 1896 and which now has a membership of about 25,000. In 40 states there are State Federations. Where are no State Federations, there are usually 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 whic[h] make no provision for this service, parents and teachers urged to cooperate with each other, rescue and reform work engaged into help unfortunate women and tempted girls [rest of the sentence is cut off] uted to the poor. By the Alabama Federation of Colored women’s Clubs a Reformatory 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 for some minor infraction of the law as has been the case in the past.

Dotted all over the country are institutions of various kinds charitable and others which have either been established or are being maintained by colored women. Among these may be mentioned the Hale Infirmary of Montgomery, Alabama, the Carrie Steel Orphanage of Atlanta, the Reed Orphan Home of Covington, both in the State of Georgia, the Old Folks Home in Memphis, Tennessee, a Home for Aged Colored Women in Pittsburgh, a Colored Orphan’s Home in Louisville, Kentucky and othe[r] equally creditable to the women who have founded or are maintain the [sentence cuts off]

Many years ago the Phyllis Wheatley Club of New Orleans, Louisiana established a sanatarium with a Training School for Nurses. The conditions which caused the colored women of New Orleans to choose this special field in which to work were such as did obtain and still do obtain in cities and towns practically all over the United States. 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 well-to-do they were- 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, if they did not wish to be treated in the charity ward of the City Hospital, and it afforded colored students an excellent opportunity of gaining a practical knowledge of their professio [sentence cuts off] The surgical department was supplied with all the modern appliances. Hu[n]dreds of operations have been performed there, most 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 leading citizens ever since. In short-this Sanatarium with its training School for Nurses which was established by a few energetic, public-spirited, progressive colored women of New Orleans proved to be such a blessing to the city as a whole- without regard to race or color, that the municipal government voted it an annual appropriation of several hundred dollars with which to help defray its expe [sentence cuts off]

By some of the clubs Day Nurseries have been established- a charity of which there is imperative need. Thousands of our wage-earning mot[h]ers with large families dependent almost entirely, if not wholly upon them for support, are obliged to leave their children all day, entruste[d] 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 these infants are locked alone in a room from the time th[e] mother leaves in the morning till she returns at night. 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 helpless infancy- treatment for which their wage-earning mothers are frequently not responsible- it is evident that by establishing Day Nurseries color[ed] women will render one of the greatest services possible to humanity and their race.

The kindergartens which have been established by colored women li[t]erally fill a long-felt want. in the communities in which they are maintained. Nothing lies nearer the heart of colored women than the children[n] and they are trying to promote the welfare of their little ones in ever[y] possible way. They know that the more unfavorable the environment of children, t[cut off] more necessary it is that steps be taken to counteract baleful influences upon innocent victims. Therefore, they realize increasingly how imperative it is that they inculcate correct principles and set good examples for their own youth, whose condition in life from the nature of the case is exceedingly hard, whose opportunities are comparatively few and whose temptations are great. Special efforts are being made 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 which was held in Chicago in 1899 the first president felt that in no better way could she help to solve the problem than by starting a “Kindergarten Fund.” She hoped to raise a sufficient fund to send out a Kindergarten Organizer, whose duty it should be to arouse the conscience of colored women to the necessity of saving their children and to establish kindergartens wherever means therefor could be secured. The real solution of the race problem, so far as the group which handicaps and the one which is handicapped is 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. [hw] Insert here P8 ½ It is surprising [hw]

[hw] Insert this after “the problem can never be solved and before “I have been trying to show” [hw] It is surprising how many schools have been established by colored women. in those sections where the majority of colored people live and where the educational facilities of their youth are often painfully small and few. In such places it is rare that one does not find at least one private school established by a colored women to educate children who would otherwise remain in ignorance.

I have been trying to show what the colored woman has done to work out her own salvation. But there are many things which the colored woman can not do for herself. She can no more remove the various kinds of injustices of which she is the hapless, helpless victim than a straw can stop Niagara’s flow.

One of the most serious problems confronting colored women today is their inability to secure employment in various pursuits in which they are fitted by native ability, education and training successfully to engage. They were handicapped in this way long before the condition obtained which has caused millions to walk the streets in idleness. As a rule colored women will tackle any jobw they can get. This was strikingly apparent during the World War. Then, in the South, one could see colored women dressed like men lifting heavy burdens, loading and unloading lumber in the railroad yards and doing the heavy, hard work which men usually do and which women of other races could neither be persuaded no forced to do.

