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Anne Meis Knupfer
Historical Research and Narrative

From 1890 to 1920 there were over one hundred-fifty African-American women's clubs in Chicago. Although this time period is typically characterized as the "women's club era," that does not serve as an adequate explanation for why so many clubs developed in the African-American neighborhoods of Chicago. Why did African-American women create so many clubs? What political and social purposes did they serve? Which women joined these clubs? And how might we assess their contributions today?

The first African-American women's club, the Ida B. Wells Club, was created in 1893. The need for its establishment arose from several circumstances. First, during the 1890s, there was an emergent middle-class African-American population to which most club women belonged. Ida B. Wells was indicative of such social-class standing. A former schoolteacher in Memphis, Wells had married a prominent African-American lawyer, Ferdinand Barnett. Like other middle-class African-Americans, Wells subscribed to W. E. B DuBois's model of leadership, which called for the "talented tenth," those few African Americans who had the relative privilege of education and comparative wealth to assist those less fortunate. As early as 1893, Wells perceived the need for a kindergarten for African-American children and so established a club which, in turn, sponsored a kindergarten. Although some African Americans criticized her as a segregationist, Wells was swift in her rebuttal: If African-American children had been admitted to other kindergartens, there would have been no need to create a separate one.

Given the increased segregation of African-American communities in the early twentieth century, African-American club women created not only kindergartens but day nurseries, social settlements, reading rooms, youth clubs, and children's camps, as well as homes for dependent and orphaned children, for the elderly and infirm, and for young working women. Club members also studied literature, art, drama, and municipal reform. Working in conjunction with other African-American community institutions, club women were deeply involved in politics, advocating for suffrage, fighting discrimination in movie theatres and other public facilities, and promoting the passage of an anti-lynching law. They also raised much-needed monies to support those community institutions by sponsoring debates, theatre and musical presentations, picnics and raffles, and extravagant charity balls, dances, and promenades. These occasions served two ends: to assist the poor and disenfranchised and to demonstrate the club women's own status and prestige. These ends were not contradictory but instead pointed to the richness and complexity of the club women's lives. Additionally, for their grand balls and dances, club women supported African-American milliners, dressmakers, hairdressers, and manicurists. This in itself was significant because employment was quite limited for African-American women.

The ideology of most of the African-American women's clubs reflected that of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC), founded in 1896, in response to a white journalist's insulting letter about







African-American women. Club women, who subscribed to the strictest model of respectability, believed that it was incumbent upon them to respond by forming clubs that would teach and model middle-class respectable home life, child care, and proper codes of social behavior for poorer African-American women. The national motto, "lifting as we climb," spoke to these issues of social class and social uplift. However, the club women's concept of motherhood was not limited to the home. Not unlike white club women's and social settlement founders' ideas of "social motherhood," African-American women extended their roles as mothers into the community to enact municipal, civic, and educational reform. After all, they reasoned, any environment that affected children required the agency of women. Further, these activities coalesced with their desire for increased political visibility and the vote.

Indeed, most of the female political clubs in Chicago focused upon suffrage. However, even before they had the right to vote, African-American women were well aware that they could influence their husbands. As early as 1900, one member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club spoke about the crowded tenements on Chicago's south side and urged her club members to influence their husbands to vote for aldermen who would improve this situation. One of the first women's clubs in Chicago to promote suffrage was the Frederick Douglass Woman's Club, founded in 1906. This club was noteworthy because it was one of the few interracial women's clubs in Chicago, where women became acquainted with political candidates' platforms and discussed community issues from various angles.

Not surprisingly, one of the most prominent African-American suffragists in Chicago was Ida B. Wells, who organized several suffrage clubs, including the Women's Second Ward Republican Club (1910) and the Alpha Suffrage Club (1913). The latter club sponsored Wells's participation in the national suffrage parade in 1913. Although she was ordered to march in the "colored section,"

African-American and white children playing in a slum alley, Chicago ca. 1915 Courtesy: Chicago Historical Society ICHi-00810


Wells refused and marched alongside prominent white Illinois suffragists. The Alpha Suffrage Club also distributed information about various candidates, recommended candidates, and provided a directory of voting locations in each ward. When women were granted the right to vote for city commissioner in 1915, the Alpha Suffrage Club banded together with other African-American women's clubs to form a voting bloc. And they continued, as did many other African-American women's clubs, to agitate for the vote on the national level. They sponsored a speakers' series, participated in suffrage parades, wrote editorials, debated issues, and continued to educate others.

African American club women also protested discrimination in the Chicago schools, in employment, and in public institutions. They were active in securing legal representation for African Americans in key court cases, in fighting legislation that outlawed interracial marriages, in protesting Marshall Field's and other companies' refusal to hire African-American women, and in writing editorials about racist movies, such as Birth Of A Nation, shown in the Chicago theaters in 1915. In some cases, the women were successful, for example, in their efforts of procuring employment for a few African-American women. In other cases, their success was not so evident, although one could argue that their activism brought publicity to the pervasive problems of discrimination.

