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In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Black American Women were struggling with both racism and misogyny as they fought for their rights. Black Women formed clubs and organized to make sure civil and political rights were extended to ALL Black people, not just Black men. These clubs were grass-roots organizations of middle-class women who were often only one generation removed from slavery. Today we'll learn about the origins of these clubs and some of the notable women who drove this movement.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

Paula Giddings, Where and When I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1984).
Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999).
Roger Streitmatter, Raising Her Voice African-American Women Journalists Who Changed History University Press of Kentucky 2014

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Hi I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History.

Today we’ll be talking about the Black women’s Club movement. Women have always been central to the creation of social movements and have been able to find unique voices for themselves in spaces that did not always want to acknowledge their power.

Black women were present in so many important moments in American history - as speakers and orators in the antebellum period, spies and soldiers in the Civil War, and as anti-lynching crusaders. The Black Women's Club movement isn’t always talked about in a lot of our public discourse, but I think it's time we give these women their due. Let's start the show.

Plessy v. Ferguson ushered in the Jim Crow era and many states took advantage of the Supreme Court’s decision that made “separate but equal” the law of the land. This is important to note, because a lot of times we think of Jim Crow as something occurred in the 1950s and 1960s.

But really, Jim Crow was thriving decades before that, and it dominated the South’s social and political climate. And while Jim Crow perpetuated a lot of violence against Black people in general, there was a specific sort of violence that it inflicted against Black women. As a warning, this episode will contain mentions of physical and sexual assault.

Because Black people had largely been stripped of their civil rights and did not receive the sort of protection from the state that is typically afforded to citizens, they were subjected to lynchings and other types of mob violence. Black women, specifically, were constantly dehumanized, threatened with rape, and other forms of abuse. American culture justified this violence against Black women by portraying them as prostitutes, thieves, and just generally immoral people.

So even though Black women were regularly sexually assaulted, because society depicted them in a Hyper-sexualised, immoral way, they were seen as having brought it upon themselves. But Black women refused to stand for this. In an effort to protect their families and themselves, the Black Women's Club movement was started.

It was a direct response to much of the violence and oppression that Black women were being subjected to. Though it’s worth noting that this movement was in many ways an extension of a longer history of Black women's activism as orators, writers, abolitionists and suffragists. The clubs were mainly grass-root organizations of middle class Black women who were one generation removed from slavery.

They were well-educated, and had their own careers and identities separate from their husbands, many of whom were lawyers, doctors, judges, journalists, and politicians. And many of these women decided not to marry at all, but to focus on their political work and careers. What made the work of these organizations different from some others that existed at the same time, is that members of Black women’s clubs believed that advocating for Black Americans was not just about obtaining civil and political rights for Black men, but also winning those same rights for Black women.

One of the most important figures in the Black Women's Club movement was Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. Let's learn a little bit more about her in the Thought Bubble.

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was born in the Beacon Hill Neighborhood of Boston Massachusetts in 1842. She started out in activism by recruiting Black men to join the Union Army during the.

Civil War and served on the board of a number of charities. But by the 1890s, she turned her attention to advocating on behalf of Black women specifically. And she would found the Woman’s Era Club in Boston, Massachusetts.

It was a club primarily of Black American women that had two goals - to offer opportunities for self-improvement, and to speak out against the violence and oppression Black Americans were experiencing. The club also published a newspaper called The Woman’s Era. It was the first newspaper published by and for Black women in the United States.

Josephine’s daughter, Florida Ruffin Ridley, was also involved in the operation, and together they used this newspaper to help organize a conference that focused on the issues affecting. Black women. It was called the first National Conference of Colored Women of America, and took place in Boston in 1895.

At the conference, Black women were able to network, discuss, and organize among themselves, in an effort to both build community and to find solutions to some of the most pressing concerns of the day. The conference even led to the founding of the National Federation of Afro-American Women. This was a coalition of 85 different organizations dedicated to promoting the rights of all Black.

