Lifting as We Climb: The National Association of Colored Women
In 1896, the established African American Women’s Club Movement provided the opportunity for a new national organization to form. The proverbial match that lit the fire was a letter from James W. Jacks, the president of the Missouri Press Association, in response to a request that journalists aid in the anti-lynching movement. In his infamous and virulent response he called African Americans “devoid of morality” and black women specifically “prostitutes,” “liars,” and “thieves.” Black women’s organizations were spurred to action, and gathered in Washington D.C. At that conference, leaders like Frances E.W. Harper, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, Harriet Tubman, and Mary Church Terrell formed the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), now the National Association of Colored Women Clubs.
The NACW pursued many goals: education, anti-lynching, elderly care, job preparedness, fighting Jim Crow legislation, and suffrage. Their ideals were best summed up in their motto “Lifting as We Climb”, which represented their holistic approach to aid. They would bring everyone to a higher standard of living along with themselves. As a non-suffrage specific institution, the NACW endorsed women’s suffrage before its white counterpart organizations, in 1912.
With the exclusion of black women from organizations like the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), it was in race-specific groups like NACW where black women found the power to fight for the vote. Exclusion occurred at every level of the mainstream suffrage campaign, from white only conventions, to segregated marching order, to explicit endorsement of racists. White women often only included black women in their efforts when it was convenient to white women. There were black pickets of the white house during the National Women’s Party efforts, but Alice Paul and her collegues were careful to limit and destroy photographic evidence. This purposeful erasure of inclusion when it occurred combined with general exclusion has left significantly less evidence of the black suffragists, leaving historians to rely on the evidence they can gather.
The NACW also supported and was supported by many Ohio black suffragists. Jane Edna Hunter, founder of the Phillis Wheatley Association, held several positions in NACW including Vice President. The Phillis Wheatley Association gave lodging to single African American girls and women who had migrated north for work, and spread across the U.S. to other major cities. The association was home to many activists, including suffragist Lethia Cousins Fleming, who would go on to push the African American female vote following the 19th amendment.