Black Women's Club Movement

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Black Women's Club Movement

The black women's club movement emerged in the late nineteenth century and comprised a number of local reform organizations dedicated to racial betterment. These grass-roots organizations were made up primarily of middle-class women who were part of the larger progressive reform effort. Black women formed social organizations to provide services, financial assistance, and moral guidance for the poor. Many of the groups grew out of religious and literary societies and were a response to the intensified racism in the late nineteenth century.

Although organizations existed all over the country, they were concentrated in the Northeast. Women involved in the club movement gained knowledge about education, health care, and poverty and developed organizing skills. They also sought to teach the poor how to keep a household, manage a budget, and raise their children. The local groups were usually narrow in focus and supported homes for the aged, schools, and orphanages. In Washington, D.C., the black women's club movement was dominated by teachers who were concerned about children and their problems. Active participants held conventions, conferences, and forums to engage the intellectual elite. In New York City clubwomen honored Ida B. Wells for her political activism to publicize the prevalence of lynching.

In 1895 women organizing at the local level made attempts to develop national ties. The New Era Club in Boston began a publication, Woman's Era, which covered local and national news of concern to clubwomen. Two national federations of local clubs were formed in 1895. The next year these two merged and became the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Women in the Northeast played a central role in setting the agenda for the NACW, which was more conservative than some of the local clubs. Mary Church Terrell, a supporter of Booker T. Washington, was the first president of the NACW.

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, self-help and social reform came under attack as methods of social change. Increasing emphasis was placed on structural change and electoral politics. In 1935 a faction of the NACW, led by Mary McLeod Bethune, which rejected the philosophy of self-help and sought to put pressure on the political system to improve conditions for African Americans, formed the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). The NCNW quickly came to dominate both the politics of the club movement and the national political agenda of black women. Although both the NACW and the NCNW continued to be central to black women's political activity, the social conditions and context for organizing had changed dramatically in the 1930s. As the reform efforts of African-American women became more explicitly political, both the local and national club movements declined in importance.

See also National Association of Colored Women; Wells-Barnett, Ida Bell; Women's Era


Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Sex and Race on Black Women in America. New York: William Morrow, 1996.

Salem, Dorothy. To Better Our World: Black Women in Organized Reform, 18801920. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1990.

premilla nadasen (1996)
Updated bibliography