Ames, Jessie Daniel (1883–1972)
Ames, Jessie Daniel (1883–1972)
Founding president of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, who succeeded in increasing positive race relations and decreasing lynching in the South. Name variations: Daniel Ames, Jessie. Born Jessie Daniel on November 2, 1883, in Palestine, Texas; died on February 21, 1972, of crippling arthritis in an Austin, Texas, nursing home; daughter of Laura Leonard (a teacher and nurse) and James Malcolm Daniel (a railroad worker); attended Southwestern College, B.A., 1902; married Roger Post Ames (d. 1914), on June 28, 1905; children: Frederick (b. 1907); Mary (b. 1912); Lulu (b. 1915).
Entered college at age 13; graduated (1902); helped make Texas the first Southern state to ratify 19th Amendment (1918); was founding president of the Texas League of Women Voters (1919); appointed executive director of the Texas Commission on Interracial Cooperation and field representative for the Southwest (1922–25); appointed first president of the Texas Interracial Commission (1922); helped found and was the first president of the American Association of University Women (1926); appointed director of the women's program for all Commission on Interracial Cooperation branches, which resulted in a move to Atlanta (1929–37); was founding president of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (1930–42); served as general field secretary of Commission on Interracial Cooperation for 13 Southern states (1937–44).
Determined to correct social injustices, Jessie Daniel Ames believed that the key to change was local action and regional organization—an early interpretation of "think globally, act locally." Her method of leadership, unique to the times, contributed to positive changes in women's suffrage and race relations in the South. Only a decade before her birth in 1883, the Ku Klux Klan had ruled her tiny town of Palestine, Texas. Years later, she would play a key role in lessening the South's racial violence.
Months after her birth, the Daniel family moved from Palestine to the small railroad town of Overton, Texas. Ames recalled her ten years in Overton as a dismal time beset by death. Her mother worked as a nurse during the diphtheria, smallpox, and typhoid fever epidemics, leaving Ames well acquainted with death and disease. Surrounded by human suffering, she joined the church against the wishes of her outspoken, non-believer father; this was only one of many times she would stand up for her beliefs in the face of opposition.
The third of four children, Ames fought feelings of unworthiness throughout her youth. Her older sister Lulu was her father's favorite child in what Ames has characterized as an incestuous relationship. Feeling unwanted by her father, who treated her as both unintelligent and unattractive, she had no desire to fit the expected role of a "young lady" by playing with dolls. Instead, she crossed the railroad tracks and found friendship among poor children, both black and white.
The Daniel family's 1893 move to Georgetown (30 miles south of the University of Texas at Austin) dramatically escalated Jessie's standard of living and opportunities for education. She entered Southwestern College's private primary school, and, in 1897, the 13-year-old enrolled in the local college. Author Jaquelyn Dowd Hall quotes Ames' recollection of her father's words: "Young lady, I am sending you to college because there is nothing else to do with you. But I want you to understand right now that … I do not expect you to graduate." These words fueled her determination to succeed. Since her father refused to let her attend social functions until senior year, Ames turned to books to escape feelings of inadequacy as a woman.
In 1902, she graduated from Southwestern. Two years later, the Daniel family moved to Laredo, Texas, where Roger Post Ames, an army surgeon 13 years her senior and a friend of her father, began to court her. In June of 1905, Ames was married. But her husband's family disapproved of the marriage, viewing her as socially inferior and fearing the loss of Roger's financial contribution to the family. In addition, the marriage suffered from sexual incompatibility. Shortly after they were wed, Roger left for New Orleans to work with a yellow-fever epidemic and sent his wife back to Texas feeling as though she had failed her husband and the marriage. This separation became the norm, with Ames claiming they were together only ten months of the nine-year marriage. Despite the separation, and Roger's opposition, she gave birth to three children.
Her father died in 1911, her husband in 1914. A widow at age 31, with three children, Ames began her life as an independent woman. With her mother Laura, she began managing a telephone company. Soon, she found her way to feminist activism. In 1916, she organized a county suffrage association in reaction to the business discrimination she encountered. Through this organization, she met her mentor, Minnie Fisher Cunningham , president of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association. With Cunningham's support, Ames began writing and speaking on women's rights, helping to secure suffrage for women in primary elections and to make Texas the first Southern state to ratify the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote.
