Friday, February 17, 2012

The Power of Indiana's Early Colored Women's Clubs (Part 2)

By Marsha Smiley

The Black Experience in Indiana

(see Part I, posted in January 2012, here)

In Indiana, black migrants found many of the same impediments they’d faced in the South. Significantly, in response to their oppression, Hoosier blacks formed a multitude of fraternal organizations to meet the needs of their communities. Due to discrimination and being shorn of their basic human rights, Indiana blacks founded numerous “religious, fraternal, social welfare, cultural, and educational organizations, institutions and societies… from the 1860’s to the 1930’s.”15 While auxiliary women’s groups have always sprung up to complement male lodges, women have independently formed clubs to meet specifically their own needs and purposes. Black women, however, would be called upon, due to the dictates of black society, to not only focus on their own self-improvement but to work for the advancement of all African Americans. Closely tied to the church, black society saw the role of women primarily as one of moral uplift. Although faced with both racial and gender discrimination, black women played a pivotal role in the development of black society, leading the way in philanthropic projects and elevating the status of black people through the granting of educational scholarships to youth, enrichment activities and cultural programs for the community.

From 1890 -1895, society witnessed a period of time when organizational activity escalated among all strata of Americans across the country, with Indiana not being left out. Due to the combined impact of industrialization, changes in transportation, and urbanization Americans sought ways to preserve their past mores and values. Americans believed societal concerns could be addressed by organized group action. Black women agreed, feeling this method was the best way “to address the overt causes of and a potent antidote to corruption, racism, poverty, and disease”.16 A myriad of women’s clubs took form. In 1890, white women organized the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. In keeping with the accepted practices of that time, GFWC would not allow any black women to join their ranks.17 During that era, white women were indifferent or unaware of black women’s groups and were actively opposed to the establishment of any linkage. “Most white women did not experience social ostracism, segregation and the denial of basic rights. Nor were white women encumbered with the elevation of an entire race”.18 Their realities and identities differed. One notable exception, however, was May Wright Sewall, whose accomplishments render her one of the most important women in Indianapolis history. One of the founders of the Indiana Museum of Art, a founder of the National Council of Women and the International Council of Women, she was one of the leading feminist of her generation.19 Unlike her peers, Sewall was actively interested and engaged in the problems of black women. She was one of the principal speakers at the forming of the Indiana State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, in 1903, in the Hoosier capital.20

The clubs of African-American women are deeply rooted in the church. Without question, the church has played a crucial role in black social development and history. At the turn of the 20th century the black church, the foundation and center of black life, began to assume the role of community leadership, merging both sacred imperatives with secular concerns. It was black women who prodded the church towards service as a welfare agency, shaping it into an institution for social, as well as, spiritual uplift. The black church is where the first organized grouping or meeting of black women occurred. Due to the religious ties and the location of club meetings in the churches many of the women’s clubs were inextricably bound to the churches. The clubs, associations, and societies within the church provided its women members the opportunity to develop leadership, (granted surreptitiously), organizational and governance skills. Women in black churches initially acquired training and organizational skills through their involvement in administering various church activities such as missionary societies, social events, fundraising, and aid society programs for challenged members. For example, several black churches in Terre Haute, in 1914, through their women-led aid societies, banned together to establish a much needed day care nursery, for the many working mothers of their congregations.21

Even though women in the black church showed through their church work and activities many qualities, black society refused to budge from viewing a woman’s role solely as one of moral uplift. By the late 1890’s, large numbers of black women became involved with more secular based clubs, associations, organizations, and societies. While they did not abandon their church clubs, it became apparent to them the inherent structural and organizational limitations imposed by church clubs kept them from working with a broader section of women. They found limiting club membership to solely church members and concentrating power in the hands of men too restrictive. Gradually, black women, in Indiana, made it known club structure needed to be flexible and more inclusive. Black women knew in order to be able to create and influence black social development they would need to organize more inclusive secular institutions where new coalitions could be forged and collective action could shift to a broad spectrum of community issues.22

