The exterior of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, D.C.
April 10, 2019

4 African American Women's Clubs That Helped Write History

“When the history of the nineteenth century comes to be written, women will appear as organizers, and leaders of great organized movements among their own sex for the first time in the history of the world,” wrote journalist Jane Cunningham Croly in her circa-1898 book The History of the Women’s Club Movement in America. Though Croly’s words were referring to the white women’s clubs enjoying rapid expansion at the time, the emerging African American women’s club movement would offer further testament to their truth.

Throughout the 1890s, African American bellwether Ida B. Wells journeyed around the United States documenting and speaking out against lynching. In many of the towns she visited, she helped establish the first African American women’s clubs. Taking her cue, women everywhere began creating local clubs of their own, transforming a fledgling idea into a nationwide movement. Like other women’s clubs, these organizations sought to secure women’s suffrage and to empower women in their communities. However, combating racism was also a key issue for many, given the prevalence of Jim Crow laws at the time. Many clubs joined together in 1896 to create the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC), the oldest secular African American organization still in existence.

Not every club fulfilled precisely the same purpose. Some, like Los Angeles’ Wilfandel Club featured in the Winter 2019 issue of Preservation magazine, provided a glamorous space for female black community members to gather and celebrate. Others chose to champion specific issues, such as improving methods of waste disposal. Here are four more African American women’s clubs that helped write the history books.

Phyllis Wheatley YWCA—Washington, D.C. (pictured above)

The oldest YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) building in the nation’s capital sits just a few blocks south of Howard University, whose Founders Library is a National Treasure of the National Trust. Washington’s chapter of the YWCA was organized in 1905 by several African American women who shared membership in a booklover’s club. They held their first meetings in the old Miner Institution Building before their present Colonial Revival-style headquarters could be constructed in 1920, financed in part with funds appropriated by the national YWCA’s War Work Council.

Since then, the chapter has been a powerful, positive force in the city despite receiving much less financial support from its parent organization in its earliest years than white YWCAs. Its members provided shelter and food for African American women newly arrived in Washington from the South seeking employment. In 1923, it protested a U.S. Senate-approved statue that would have glorified the “Mammy” caricature of enslaved African Americans, and helped prevent its construction. Later, it functioned as a recreational and entertainment space during World War II for African American soldiers barred from entering United Service Organizations locations.

Fanny Jackson Coppin Club—Oakland, California

Named in honor of the first African American woman to become a school principal, the Fanny Jackson Coppin Club was founded in 1899 by members of the Beth Eden Baptist Church. Its priority was to provide African American travelers who could not stay at segregated hotels welcoming places to spend a night (a kindred spirit with Victor Hugo Green, author of the Negro Motorist Green Book which included 60 YWCA's). But in keeping with its motto—“Not failure, but low aim is the crime”—and its namesake’s impact as an educator, the club introduced services that benefitted more members of the community, such as tutoring for students and musical performances featuring artists like world-renowned tenor Roland Hayes.

The exterior of the Beth Eden Baptist Church.

photo by: Swedg/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Beth Eden Baptist Church, the oldest African American religious establishment in Oakland, was established in 1889.

As author and academic historian Shirley Ann Wilson Moore writes, the club was “part of the ongoing African American struggle to address an array of social and economic community needs and to challenge the barriers of segregation and sexism.” It helped spur the development of African American women’s clubs across California in the ensuing years, and remains an influential local organization today.

The leaders of the Detroit Study Club.

photo by: Detroit Study Club

The leaders of the Detroit Study Club. Clockwise from top left: president Deborah Bledsoe Ford, Linda Williams-Bowie, Cynthia Long, and Terees Western.

The Detroit Study Club's display case.

photo by: Detroit Study Club

The Detroit Study Club's display case at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library.

Detroit Study Club—Detroit

The Detroit Study Club began modestly in 1898, when six learned African American women gathered at the home of music teacher Gabrielle Pelham to read works by British poet Robert Browning and further educate themselves on cultural and social issues of the time. Soon the scope of the club’s meetings expanded, and not just in terms of its reading list.

Together, the members of the Detroit Study Club created an organization motivated by a desire for self-betterment and to improve their community. They engaged nationally prominent speakers and brought some of them to Detroit to share their thoughts on how African American interests could best be advanced. This included Booker T. Washington, perhaps the country’s most significant African American leader at the time, whose speaking engagement drew 22 other women’s organizations to attend. Detroit Study Club members also helped fund the educations of underprivileged youth, created the Phyllis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Ladies (unrelated to the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA), and worked to preserve Frederick Douglass’ home and estate—now the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. Their dedication to community welfare continues today, but they still make time for an annual discussion of Browning that honors their roots.

While the club never had a central location, instead gathering in various members’ homes and hotels for larger events, the main Detroit Public Library building is the closest thing it has to one. The library’s Burton Historical Collection contains its archives from 1898 until today, and a public display case puts the club’s illustrious past in the spotlight.

The Grand Old Lady—Washington, D.C.

As the first permanent headquarters of the NACWC, the five-story “Grand Old Lady” is both a guardian of the past and a steward of the future for a storied organization. It was constructed in 1910 and served the Knights of Columbus before the NACWC’s purchase in 1954. Today it houses records, artifacts, and more that document the NACWC’s history since its establishment in 1896, while also maintaining its use as administrative offices and meeting spaces.

However, the building entrusted with preserving the NACWC’s legacy would need preserving of its own. Few repairs had been made since the early 1990s, particularly in the basement. The threat of flooding forced them to relocate its invaluable records to the fifth floor, and the second-floor HVAC systems were in dire need of updating.

The NACWC received a $50,000 planning grant from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, allowing them to determine which problems needed the most urgent attention. Renovation work began in September of 2018. Once complete, it will enable the organization to continue “lifting as they climb.”

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Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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