Ames took a formal role in the suffrage movement by becoming the founding president of the Texas League of Women Voters in 1919, serving as representative to the Pan-American Congress of 1923, and by acting as a delegate-at-large to the national Democratic Party conventions in 1920 and 1924. During her work for suffrage, women were voting in increasing numbers; however, a female voting bloc did not emerge. She continued working for women's rights by founding and serving as president of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). In keeping with Ames' belief that there should be no difference in professional training or pay between women and men, the AAUW urged colleges to offer equal opportunities to women and to create equality in pay scales.
Troubled by the exclusion of black women from the women's movement and by the rising racial violence, Ames campaigned for Mary Shipp Sanders , a Georgetown University English instructor who in 1921 became the first woman to be elected county school superintendent. Ames worked with Sanders to investigate and fight for better conditions in the black county schools. Their work raised funds and secured a grant to erect a new building, replacing the shack that black students had been using as a school. Also in 1921, Ames took her first formal position in the civil-rights movement as chair of the Texas Federation of Women's Clubs Committee on the Condition of Our Colored People. In 1922, Carrie Parks Johnson , director of Woman's Work for the Atlanta based Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC), called a meeting of Texas women during which the outspoken Ames emerged as the obvious choice for president of the new Texas Interracial Commission. Her active role in the movement led her to Georgia in 1929 to become director of the Woman's Committee of the CIC. She remained in this position until 1937, when the number of women equalled the number of men in the CIC, at which point the women's division was dissolved.
I have never learned in all the fifty-six years of my life to keep my mouth shut when something arises which offends either my sense of justice and fair play or violates the principles of democracy and Christianity.
—Jessie Daniel Ames
Although she began her work fighting for women's suffrage, Ames was most influential and active working to stop lynchings in the South. Despite the 1892–95 anti-lynching movement led by Ida Wells-Barnett , and the follow-up 1921–22 NAACP campaign organized by Mary Morris Talbert and Mary Church Terrell , in 1938 Ames could still write in Public Opinion Quarterly: "Newspapers and Southern society accept lynching as justifiable homicide in defense of society."
While the desire to maintain white power was at the core of lynchings, there was a false, though pervasive, belief that lynchings were conducted to save white womanhood. Representatives and senators defended lynching in Congress on the grounds that it was the only way to stop black crimes against women. In the Congressional Record, Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina told the U.S. Senate that white men in the South would "not submit to [the Negro's] gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him." Though, according to author J.R. McGovern, "the chance of a white woman in the South being raped by a black male was probably not much greater than of her being struck dead by lightening," the threat of interracial rape preserved white male chivalry and power over white women and all blacks. Sexism was justified under the guise of racism, and vice-versa. Like the black women before her who had led, and were still leading, anti-lynching campaigns, Ames was outraged that the crime of lynching was widely "justified in the name of white Southern womanhood."
The central problem she faced was that a large number of white women accepted the myth and believed that lynchings were committed to protect them. Viewing race and gender problems as interrelated, Ames felt that a coalition of white Southern women could successfully correct this falsehood and put a stop to lynchings. In November of 1930, she led a meeting of 12 women in Atlanta to form the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL). As the church was the central influence in the South, she believed that the ASWPL could be most successful if organized through the churches; however, this would not prove an easy prospect. As Ames said in a speech to the women of the Presbyterian Church: "Racial superiority and white supremacy were so bound up with our emotional concepts of religion that our traditions were untouched by the simple words of Jesus." Believing that the church justified racism, and thus lynching, she also believed that the church had the strength to combat both social problems.
One obstacle Ames faced was that most Southern women were so involved in the church that they had time for little else. The solution was to work through existing groups of small-town church women who were experts at running organizations, were familiar with the gospel and local issues, and were sensitized by the prohibition and suffrage movement's arguments about law enforcement and social order. Her strategy thus was to organize regionally and act locally. Ames felt that if each of these women introduced the issue of lynching to her constituency on every occasion, and got signatures on anti-lynching pledges from women and men at their meetings, the organization could have an impact.
In the first five years, the ASWPL received 58 official endorsements from national and state organizations. By 1936, the ASWPL had secured signatures of sheriffs and officers in every state on anti-lynching petitions. Whenever a lynching occurred, the local ASWPL organization investigated, sent a telegram to the governor of the state and the sheriff of the county, and notified the press. By 1939, 43,000 anti-lynching pledges had been signed. Each signature, thought Ames, represented another person educated.
Indeed, it was this strong belief in education as the key to improving race relations that motivated her refusal to endorse federal anti-lynching legislation. In 1934, and again in 1938, the Costigan-Wagner Act was introduced defining lynching as a breach of 14th-Amendment rights. Despite the negative backlash, Ames did not support legislation to make lynching a federal crime. She believed lynching was already illegal and feared that, with federal legislation, the members of the ASWPL would consider the battle won and would stop educating, which was the measure she considered vital to improving long-term race relations. Her insistence, however, that the ASWPL not support the legislation led to ill feelings towards her and would affect her later career.