Americans by concentrating, in the words of their Constitution, “the dormant energies of the women of the Afro-American race into one broad band of sisterhood.” Thanks Thought Bubble! Josephine’s work didn’t end there. She was an advocate for women's suffrage, pushing the movement to fight for the rights of Black women, and not just white women.

And she was one of many Black women of the era doing this deeply important work. She was joined by women like Sojourner Truth, Angelina Weld Grimké, and Gertrude Mossell. Josephine also helped found the Boston branch of the NAACP.

While Josephine was chipping away at oppressive systems in Boston, another Black women's Club, the Colored Women’s League, was founded in Washington DC in 1892. Its founders included Mary Church Terrell, Anna Julia Cooper, and Mary Jane Patterson. It was a coalition of 113 local Black women's organizations.

In 1896, both the National Federation of Afro-American Women and the Colored Women's League merged to form the National Association of Colored Women. It was the largest federation of Black women's clubs and served as a centralized force for many local and regional Black women's organizations. Mary Church Terrell was the group’s first president and their founding motto was “lifting as we climb.” While they were committed to upward mobility and self-improvement among themselves, their ultimate purpose was to improve the lives of all Black people.

They were committed to intersectionality even when we didn’t have a word for it, always examining issues of American society through the lens of both gender and race. Some of the National Association of Colored Women’s most prominent members were the educator Fanny Coppin, the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and journalist and anti-lynching advocate. Ida B Wells-Barnett.

In 1904, they changed the name to the. And by 1916, they had a membership of almost 100,000 people and there were over 300 newly-registered clubs within the organization. As time went on, the organization expanded the scope of their work.

During World War I they raised over 5 million dollars in war bonds. They provided social services for Black Americans, including raising money for kindergartens, libraries, orphanages, and elder care. And they worked tirelessly to raise awareness about lynching and discrimination.

But they made sure their work wasn’t singularly focused on fighting social ills, so they also hosted events like concerts and literature groups, because they believed that those things are just as important to building community. However, when the Great Depression arrived in the 1930s, the “self-help” philosophies of Black Women’s Clubs became less popular. Black Americans started turning to organizations like the NAACP or the National Urban League--groups that more directly challenged racist systems and advocated for large-scale structural change.

In 1935, Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and activist, lead a portion of the National. Association of Colored Women members who did not agree with the self-help philosophy of the group to form the National Council of Negro Women. Recognizing a need for women to still advocate for themselves and their specific challenges,.

Bethune’s new group focused on using political activism to improve the state of Black Americans and their communities. They also took an interest in international affairs, later going on to support the founding of the United Nations. Bethune also used her position as a Director of the Division of Negro Affairs for President.

Franklin D Roosevelt -- which according to the Smithsonian made her the first Black woman to head a federal agency -- to talk to the press about the need for Black Americans to have federal jobs and other opportunities. In fact, she was one of the main creators of the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which banned discrimination in all federal agencies and all industries engaged in war time work. Utilizing similar strategies as the National Federation of Afro-American Women that came before them, the National Council of Negro Women also created a newspaper.

It was called the Aframerican Women’s Journal, and it was later named Women United in 1949. Over the next few decades, the Black Women's Club Movement continued to decline in popularity - in part because changing gender norms pushed against previously popular ideas of modesty and respectability, and also because as more working-class Black women became involved in the fight for political rights, they brought a different--and often more expansive--approach to how this work should be done. Still, some of these organizations remain active today: like the National Association of Colored Women, now known as the National Association for Colored Women's Club Inc, and the National Council of Negro Women.

They are both nonprofit organizations with the same goal - uniting Black women in pursuit of equality. It cannot be said enough: Black women have always been leaders at the forefront of American social movements. Our textbooks don’t always include the contributions that Black women have made to the fight for civil rights, but we should be absolutely clear that without their work, our country would not be where it is today.

Black women’s clubs were a central part of what allowed Black women to organize themselves, and to come together as a community to make clear that in the fight for Black equality,. Black women needed to be included. And in many ways, we continue to see the legacy of the women involved in these organizations today.

If you look around at many of our contemporary civil rights efforts, many--if not most of them--are led by Black women. Thanks for watching! I’ll see you next time.

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