Written by Mary Church Terrell
1615 S St., N.W.
The Biennial of the National Association of Colored Women.
Few organizations have grown more rapidly and have worked more effectively than the National Association of Colored Women which will hold its 16th Biennial in this city from July 27th to August 3rd. It was formed here in the 19th Street Baptist Church on July 21st 1896. It started in rather an unusual way, did the National Association of Colored Women and its history is a bit unique. Sometimes church and societies split and the next thing one knows an offshoot starts a new congregation or a new society springs up. But the National Association of Colored Women was not formed from a split, but from the union of the National Federation of Afro-American Women and the Colored Women’s League which was formed here in 1892.
Thoughtful colored women realized that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to establish two national bodies on a firm foundation, but they were sure they could make one a brilliant success.
The first annual convention of the Colored Women’s League met at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church which was opposite
July 14, 15, and 16, 1896 and the 2nd annual convention of the National Federation of Afro-American Women met at the 19th Street Baptist Church July 20, 21 22 the same year. During the sessions of these two organizations it was decided to merge them into one. But before the union could be effective there was a rather heated, not to say acrimonious, discussion as to whether the League had a sufficient number of clubs to be called national.
The League insisted that it was the first to issue the call for a nat[i]onal organization of women and the Federation was just as sure that it was the first really to put the idea over.. When the Colored Women’s League was formed here in 1892 with Mrs. Helen Cook as its president the members resolved that: the colored women of the United States associate ourselves together to collect all facts obtainable showing the moral, intellectual, industrial and social growth and attainments of our people: to foster unity of purpose: to consider and determine methods which will promote the best interests of the colored people in any direction that suggests itself. There is no doubt whatever that is was a call for a national organization. But, although the League issued the call in 1892, it did not actually have a national meeting till 1896. But in 1896 Mrs. Josephine Pierre Ruffin of Boston, president of the Woman’s Era Club, called a group of women together in that city from various sections of the country and formed a national organization, known as the National Federation of Afro-American Women with Mrs. Booker T. Washington as president. It is clear, therefore, that while the Colored Women’s League of this city sent out the first call for a national organization of colored women of which there is any record, the Federation was the first to hold such a meeting.
This is essentially a world of deeds. “By their deeds ye shall know them. It rarely happens that the man who thinks first gets as much credit across the ocean before Lindbergh, but the Lone [E]agle actually turned the trick before he had a chance to do it.
After several differences were ironed out smoothly a committee of 7 was appointed from the League and 7 from the Federation to effect a union of the two organizations with power to act. In the first place, what should the baby be named? That was indeed the question. It was decided that the infant should be known neither as a League nor a Federation. After a prolonged discussion on a sweltering day with many compromises thrown in for good measure it was decided to call the result of the union the National Association of Colored Women. Settling that question and agreeing on the rules to be observed in the merging occupied an entire day.
Then who should be the president? Echo really answered WHO with capital letters and an exclamation point. Remembering that the committee was composed of 7 from each organization, it is clear that electing the first president was not so easy as it looked. The name of a candidate would be proposed by a member of the League and somebody form the Federation would suggest another woman and the result of the [p]oll would [illegible] that each of the candidates received just exactly 7 votes. And this kept up indefinitely, until it was a question whether anybody in the United States are out of it could ever break that dead look and get a majority vote. Some of the women were propsed at intervals as candidates several times, but nobody seemed to have a change of mind or heart and the result of the poll was always the same. Finally, about 6 o’clock after a hectic session all the important business we were transacting, the writer of this article who had been made chairman of the joint committee was elected the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, and served two terms. From 1897, when the constitution limiting the term of the president to two consecutive terms till 1901, when the biennial was held in Buffalo, New York. There have been 8 presidents. and we have held conventions in Nashville, Tennessee, Chicago twice, Buffalo, N.Y., St. Louis, Mo. Detroit, Mich. Brooklyn, N.Y., Louisville, Ky., Hampton, Va., Wilberforce, Ohio, Baltimore Md., Denver, Colo., Tuskegee, Ala., Richmond, Va., Oakland, Cal., and one will soon be staged here in Washington.
There are Federations in 39 States with a membership of approximately 150,000. women. Splendid service has been rendered by some of these fed States federations. For, through their instrumentality, schools have been visited, truant children looked after, parents and teachers urged to cooperate with each other, rescue and reform engaged in so as to assist unfortunate women and tempted girls, garments out and distributed to the poor. Dotted all over the country are charitable institutions of various kinds. Just how many it is impossible to state, Unfortunately there are comparatively few statistics showing the progress of the race.
But there are activities include Old Folks’ Homes, Day Nurseries, Kindergartens, Orphan Asylums, Homes for Girls, Community Centers, and Social Settlements, Citizenship Training Classes, Domestic Science and Household Economics, Child Welfare, solving the problems of migration, Inter-Racial Co-operation and other phases of human endeavor that means better home life, better men and women and children, better community life and a better citizenship.
Each of the eight presidents has made a valuable contribution to the growth and development of the National Association of Colored Women in her own way. The first president started a kindergarten fund for she believed the association should make special, heroic efforts to minister to the children. It was a great satisfaction to her to help a goodly number function during her administration, another president raised money enough to pay off the mortgate on the home of Frederick Douglass, so that it might be converted into a shrine for the race. Still another president is trying to establish a $50000 arship Loan Fund and Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, the will preside over the approaching convention, has been instrumental in purchasing a beautiful building on the corner of 12th and C Sts, N.W. which will be the Association’s headquarters, of which there is urgent need. Owing to the fact that we have had no headquarters during the 32 years of our existence as an organization, our records are scattered all over the United States.
800 delegates are expected to attend the approaching convention. The program will be an interesting one, and the subjects discussed will cover every important phase of our national life. Very naturally reference will be made to Lynching, the Convict Lease System, the Jim Crow Car Laws, Unjust Discriminations in the field of labor and trade and all the other conditions which humiliate and hurt the colored people of the United States. Conscientiously and earnestly the members of the National Association of Colored Women are studying the problems which affect the most deeply and directly, hoping to find some remedy for the evils which so seriously mil[i]tate against their progress. In a variety of ways the National Association of Colored Women has rendered and is still rendering a service to the race the magnitude and the importance of which it is impossible to estimate or express.
Lifting as they climb, onward and upward they go, struggling, striving and hoping that the door of hoping that the door of opportunity will be opened wider unto them after a while. With courage born of hope achieved in the past, with a keen sense of responsibility which they will continue to assume, they look forward to the future large with promise and hope. Seeking no favors because of their color, begging for nothing to which they are not entitled they knock at the door of justice and ask for an equal chance.
Terrell, Mary Church. “The [16th] Biennial of the National Association of Colored Women.” Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress. 1929. https://www.loc.gov/item/mss425490442.