In the creation of social-welfare institutions, the success of the African-American women was obvious. These women not only organized but sustained community institutions for poor children, working mothers, working women, and the elderly. Again, club women enlarged their visions of family and home to create the Louise Juvenile Home for dependent and orphaned boys; the Amanda Smith Home for dependent and orphaned girls; the Phyllis Wheatley Home for single working girls; the Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored People for the elderly; and several social settlements, with day nurseries, kindergartens, and after-school programs for children. Club women provided toys, food, clothing, and monies for coal for the facilities. They also performed plays and sponsored musicals, raffles, picnics, and grand balls to raise monies for building repairs, furniture, groceries, and other necessities. Lastly, they volunteered their time organizing Christmas parties for the orphaned children, cleaning the facilities each spring, visiting with the elderly, and supervising after-school programs. When one considers the prodigious amount of resources and volunteerism required for the sustenance of these facilities as well as the large amount of collaboration required amongst the many clubs, the contributions of these women were formidable.

In addition to building community institutions, club women were interested in various forms of self improvement and education. Higher education was increasingly accessible to women during the late 1800s, especially through women's colleges, land-grant institutions, and historically black colleges. However, given their age, life circumstances (many were married, with children), and the discrimination of some higher educational institutions, many of the African-American club women in Chicago had limited access to college education. Still, there were some club women who were doctors, lawyers, social workers, and teachers, and so had been professionally trained. But by and large, many club women had to continue their education through more informal means, such as the literary clubs. These clubs provided opportunities for reading classical and African-American literature, as well as works on philosophy, sociology, religion, travel, and political thought. Further, those women improved their literary skills through discussion, critiquing, debating, interpreting, presenting original poems and essays, and performing plays, often written by talented club members. Indeed, some of the club women were known for their writing, including journalist Ida B. Wells, poet Bettiola Fortson, and essayists Fannie Barrier Williams and Irene McCoy Gaines.

Once again, these literary clubs were selective. It was not sufficient to be literate; one had to be literary. Club women discussed Shakespeare and Emerson in the private

Indiana Avenue Branch YWCA Glee Club girls and their guests at a banquet; Chicago, 1921 Courtesy: Chicago Historical Society ICHi-25340





settings of their home parlors but sponsored forums for the general public in churches, where youth might participate in oratory or essay contests. Similarly, club women invited prominent speakers to their meetings, including African-American intellectuals W. E. B. DuBois, historian Carter G. Woodson, and Booker T. Washington, founder of the industrial school, Tuskegee Institute. The club women interspersed literary study with musical recitals at their meetings. Again, the club women's tastes were diverse. They listened to classical music on the Victrola, as well as the indigenous spirituals and African-American jubilee singing performed by Fisk University students. Similarly, they studied classical art, as well as the art work of little-known African-American artists such as Henrv O. Tanner.

Ida McIntosh Dempsey in wedding dress Courtesy; Chicago Historical Society ICHi-22349

In their roles as mothers, the club women reached out to children and youth by sponsoring literary programs for them. In particular, the club women supervised many lyceums in the African-American churches that featured debates and essay and oratory contests, One topic for a 1913 essay contest was "What Has the Negro Contributed to the World for the Advancement of Civilization?" The winning essay, published in the Chicago Defender, one of several Chicago African-American newspapers, described ancient African civilizations, as well as the accomplishments of African-American inventors, scientists, authors, and musicians. Through such lyceums, youth were educated into future positions of leadership in the community. Additionally, the youth were educated by speakers that the club women sponsored. In some cases, prominent club women spoke on the importance of women's work. In other cases, local or national politicians spoke about "Race progress." The last type of clubs—social and card clubs— are usually not studied by scholars. But they were not frivolous and self-serving, despite such depictions of them. Rather, they presented the same opportunities as other African-American clubs for social status and fundraising. For example, there were many card-playing clubs, especially whist and progressive whist. The descriptions of their events emphasized their six-course luncheons, the women's outfits, the decor, and the prizes they won. In the latter case, winners of the whist tournaments received prizes such as cut-glass sherbet glasses, sterling-silver hat pins, and gold cuff-buttons. But not all of these social clubs were devoted solely to entertainment. Club fees were collected for charity or other worthy causes.

Perhaps the most interesting types of social clubs were the matrimony clubs. Although few in number, their purpose was to assist young men and women in meeting marriage partners from similar social classes. Again, the issues of status, prestige, and social class were at play. The descriptions of social events were often humorous, including the reluctant bachelor, the "dashing" widow, and the "new stunts" tried by a young woman to persuade her boyfriend to propose,

Clearly, there were many kinds of women's clubs in the African-American communities of Chicago. Most were involved in social uplift, such as supporting kindergartens, nurseries, social settlements, and homes for dependent


and orphaned children, working girls, and the elderly. Additionally, they fought on the political front, advocating for suffrage and fighting against discrimination in employment and access to public facilities. In doing so, they followed a model of leadership that allowed them to be exclusive in most of their fundraising events and club memberships, while still assisting those in need.

Some scholars have argued that after women received the right to vote the women's club movement lost its momentum. Although the period from 1890 to 1920 has been characterized as the "club women's era," African-American women's clubs in Chicago continued to thrive long after. My ongoing examination of the African-American women's organizations in Chicago, especially from 1930 to 1960, indicates that many of the prominent clubs—such as the Ida B. Wells Club, Phyllis Wheatley Club, Cornell Charity Club, and Gaudeamus Club—continued through the 1950s. They continued the traditions of supporting the Old Folks' Home through the 1940s, contributing to a home for dependent African-American children, and collaborating with other women's organizations to fight discrimination in south side schools, the workplace, and the newly created public housing projects. In such endeavors, they continued to "lift as we climb."

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