Needs of the Colored Women and Girls

I have been asked to speak to you on the needs of four millions of women and girls. The time allotted for this paper is far too limited for me to give more than a glimpse of their real condition.

In considering the needs of the colored women and girls of the South, you must bear in mind their past condition, present status and future prospects, together with the forces that have contributed to each, before you can know and feel the heart yearnings and struggles of my sisters.

No human lips can tell the story of that dark night that has left its impress upon the habits, customs and life of a whole race of people. The crudest results of that iniquitous system fell heaviest upon the colored woman. From childhood, no matter how favorably situated, she was liable to become the doomed victim of the grossest outrages. There was no assurance that she would not be a constant associate in the field with the coarsest and most ignorant men of both races, or at any moment, at the caprice of the master, be sold. Swayed, body, mind and spirit, by a master class who found it necessary to close every avenue of intelligence in order to accomplish his fiendish purposes, this creature, made in the image of God, was often taught that there was no God of justice for her. Her body, instead of being a fit temple for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, was subject to the foulest demands of sensuality. No wonder they sang,

“Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lord,
Nobody knows but Jesus.”

These slave songs, born of agony, might well be called “The Passion Flowers” of the slave cabin. Thank God that all of my sisters were not thus brutalized, and even to those who were, God was merciful. Deep down underneath the lacerated and bruised heart, rested the “Shekinah of the Lord,” preventing the wholesale transmission of vice. Two hundred and fifty years of such tuition gave her but little chance to develop her womanhood.

Intuitively she knew that there was a living God, and she sought Him in visions, and listened for His voice, and looked forward and persevered for that home not made with hands, and from her heart were wrung these words:

“O Lord, O my Lord, O my good Lord,
Keep me from sinking down.”

And then comforted, she cried out triumphantly—

“Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel,
Then why not every man?”

Many have told me their struggles, and I know of others who even suffered death rather than submit to the outrage of chastity. One poor mother with three beautiful baby girls, driven to despair by realizing their probable doom if allowed to live, sent them back to the God who gave them and then took her own life.

Thus the colored women and girls lived before the war.

How have they fared since Freedom?

Have they had a fair chance in the race of life? No. They have met caste-prejudice, the ghost of slavery, at every step of their journey during these years of freedom. They have been made to feel that they are a separate species of the human family. The phrases “Your people” and “Your place,” do not so much designate their race identity, as the fixed status in the sisterhood of races. This idea, as harmless as it may appear, or as much as it is used, with varied phrases of meaning, according to the attitude of the speaker, has been one of the greatest barriers to the progress of the Negro, especially of the women and girls. It has colored everything they have to do. Their place, like the ebony of their skin, is a dark place. In the home, and in social life, “their place” is confined to colored society, colored schools and colored churches. Be it understood, I am not reflecting upon colored society, but am pointing out the limitations that no other race in this country has to contend with, in its efforts to rise.

The higher the plane of culture the colored women and girls reach, the more sensitive they become, and the more keenly the effects of ostracism are felt. In wages it does not matter how capable she may be, she must not aspire. I have asked several persons, “What is the greatest need of the colored woman and girl?” and many have replied, “To be good servants.” Assuming that this is her highest need, can good servants be had without good wages?

In education, her place is the colored school, if there is one far or near, and if there is no school for colored youth, (as is sometimes the case) the no-school is her place. In religious life, her place is the colored church. No matter how her soul may long for a more intelligent Gospel than perchance surrounds her, she must find it there.

Her place in the work of reform, if she has fallen or desires to reform, is the public street. I could relate many incidents which have come under my personal observation in Washington, (and Washington is far ahead of many places in the South) to illustrate how our fallen sisters have suffered worse than death, because doors have been shut against them. Several cases have been brought to me this year, one since writing this paper, but my sisters, the sad fact is like the advent of our blessed Lord, there is no room in the inn for her.

