Written by Mary Church Terrell.
“I dont want to hurt your feelings, Mrs. Terrell, but there is a great deal of immorality among colored people, if those who know them best tell the truth. They have made progress, it is true, but acquiring an education isn’t enough. The morals of colored people must be improved.”
More than once white people who are genuinely interested in their brothers and sisters of a darker hue have expressed such an opinion in discussing the Race Problem either with me or in my presence.
How I wish these critics might have attended the Conference recently held under the auspices of the world’s Purity Federation in LaCrosse Wisconsin. They would have learned many things which would have made them very uncomfortable indeed. They would have discovered that white people need to improve their morals, if they did not know it before.
For three days speeches were made and papers were read showing the alarming conditions which obtain in the United States to day, because what is called the “social diseases” have so greatly increased. Not once did a speaker refer to the rapidity with which these diseases have encroached upon the health of colored people, but without a single exception they confined their remarks exclusively to the shocking facts relating to white people. And those who had been invited to speak at this Conference represented the highest authorities on the subject which could be secured.
President Coolidge extended his greetings to the Conference in the following letter: “The purposes of this conference are worthy of the sympathy of all who believe in clean and pure living and in promoting the welfare of the nation through the suppression of vice.” When the noted doctors, surgeons, superintendents of homes for boys and girls and other social welfare workers had finished presenting the information to the Conference which they had been asked to give, everybody felt that there was a great deal which people “who believe in clean and pure living might and should do.
A noted surgeon from Chicago declared that social diseases had increased 300% and that there were at least 30,000 cases in Chicago alone. There is no reason to believe that conditions in Chicago are worse than are those in other cities. This surgeon was very severe in his remarks upon women, who, he declared, are responsible for much of the immorality so prevalent to day because of the indecent manner in which they dress.
On the last night of the Conference I was asked to talk about “Social Morality and the Negro Race.” There were only two speakers that evening, Rev. D.N. McLachlen, B.D., General Secretary of Social Service and Evangelism for the United Church of Canada, from Toronto and myself.
I was glad to present some fact about the subject assigned me. The more I talk with the white people of this country, the more convinced I am that there is nothing pertaining to the life and character of the Colored American so imperfectly understood as that touching his morals. Considering how many and how big are the falsehoods disseminated about our immorality by our enemies and traducers, it is a wonder that the misstatement are so few.
To begin with I stated that it would be impossible to talk intelligently about the morals of the Colored American to day without referring to the debasing effect of slavery upon the race. I reminded my audience of the system of breeding slaves for gain which was deliberately pursued by the slaveholders of the South and declared that all the rules, regulation customs and laws peculiar to the diabolical institution of slavery seemed to have been designed for the express purpose of debasing the womanhood of the enslaved race. I referred to the article written for the press by white women who publicly proclaimed the fraility of their colored sister to the world, while they seemed to gloat in ghoulish glee over her shame.
I recalled that very little had been done by the white women of the South to guide aright the daughters of their former bond women since the their emancipation, and that no matter what injury was done them by men of the dominant race, they had received little protection either from public sentiment or from the laws, as a rule,
I related incidents showing that both by opinions expressed in the public prints and by decisions rendered against them in the Courts of law the people here have been educated to place colored women in a class apart and to withhold from them the consideration, charity, sympathy and assistance which the women of all other races, classes and kinds in this country have a right to expect and which they generally receive.
I told my audience how hard it is for colored women and girls to secure employment. I quoted part of a report printed by the Vice Commissio of Chicago a few years ago which stated that owing to the prejudice against them on account of their race it was very hard for colored girls to secure employment. Employment agents declared that the law prohibited them from sending white women and girls to houses of ill repute but they could furnish colored help/ With the exception of teaching, sewing, nursin and a few undesirable pursuits, I told my audience, there are very few things which a colored girl can get to do in the United States, no matter how intelligent, skillful or prepossessing she may and no matter how grea her need. But I begged them to remember that in spite of the fateful heritage of slavery, in spite of the many snares and pitfalls laid to trap colored girls, and though the safeguards usually thrown around maidenly youth and innocence were generally withheld from colored girls in that section where the majority live, nevertheless statistics compiled by white men who would not falsify in their favor show that immorality among the colored women of the United States is not so great as that among women similarly situated in at least five foreign lands. And then I reminded them that it is very easy to get statistics showing just how many sins colored women commit, because they are not admitted as a rule to the various rescue houses which are provided for the women and girls of every other race where they may go to hide their misfortune from the world and conceal [speech is cut off here]
Terrell, Mary Church. “Report on Purity Conference.” Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress. 1927. https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/ms009311.mss42549.0426