National Association of Colored Women

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National Association of Colored Women

Predating the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was the first national black organization in the United States and has proved to be one of the longest lasting. Founded in 1896, NACW's roots lay in decades of local political activity by African-American women. This activity often took the form of women's clubs and was the result of heightened racism, a need for social services within the black community, and the exclusionary policies of many white-run organizations.

The local clubs and reform efforts of black women in churches, mutual aid societies, and literary clubs were part of a larger reform effort during the late nineteenth century. Little state assistance was available for the needy. Club-women provided aid to the aged, young, and other dependents, strengthened racial solidarity, and developed leadership. These local efforts, which were usually short-lived and unconnected, became the basis of a national coalition.

A series of events facilitated the emergence of the National Association of Colored Women. In 1895 a national convention of black women was called to respond to a racist letter sent by James Jacks, a southern journalist, to a British reformer. Jacks wrote that blacks lacked morality and that black women were prostitutes, natural liars, and thieves. Because of the local clubs and women's magazines that were in existence, in particular The Woman's Era, a national black women's journal, African-American women were able to respond quickly and effectively to the slanderous letter.

The 1895 convention led to the formation of the National Federation of Afro-American Women. Shortly thereafter the National League of Colored Women broke from the federation because of differences about how to deal with segregation at the Atlanta Exposition. But because of concerns about the lack of unity, the two organizations merged in 1896 to form the National Association of Colored Women. Committed to social reform and racial betterment, the NACW achieved its greatest growth from the 1890s to the 1920s. Shortly after it was founded, the NACW had five thousand members. Twenty years later, it had fifty thousand members in twenty-eight federations and over a thousand clubs. By 1924 it had reached 100,000 members.

The NACW was involved in a variety of projects to address problems of health, housing, education, and working conditions and to create a social space for black women. It was the primary organization through which African-American women channeled their reform efforts. Embodied in their slogan "Lifting as we Climb" was a commitment not only to improve their own situation but to aid the less fortunate. They built schools, ran orphanages, founded homes for the aged, set up kindergarten programs, and formed agencies in New York and Philadelphia to help female migrants from the South find jobs and affordable housing. Black women who formed the backbone of the NACW were primarily middle class and often professional women involved in teaching or other social service occupations. Their local activities were the seeds for multiservice centers that combined the many goals of the NACW reform efforts. They provided material assistance through day care, health services, and job training to help women secure jobs.

While the movement comprised many local groups with differing philosophies, the national agenda was dominated by women less interested in confrontation than in accommodation. In the early years the NACW journal, National Notes, was printed at Tuskegee Institute under the direction of Margaret Murray Washington. The first president of the NACW, Mary Church Terrell, was also a supporter of Booker T. Washington and accommodationist policies. At the request of organizers in Chicago, Terrell chose not to invite outspoken anti-accommodationist Ida B. Wells-Barnett to the first NACW meeting.

The political orientation of women in the NACW was also evident in the programs and policies of the organization. Black clubwomen adhered to middle-class values of self-improvement and moral purity. As Terrell expressed in 1902, "Self-preservation demands that [black women] go among the lowly, illiterate, and even vicious, to whom they are bound by ties of race and sex to reclaim them." They taught thrift through penny-saving societies and supported the temperance movement. Some of their old-age homes accepted only the respectable poor and elderly, not those who were indigent because of what the NACW considered laziness or immorality. They conducted classes in domestic service and child rearing to teach the poor proper health and hygiene, how to maintain a household, and techniques to raise their children. They maintained that women could play an important role in reforming society by using their virtuous qualities and superior moral sensibilities to create a safe and comfortable home. Women in the NACW wanted to instill racial pride in African Americans and counter negative images of black women. They believed their commitment to racial solidarity

and helping the poorest African Americans would improve the position of the entire race.

Although immersed in social reform and racial uplift efforts, the NACW also took strong stands against the roots of racial injustice. In the early years black clubwomen opposed segregation and the brutal convict-lease system. National Notes became a tool to discuss ideas and disseminate information. By 1910 they had expanded their goals to include the women's suffrage amendment and the federal antilynching bill and had also come to believe that to effect change, more than simply exposure of the brutalities that African Americans faced was necessary. After the Red Summer of 1919, the NACW, under the leadership of Mary Talbert, joined the crusade against lynching and mobilized black women, raised money, and educated the public. While never a militant organization, the NACW made verbal protests against racial injustice and advocated boycotts of segregated facilities. It was successful in creating a national political voice for African-American women. As the organization expanded its agenda, its overwhelming influence by northeastern urban women was tempered by greater involvement of women from the South.

During the Great Depression, the stature and importance of the NACW began to decline, and for a time the organization met only periodically. Many of the welfare and social services NACW provided were available through better-funded local, state, and private agencies created expressly for this purpose. In addition, obvious dire need for direct material assistance during the 1930s made the self-help and moral uplift ideology of the NACW somewhat anachronistic. These issues, coupled with a declining membership and financial insecurity, made the NACW a less effective organization.

In 1935 Mary McLeod Bethune, who served as president of NACW from 1924 to 1928, formed the National Council of Negro Women, which acted as an umbrella for black women's organizations. This led to a redefinition of NACW, which was no longer the only national black women's organization. In 1957 NACW changed its name to the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC). In the early 1990s the NACWC had close to forty thousand members in fifteen hundred local clubs. Today it is primarily involved in educational, social service, and fund-raising activities. The NACWC sponsors forums on HIV infection, provides college scholarships for young black women, and raises money for children's hospitals. Despite the ebbs and flows in its work, the NACWC has admirably endured over a century of service and commitment to African-American women.

See also Bethune, Mary McLeod; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); National Council of Negro Women; Red Summer; Terrell, Mary Eliza Church; Wells-Barnett, Ida B.


Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

Salem, Dorothy. To Better Our World: Black Women in Organized Reform, 18901920. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1990.

Wesley, Charles H. The History of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs: A Legacy of Service. Washington, D.C.: The Association, 1984.

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National Association of Colored Women

views updated May 09 2018


NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF COLORED WOMEN. In 1896, two national African American women's organizations joined to form the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs under the leadership of Josephine Ruffin, Margaret Murray Washington, Mary Church Terrell, and Victoria Earle Matthews. The association's goals were to protect the reputation of African American women, while also improving social conditions in their communities. With a membership of over 100,000 by 1916, they created kindergartens, nurseries, settlements, and homes for working girls, dependent children, and the elderly. Their later focus on civil rights included military and school desegregation, voter registration, and anti-lynching legislation. They also restored Frederick Douglass's home in Anacostia, Washington, D.C.


Wesley, Charles H. The History of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs: A Legacy of Service. Washington, D.C: The Association, 1984.

White, Deborah Gray. Too Heavy a Load. Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894–1994. New York: Norton, 1999.

Williams, Lillian Serece, ed. The Records of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. Bethesda, Md.: University Publications of America, 1994, 1995.

Anne MeisKnupfer

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National Association of Colored Women