What is the true place of our women and girls? It is that place which is not circumscribed by the mere accident of birth and race, where she can rise just as high as she has the ability to reach and sustain. My five years’ experience in Europe as a Jubilee Singer gave me a taste of the sweets of true womanhood, unfettered by caste-prejudice and by a low estimate of my position. There my complexion was not a target for insult and ostracism. Our needs are not only those common to other races, but are in a vast measure greater, because of the past and present difficulties. The masses furnish the most difficult problem to solve. How can we rescue them from poverty and illiteracy, and not pauperize them? How can we prevent crime, check immorality and decrease mortality? The answer lies in giving to them better home life, more elevating social surroundings, better educational advantages in school and industries, and a higher type of Christian life and worship.

My first introduction into an intelligent idea of practical Christianity was at Fisk University. There, and at many similar institutions under the A.M.A., may be found the epitome of a Christian home. Such schools furnish potent object lessons; such are the factors of the problem in answer to the question of how to meet the needs of the colored women and girls, who are to preside over the homes of eight millions of people, who had no home twenty-three years ago. Washington, alone, has a population of eighty thousand colored people, and more than forty thousand of these are women and girls.

It is said that the “hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world.” It matters not whether that hand be black or white, but it does matter whether that hand be intelligent or ignorant. They not only need the education of the schools to develop their minds, and industrial training to prepare their hands for the practical duties of life, but Christian education, such as is given in the schools of the Association.

More than three thousand women and thousands of men have gone out under the A.M.A., in school, home and church, for the uplifting, Christianizing and elevating of our people.

Eternity alone will reveal the work that these Christian heroines and heroes have done in the Master’s name. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews would need be extended to give to them their rightful place in the role of achievements of faith. We need not wait for eternity, we now see some of the grand results; their memory is already engraved upon the hearts, and their spirit infused into the life of thousands of educated colored young men and women, who have gone out among their people, carrying educated minds, trained hands and warm hearts, as an outgrowth of that labor which has not been in vain. This magnificent record of Christian endeavor and conquest has largely been made possible by the foresight, energy and fidelity of the many who have been and are at the head of the different departments of the A.M.A.

How can the Association more fully meet these needs? By continuing woman’s work for woman, through their Woman’s Bureau. Through this agency, ladies of the churches can furnish volunteers for the work and the base of supply. While we at the front are in the heat of the battle, you at home, through your missionary societies, young people’s meetings, and Sunday-schools, can aid us with your prayers, your sympathy, your gifts and service. Those in the larger churches can sustain a missionary in the field, and may it be said of all, both large and small, “They have done what they could.” Then we can sing,

“March on, and you shall gain the victory,
March on, and you shall gain the day.”

My sisters, we must first be touched by the Spirit of the Master, and through him touch them. This work cannot be done perfunctorily or professionally.

And now in conclusion allow me to thank you in behalf of the millions whom I represent, for the faithful work and practical sympathy already given, and appeal to you in his name, and through you to the thousands whom you represent, for a continuation of your Christian efforts and support, also for greater supplies and larger gifts to the treasury of the A.M.A., that it may be able to furnish the laborers according to the demands of the growing needs of more than four millions of colored women and girls, who are trying to help themselves. Our lamented President Garfield said to the Jubilee Singers during their visit to Mentor: “Ethiopia is not only stretching out her hand unto God, but God is stretching out his hand unto Ethiopia.” We believe this, and that the time is coming when all races shall sing:

“O, brethren, rise and shine and give God the glory,
For the year of Jubilee.”

The Southern Situation

The position of the South is becoming once more clearly defined. Before the war, it was fully formulated thus: The Negroes are an inferior race, and slavery is their divinely ordained condition. To this was added: The Negro question is purely local, and with it no one outside of the South has any right to interfere. To these axioms agreed the press, the pulpit and the politician. But the war came as an earthquake, with the utter upheaval of these firm foundations.

During the years of reconstruction and political agitation, uncertainty prevailed, but now again the Southern position is becoming settled. It is the old position with a variation. It runs: The Negroes are an inferior race, and must be held as a peasant class in subjection to the superior white race. To this the warning is again added: This is purely a domestic affair, and all outsiders must keep tongues and hands off. This revised version of the old theory is proclaimed by Senator Eustis in his now somewhat famous article in the Forum. More recently it has been re-affirmed in the fervid eloquence of Mr. Grady, of Atlanta, in his address at Dallas, Texas.