During the 40 years of anti-lynching movements before the ASWPL, black women had tried to get white women involved with no success. Ida Wells-Barnett had made efforts to bring white women into the NAACP crusade against lynching at the turn of the century; however, it would take a separate organization to secure substantial white Southern involvement. The ASWPL included black women in their movement but did not allow them to join. In the Chattanooga Sunday Times Magazine, Ames expressed her firm belief that "white women alone could remove the halo of chivalry from the heads of lynchers by repudiating the claim that lynchers acted in defense of white women." Hall points out that black women of the CIC had long been saying that lynching would be stopped only when white women were ready to stop it. By 1939, of the three lynchings that occurred, not one was justified by protection of white womanhood. Beyond the primary goal of stopping lynchings, the ASWPL empowered white women. Though it was segregated, the organization helped to bring the races together and open lines of communication.
Through the ASWPL, Ames helped reform the image of the "white Southern lady" from that of a dependent creature to an outspoken woman with the ability to effect social change. Equally important, politicians began to recognize this power. In addition to working with white women to end lynching, Ames sought to bring white and black women together to break down racial mistrust. Clubs were started throughout the South during which black and white women studied, taught, played, and prayed together for ten days each year. The idea was that, after these clubs mingled, racial cooperation among the women would continue in their respective communities. And, indeed, it did. Both races came together to help establish community centers for working mothers and to improve schools.
Ames continued as head of the ASWPL until its dissolution in 1942. The following year, the Interracial Commission, of which Ames was a part, was replaced by the Southern Regional Council. Much to her dismay, she was not included in the new organization. This exclusion was apparently due to dissent surrounding her position on federal lynching legislation and personality conflicts with male colleagues. Though she wanted to remain with the new organization, she delivered a farewell address to the Interracial Movement on February 16, 1944, making a final plea for black and white women to continue spearheading work for improved race relations.
From 1944 until her death in 1972, Ames resided in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. During her retirement, she organized women's study groups on world affairs, worked in the Methodist Church, and registered black voters. In her last years, she realized that through her decades of work, her relationships with family and friends had become strained, if not severed. While working for suffrage and to stop lynchings, Ames had remained distant but dedicated to her children. Her son Frederick and daughter Mary became medical doctors. Her youngest daughter Lulu, crippled with polio at a young age, became a leading figure in Texas politics and owned and operated a successful business. Recognizing that she had isolated herself and that she longed for companionship, Ames lived with Lulu her final four years in Texas.
Jessie Ames was active at a time when women had virtually no political or economic power and racial violence was rampant, yet she succeeded in spearheading organizations that began to open doors for women and African-Americans. In a speech to the Morehouse student body, she said:
If you can accomplish a thing in your life time it really is not very big. It is not big at all. The thing you are working for should be bigger than anything you could possibly see come true in your life time…. Of those women assembled at Seneca Falls in 1848, not one lived to see the franchise given to the women. But they started it.
Ames, Jessie Daniel. "Editorial Treatment of Lynchings," in Public Opinion Quarterly 2. 1938, pp. 77–84.
——. Speech presented to the Morehouse student body, Atlanta, 1934. Special Collections/Archives division of the Robert W. Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center.
——. Speech presented to women of the Presbyterian Church. Summer, 1935. Southern Historical Collection of the Manuscripts Department, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
——. "Women War on Lynching," in Chattanooga Sunday Times Magazine. October 18, 1936, p. 1.
Congressional Record. March 23, 1900.
Ellis, Ann Wells. "Jessie Daniel Ames," in Dictionary of Georgia Biography. Edited by Kenneth Coleman and Charles Stephen Gurr. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1983.
McGovern, J.R. Anatomy of a Lynching: The Killing of Claude Neal. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Papers of Jessie Daniel Ames while head of the ASWPL, including personal correspondence, publications, and association records from 1932 to 1940, are held at the Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Boxes of papers, including personal correspondence, speeches, publications, and CIC and ASWPL records from 1930 to 1944, are part of the Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina Archives of the Manuscripts Department, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Correspondence, ASWPL records, speeches, publications, copies of anti-lynching pledges, and news clippings from 1930 to 1944 are on microfilm at the Special Collections-Archives division of the Robert W. Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center (formerly Trevor Arnett Library).
Kimberly A. Powell , Assistant Professor of Communication, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa