Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Power of Indiana's Early Colored Women's Clubs (Part I)

The following article is the first in a series excerpted from a longer article by board member Marsha Smiley entitled "Extolling Indiana's Early Colored Women's Clubs: Initiating Socio-Economic Projects, Instilling Self-Reliance and Imparting Ethnic Pride".

Part 1: The Historical Context

In recent times, more African American history is being ‘recovered’, restored and becoming known. Historical research by scholars have found significant first hand accounts once disregarded or overlooked—causing analysts to reexamine the accepted nineteenth century history of the United States. For example, Eric Foner, a noted historian, who has done extensive research on America’s Reconstruction period, in 1978, discovered in South Carolina’s State Archives, “121 thickly packed boxes of correspondence received by the state’s Reconstruction governors.” These documents which “had been untapped by scholars”, according to Foner, “contained an incredibly rich record…..of black and white Carolinians attempting to rebuild their lives after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, of struggles for human dignity and ignoble violence by the Ku Klux Klan.”1

United States history bearing on race and its related politics, is being more even-handedly recounted, overturning the commonly held traditional Dunning School diktat, which portrayed blacks as ‘childlike’ and ‘incapable of properly exercising the political rights Northerners had thrust upon them.”2 As early as 1935, W.E.B. Dubois in his Black Reconstruction in America had called into question the accepted historical record, indicting historians for ignoring the accounts of “the principal actor[s] in the drama of Reconstruction—the [newly freed]…”3

Historical accounts published in recent times are telling untold stories and shedding a much deserved ‘light’ on those who struggled, sacrificed, and worked so diligently to make possible the progress of a populace long held captive within the vise of oppression. We are learning more about these lesser-knowns who stood on the precipice of justice, demanding human and civil rights for blacks, oftentimes in the face of great peril.4 One constructive result has been the more balanced and accurate coverage of America’s past as it relates to its citizens of color in our nation’s school history textbooks.

In their own right, the history of African-American women, for the most part, has been largely unnoticed by historians, often being allowed to lapse into obscurity.5 The stories of those who were instrumental in helping to build and safeguard the needs of the African-American community include united astute, knowledgeable, powerful black women. One such segment of historical note, within that milieu, is the generally unsung achievements of colored women’s clubs which formed during the post-Reconstruction era for the purposes of self-improvement, to provide a safety net for those oppressed amongst them, and to advance the status of the African-American community.

Following the Civil War, finding itself in the thrall of great social / economic change and political upheaval, America neglected to enforce the newly enacted laws passed to insure and protect the rights of its newly freed. One of the black institutions that formed at fast clips during that harrowing period was colored women’s clubs that stepped into the chasm to aid their downtrodden brethren. Their stories, their critical community leadership role, their accomplishments, historically, have been overlooked, disregarded or treated inconsequentially.

However, the evolution and history of these women’s clubs have begun to receive the scholarly research and relevancy that should be accorded them. These institutions included in their work integral socioeconomic projects, implementing elemental programs in all spheres of communal development that proved so invaluable. Across the length and breath of this state, Hoosier women’s clubs, part of this movement, have a noteworthy history that attest to the crucial contributions they made in their communities in the areas of vital services and philanthropy.

Historically oppressed in U.S. society, African Americans have claimed and sought to safeguard their human dignity and attain their own self-affirmation by establishing their own institutions. As early as the 1770’s, freedmen demonstrated efforts at self-help and sharing by establishing mutual aid societies, and other private organizations.6 A black Masonic order has existed and flourished within the black community since the Revolutionary War.7 Upon gaining freedom, those formerly held in bondage sought to establish autonomy by forming their own Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal churches, reconstructing their families, and legalizing their marriages.

For them, however, the glow of freedom with its according of U.S. citizenship, enfranchisement, its promise of economic independence and educational opportunities proved short-lived; the problems that arose for them in the aftermath of the Civil War were complex and many. One discordant issue at odds was the very meaning of America, which left the needs of the recently freed unmet and caught between competing theories in ‘mainstream’ America, especially in the North, in regard to how a free labor system should function. In general, whites believed that blacks wanted the role of government enlarged to meet their basic needs so they would not have to work; while the newly freed, lacking resources and being penniless, believed governmental assistance was critical for their survival. Those who had been enslaved felt help was due them in order to have a start and survive the transition to independence after centuries of involuntary servitude, lacking any pecuniary compensation.

The U. S. Congress, after the Civil War, passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery, the 14th Amendment conferring citizenship and the 15th Amendment securing the right to vote for recently freed bondsmen. After the War, foregoing a lasting redistribution of land to freedmen, as required by the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and the shut-out of gainful employment in the North assured a failed transition.8 The Civil Rights Law of 1875 gave blacks the right to public accommodations, such as transportation, hotels, etc. Declaring some portions of the 1875 Civil Rights unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1883, ruled that Congress lacked the power to protect civil rights against private citizens.9 With their citizenship rights abridged, eventually the system completely segregated blacks. The doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ that evolved out of the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision of the Plessy v. Ferguson case, temporarily ended any “black chances of full participation in and unfettered access to American educational and social institutions”.10

Reconstruction ended summarily after President Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South in 1877. The end result was the economic and political plight of blacks regressing at every level. The South began an oppressive economic system, a form of quasi-slavery, which forced black workers to accept tenant farming, sharecropping, and/or unskilled low paying jobs, in order to earn a livelihood. Having been left to fend for themselves without any independent viable means of earning a living, the freedmen found themselves entrapped. The withdrawal of federal troops sealed their fate, and without protection, “whites set about reestablishing white control through violence, fraud and intimidation, with [an] end result of regaining total power—politically, socially, and economically— in the late 1870’s’’.11