This is the same orator (he is an orator) who a few years since electrified the whole country by his speech at the New England dinner, on the “New South.” But the logic of Southern events has driven him down again to the platform of the “Old South.” More recently still, the Governor of South Carolina, in his message to the Legislature, has taken the same position.

These three gentlemen, representing the press and the politician, are sustained by the pulpit in the South. For example, the Presbyterian church South repels all overtures for re-union with the Presbyterian church North, because such a re-union would involve a practical recognition of the equal manhood of the inferior race. The Presbyterian church South does not stand alone on this platform. Other denominations are arrayed side by side with it, and we fear that even the Congregationalists in the South, with two Conferences in the same State, one white and the other black, are in danger of being numbered with them.

This is the Southern position. It portends the renewal of the old antagonism. It repels the North, denying its right to interfere, and thus draws again the sectional line; and above all, it sets up sharply the antagonism of races, consigning the Negro permanently to an inferior place. This implies, of course, that if the Negro will not quietly accept this place, he must be compelled to do so by force of arms, and in this struggle the North is notified that it has no right to interfere. We can only express our amazement at this theory! With the memory of the war so fresh, when the North broke over all warnings against interference, and stepped in to aid the helpless slave, can the South now hope to make these warnings any more efficacious? Can it hope that the North will acquiesce in a quasi slavery, that sets aside substantially all that it gained and established by the long war?

And if the struggle comes again, what hope of success can the South cherish? If in the last national struggle, it was overpowered when the slave, as Mr. Grady acknowledges, guarded the house while his master fought for his perpetual enslavement, what can it do when the Negroes have tasted freedom for a quarter of a century, and now number nearly as many as the whites in the South? It is for the white people of the South to say whether that struggle shall come. The North does not desire it, the Negro does not desire it, and we sincerely believe that a large share of the people of the South do not want it. Rev. Dr. Haygood, the efficient agent of the Slater Fund, in a recent article in The Independent, in reply to Senator Eustis, voices, as we hope, the sentiments of thoughtful and influential Southerners. But it remains to be seen whether these wise counselors will be heard. Such voices were uttered before the war, but they were drowned in the noise of sectional hatred and the imperious demands of slavery. God grant that the sad lesson of the past may be heeded.

In the meantime, the A.M.A. will continue its efforts at what it believes to be the true solution of the Southern problem—the Christian, educational and industrial advancement of the colored people. With the help of the great benefaction of Mr. Hand, whose money was made in the South, and is now consecrated to the South, we shall go forward with greater zeal and encouragement. We are not partisans; we are not sectionalists. We are working for the good of both whites and blacks, and for the peace and prosperity of our common country.

The election of Benjamin Harrison as President of the United States, and the restoration of the Republican party to power, awakens special attention to the probable attitude of both towards the great Southern problem. We have no opinion to express on the subject, and we have no interest in it as a mere party question, but only as it may lead to the sober and earnest investigation of that transcendentally important problem which requires the unbiased and honest consideration of the patriot, the statesman and the Christian.

The Roman Catholics and the Freedmen

Soon after the war the Roman Catholics seemed to have made a strong effort to win the Freedmen to their faith, and many Protestants felt a good degree of apprehension that the splendors of the ceremonial and the absence of race distinction might captivate the Negro. But the effort was unsuccessful and appeared for a time to have been abandoned. It has often been said, however, that the Church of Rome never surrenders an undertaking; it may delay and wait for more auspicious times, but in the end it perseveres. There are some indications of the renewal of the zeal of the Papacy for the Negro. The article in another part of the magazine, entitled “The Colored Catholic Congress,” is an evidence.

One thing is certain. The Roman Catholic Church deserves praise for its disregard of the color-line. The rich and the poor, the white and the black, bow at the same altar, and one of the highest dignitaries of the church is not ashamed to stand side by side with the black man on a great public occasion. Protestants at the North and the South must not allow the Romanists to surpass them in this Christ-like position.


Various. The American Missionary, Vol. 43, No. 8, August, 1889.

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