Temporarily, the colored woman’s condition was greatly improved by labor conditions brought on by the World War. Pursuits once closed against them hard and fast were then opened unto them for the first tim[e.] But these opportunities for employment have been practically all withdrawn from them, not because they failed to give satisfaction, but because when the soldiers returned from the World War, the necessity for employing colored women no longer existed. Nevertheless, as difficult as it has been and is today for colored women to secure employment, statistics show that according to population there are more wage earners among them then can be found among the women of in any other racial group. To be sure many of the jobs are the kind which are usually spurned by other women, but they enable colored women to earn their living and they do not pick and choo[se.]

The truth of the matter is that with the exception of teaching, sewing and nursing there is practically nothing that a colored woman can ge[t] to do in the United States, no matter how well educated, skillful or prepossessing she may be, or how great her need, unless she is willing to engage in undesirable and distasteful pursuits. The number of young women who can secure positions typists or stenographers is very small from the nature of the case.

While the women of the dominant race have a variety of trades and pursuits from which they may choose, the woman through whose veins one drop of African blood is known to flow is limited to a pitiful few. As a rule, so overcrowded are the pursuits in which colored women may engage and so poor is the pay in consequence that only the barest livelihood can be eked out by the rank and file. 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 of a large wester[n] city throws a flood of light upon this phase of the colored woman’s life in this country. It states that owing to prejudice against them on account of their race colored girls are frequently forced to acce[pt] positions in houses of ill fame. “Employment agents do not hesitate to send colored girls to these houses,” reads the printed report. “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.”

A few years ago Miss Frances Keller, then Director General of the Intermunicipal Committee on Household Research, declared after careful investigation that “colored domestics are more friendless than any other racial group in the North and are subjected to greate[r] dangers that those besetting any other women in this country, except perhaps, the most ignorant of immigrants.”

Surely, it is not too much for colored women to hope that those who are interested, not especially in the colored girl, but in the moral welfare of the nation as a whole, will some day 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 sacrifice[d] with impunity upon the altar of prejudice, proscription or passion, so long will the womanhood of no race be absolutely secure.

By some of our women the attention of this country is being called to the barbarity of the Convict Lease System which is operated in nearly every State of the South. It is but another form of slavery which in some respects is more cruel and more crushing than the old. Often upon trumped up charges or for offenses which in a civilized community would hardly cause them to be sent to jail colored men and women too are thrown into dark, damp, disease-breeding cells whose cubic contents are no larger than are those of a good-sized grave. Then they are overworked, underfed and only partially covered with vermin-infested rags.

Scores of children have been born to the women in these camps and they have breathed the polluted atmosphere of those dens of vice and woe from the moment they have uttered their first cry in the world till they have been released from its horrors by death.

So far as lynching is concerned, colored women feel there is little they can do except to appeal to the conscience of the country and urge their white sisters to help them wipe this foul stain upon its escutche[on] away. They believe, however, that much good would be accomplished if th[e] press of the country would continually expose the falsity of the statement that as a rule colored men are lynched for what is called the “usual crime.” Statistics compiled by those who would not falsify in the colored man’s favor show that out of every hundred colored men who have been lynched from 75 to 85 have not been accused even by the South of what is maliciously called the “usual crime.” And it has been proved again and again that many of those who have been accused of this crime have been absolutely innocent of the charge.

Ever since the colored woman has had a home of her own she has tried to solve her problem by conducting it the best she could. As a home maker, the colored woman deserves an especially bright star in her crown. Some day, perhaps, a genius will arise to pay a fitting, richly-deserved tribute to the poor, ignorant colored mother who ministered so conscientiously and effectively to her children’s physical, mental and spiritual needs, as soon as her shackles were snapped.

The education of children immediately after emancipation was [sentence cut off] wash tub and stood at the ironing board till midnight, so that she might send her children to school. The world has never seen sacrifices more prodigious and more noble than those made by the colored women of the United States in their dense ignorance and dire poverty, so as to affor[d] their children education facilities of which they themselves had bee[n] deprived.

And it is in the home to day that the colored woman finds the problem which i[s] the most difficult for her to solve- the training of her children. It is comparatively easy for a colored mother to impress upon her children the necessity of cultivating their minds, becoming skilled workmen, being honest, energetic and industrious. But, how difficult a thi[ng] it is for a colored mother to inspire her children with home under th[e] existing condition of things in the United States.