There were commonalities in the establishment of black women’s clubs. “Usually one woman, or a small group, would found a club by calling a meeting of a few friends. Once assembled in a private home, church, or lodge building the group would debate, discuss, argue, and eventually agree to organize for a particular purpose…It was not unusual for one woman to belong to several clubs and to hold leadership positions simultaneously in each organization. By the way, there appears to be an exception to the rule even here. According to a 1953 state federation booklet the Alpha Art Club, now defunct, was organized by a Dr. Charles E. Hawkins on November 16, 1916 in Gary, Indiana, and was the only church club to hold membership in the Indiana State Federation.

For the most part, with black life dominated by low-skill paying jobs, wretched living circumstances, housing limited to ghetto areas, and white bigotry, the present and future for them looked inexorably bleak. Therefore, most clubs regardless of their particular socially uplifting project, justified their existence in almost identical terminology: they sought to protect either the sanctity of the home, guard the welfare of black children, improve the status of black women or to elevate the race.”23 All clubs raised funds for projects, performed important welfare and charitable functions in their communities where many inhabitants were poverty-stricken and often new migrants from the rural areas of the South requiring assistance in adjusting to a new and sometimes hostile environment. The very transition of living in an urban setting had its own challenges for those who had just recently arrived from rural areas of the South.

It was from the financial proclivities of those employed in the fields of semi-skilled and/or domestic services and the black middle class that funds were derived for instituting socioeconomic projects to elevate the status and raise the living conditions of black people. As previously pointed out, blacks migrating from the abominable conditions in the South, found themselves in similar circumstances in their new locales-- relegated to sub-par shelter, deplorable living conditions, untenable health care, dead-end, penury paying jobs, and unequal education. A small minority of African Americans, however, were able to earn degrees in such professions as lawyers, physicians, businessmen, ministers, and teachers. On the whole, many of the professionals in the black middle class were women teachers, forming the largest educated segment of black society.24 It was teaching in segregated school systems that principally afforded the most opportunities vocationally for educated blacks, particularly women. “Black women teachers exerted incalculable influence in the classroom as well as in civic and cultural life.”25 They were the most revered, enjoying more prestige and providing more leadership than their counterpart in the white community. An upwardly mobile black middle class did develop by providing services and products to the black masses that patronized them and supported their entrepreneurial ventures. The black middle class grew wealthy, bought real estate and built posh homes while accepting community leadership roles, ultimately they set the mark of success within the black community.

The reason, usually, women professionals exceeded their counterpart was simply economics. Since it was necessary for every member of a black family to work in order to exist, keeping children in school meant sacrifice. Girls often received the most schooling, while boys entered the workforce at an early age to help supplement family income. In fact, in 1876, the first black graduate from an Indianapolis public school was a girl. Most young women attended teacher training schools, after completing normal school. Gertrude Mahorney became Indy’s first black college graduate, graduating from Butler University in 1887. During her long tenure in the Indianapolis public school system, she would be the only black teacher who taught German.26


15. Darlene Clark Hine, When the Truth is Told: A History of Black Women...Indianapolis, 1981, p.13.
16. Gerda Lerner, Early Community Work of Black Club Women, Journal of Negro History 59, April 1974,
p. 158-167.
17. Black Women in White America, N. Y.: Pantheon Books 1972. When the Truth is Told, p. 33.
18. William H. Chafe, The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles 1920-1970, Oxford University Press, 1972, p. 16-17.
19. Wilma Gibbs, Indiana’s African American Heritage: Essays, Indianapolis, 1993, p. 77.
20. Ibid., p. 77.
21. Ibid., p. 72.
22. When the Truth is Told, p.32. Gerda Lerner, Black Club Women.
23. Indiana’s….Heritage/History of Black Women p.74. When the Truth is Told, p. 33.
24. Ibid., p.72-73.
25. Ibid., p. 13. History of Black Women, p. 73.
26. Ibid., p.73

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