Changes in labor, following the Civil War, came upon the heels of another momentous development—industrialization. As widespread industrialization transformed the nation, the accepted model of labor and capital as conflict free came into question. In The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North 1865-1901, Heather Cox Richardson declares,“…fear of a perceived black rejection of the free labor ideal, coupled with anxiety over labor unrest, made the self-styled “ better classes” abandon the mid-century vision of an egalitarian free labor society that included blacks as well as whites.”12

The unyielding, further entrenchment of racism, with its tentacles sunk deep into U.S. institutions, gained an unfettered, accepted permanence in American society. By the turn of the 20th century, blacks were relegated to second class citizenship, black codes, Jim Crow laws, and segregation. In the face of these ominous developments, blacks collectively organized associations and clubs to help meet the needs of their fellow brethren, set adrift in a social order which devalued their worth as human beings and deprived them of their civil rights. So important and vital were the black institutions that took root during Reconstruction, asserts noted historian Eric Foner in Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, that “…the institutions created or consolidated after the Civil War—the black family, school, and church—provided the base from which the modern civil rights revolution sprang.”13

Realizing the futility of their situation, where their humanity was constantly queried, their civil and voting rights withheld, their labor fleeced, their equal protection under the law as citizens not enforced, and the opportunity for advancement in Southern society nil, led to thousands of blacks, in mass, to migrating to the West, to such states as Kansas and Nebraska where hope for a better life beckoned. 10 Large numbers of these people, who became known to history as ‘exodusters’ decided to settle in the Hoosier state. Reportedly, between November 1878 and February 1879, more than 1, 100 blacks arrived in Indianapolis alone. “A second wave of mass migration swept into the state in 1890 as blacks fled the final triumph of southern white supremacy, mob violence and lynchings.”14

Want to read more? Click here for part 2!


1. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1863-1877), Harper/Collins Publishers, New York, 1988, pp. xix-xxiv.
2. Ibid, p. xx.
3. Ibid., p. xxi.
4. Benjamin Russman, American Uprising, The Untold Story….Harper, 2011. Suzanne Lebsock, A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial, W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. Elizabeth D. Leonard, Men of Color to Arms! Black Soldiers, Indian Wars, & the Quest for Equality, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, N. Y. / London. Carrie Allen McCray, Freedom’s Child: The Life of a Confederate General‘s Black Daughter, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Workman Publishing, N.Y., N.Y., 1998. Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 & the Awakening of Black America, A John Macrae Book, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2011. W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 / 1935, Atheneum Publishing, New York, 1970. Florette Henri, Black Migration Movement North, 1900-1920, Anchor Press / Doubleday, 1975, pp. 81-173. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African American Achievement, William Morrow & Co., Inc, N.Y., 1996. pp. 146-154, pp.86-90, pp.89, 153-4. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. /edited, The Bondman’s Narrative, Warner Books, Time Warner, 2002, the Introduction. John Edgar Wideman, My Soul Has Grown Deep, Running Press, Philadelphia/London , 2001. Virginia Ingraham Burr, edited, Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, The Secret Eye: The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1848-1889, the University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 1990, p-10-11, 20, 48-51. Juanita Patience Moss, Created To Be Free, Willow Bend Books, Westminster, Maryland, 2001. Manning Marable, Malcom X: A Life of Reinvention, Viking Co., N.Y., N.Y. , p. 15-18.
5. Kathleen Thompson and Hilary Mae Austin, The Face of Our Past—Images of Black Women from Colonial America to the Present, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN., 1999. Wilma Gibbs, The History of Black Women, Emma Lou Thornbrough / Indiana’s African American History: Essays from Black History & Notes, Indiana Hisorical Sociey, Indianapolis, 1993, p.68.
6. Indianapolis Freeman, June 20, 1896 and June 29, 1896. Wilma L. Gibbs, Indiana’s African-American Heritage: Essays….,William H. Grimshaw, Official History of Freemasonry among the Colored People in North America, 1903, reprint Negro Universities, 1969. Southern Sociological Congress, 1918, p. 342-343.
7. Emma Lou Thornbrough, The History of Black Women in Indiana, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, 1993., p. 74. Earline Rae Ferguson, Blacks in Antebellum Indianapolis, 1820-1860. pp. 130-135.
8. Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865--1901, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.2011.
9. Darlene Clark Hine, When the Truth is Told: A History of Black Women’s Culture & Community in Indiana, 1875-1950, Indianapolis 1981, p.11.William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass, W.W. Norton & Com-pany, New York, 1991, p. 285, 314-318, 380.
10. Annette Gordan Reed, Andrew Johnson: The American Presidents, Times Books, Henry Holt & Company, New York, 2011. David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. DUBOIS, The Fight for Equality and The American Century (1919-1963), Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2000. Kenneth Stamp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1956, p. 144-191.
11. Nell Irvin Painter, The Exodusters: Black Migrations to Kansas After Reconstruction, New York, 1977, p. 251-253. Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics…., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001. Eric Foner, Reconstruction…, p. 150, 187-189, 198, 207. William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1991, p. 317, p. 379-380.
12. Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction…, Harvard University Press 2011, p.31-32, 122-125. Jeffrey Stewart, 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History, Doubleday, New York, 1996, p.113.
13. Eric Foner, Reconstruction…, Harper/Collins Publishers, p. 612.
14. Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana Before 1900, Indianapolis, 1957, p. 224. Darlene Clark Hine, When the Truth is Told: A History of Black Women’s Culture & Community in Indiana, 1875-1950, Indianapolis 1981, p. 12. 10. Ira Berlin, The Making of African Americans: The Four Great Migrations, Viking, Penquin Books, 2010, p. 132-135.Darlene Clark Hine, When the Truth is Told: A History….p. 13.

No comments:

Post a Comment