As the average mother of the dominant race looks into the innoc[ent] sweet face of her baby, her heart may thrill not only with happiness [cut off] the present, but also with joyful anticipations of the future. For, [no] matter how poor she may be, she knows that it is possible for her ba[by] to secure honor, wealth and greatness in any vocation he may choose, 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 cir[cum]stances which can help him to the goal of his ambition,- such as the laws of his country, the public opinion of his countrymen and manifo[ld] opportunities are his without the asking. From his birth he is a kin[g] in his own right and is no suppliant for justice.

But, how striking is the contrast between the emotions of joy [cut off] hope which may thrill the heart of the white mother and those which [cut off] the soul of her colored sister. As a mother of the proscribed race clasps to her bosom the baby which she loves with an affection as t[en]der and as deep as the white mother bears her child, her heart dare not thrill with joyful anticipations of the future. She knows that [cut off] his aspirations are high, as soon as he begins to use his eyes, his ears and to think for himself, the slogan “Thus far shalt thou go and no further”, will confront him, wherever he turns, like the handwriting on the wall.

She knows that no matter how skillful his hand, how honest his heart or how dire his need, pursuits of many kinds will be closed against him and that his struggle for existence will be desperate indeed. So rough does the way of her infant appear to many a colored mother, when she thinks of the hardships and humiliations to which he will probably be subjected in his effort to earn his daily bread or to achieve something worth while that instead of thrilling with joy and hope she trembles with apprehension and despair. This picture, though forbitting to look upon, is not overdrawn, as those familiar with the conditions under which the Colored-American lives can abundantly testify.

But, 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 what they can to smooth out the rough roads over which tiny feet that now patter in play may soon stumble and fall. They are urging colored youth to become skillful and reliable in whatever pursuit they intend to engage.

Then, too, colored women believe that their white sisters can do much to help them solve their problems, so they are laying their case squarely and fairly before them, whenever they get a chance. Very few white women know much about the progress, or the problems which colored women have to solve. It is not strange that this is so. Unless colored women do their household work, white women rarely come into personal contact with them at all. As a rule, it is difficult to induce the average white woman’s club to allow an intelligent colored person to present facts about his race and the conditions confronting it here, of which most of the members are absolu[te]ly ignorant, but which it is their duty as citizens to know. The majority of newspapers and magazine close their columns to a consideration of the race problem, unless one presents the Colored-American [sentence cuts off] of crimes.

There is no doubt whatever that a long step toward the solution of a difficult problem would be taken, if white women could be interested in their colored sister’s cause. For that reason colored women 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 try to teach their children to observe the lofty principles of justice, liberty, 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 help them solve the their problem by teaching their children to judge men and women by their intrinsic merit, rather than by the adventitous circumstances of race or color or creed. Colored mothers implore the white parents of the United States to teach their children that, when they grow to manhood and womanhood, if they deliberately prevent their brothers and sisters of a darker hue from earning an honest living by closing the doors of trade against them, 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 innocence and helplessness of childhood, black as well as white, colored women are appealing to the dominant race to make the future of their boys and girls as bright and as promising 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 various ways colored women have proved indisputably that they intend to work hard to advance the interests of their race. Intelligently and conscientiously a goodly number are studying the questions which deeply and directly affect their race, hoping to find a just and reasonable solution to some of the vexatious problems which confront them.

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 principles of righteousness and justice, or be ashamed openly to violate the Golden Rule and flout the very principles upon which this government was built.

Over almost insurmountable obstacles colored women have forged steadily ahead, so that there is scarcely a trade or a profession in which they have not at least worthy representative. In many ways colored women are rendering their race a service whose magnitude and importance it is impossible to estimate or express.

Lifting as they climb, onward and upward they go, struggling, striving and hoping that the door of opportunity will be opened wider unto them before long. With courage born of success which they have achieved in the past and with a keen sense of responsibility which they will continue to assume, they look forward to the future with confidence and hope.

Seeking no favors because of their color, begging for nothing to which they are not entitled as women and which they do not deserve, they knock at the door of justice and ask for an equal chance.

Terrell, Mary Church. “Solving the Colored Woman’s Problem.” Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress. 30 August 1933.