Profiles in Africana Religion – Part 29: African Women’s Club Movement, A Global Effort of Black Women
The Black Women’s Club Movement of the United States was a powerful effort on the part of the first generation of free Black women in America who organized themselves into self-help organizations meant to address the ills and pitfalls of freedom in America. This movement brought together Black women from all walks of life: the formerly enslaved, first generation free-born, entrepreneurs, teachers and spiritual leaders. Furthermore, this movement paved the way for a number of groups and organizations which were extremely impactful across the oceans of space and time; meaning, the impact of the Black Women’s Club Movement had far reaching implications for black women in the Caribbean, the continent of Africa and throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. This essay will review and discuss the impact of the Black Women’s Club Movement across space and time in order to demonstrate the far-reaching implications of Black women’s involvement in the progression of African people throughout the world.
The organization of Black women self-help groups dates back to the 18th century with the development of the Female Benevolent Society of St. Thomas. This group was founded in 1793 in Philadelphia, a city well known for sustaining an African population that understood the necessity as well as rigors of freedom. It was relatively common for African Americans to organize themselves in the North into self-help groups in order to battle the racism and discrimination as well as to bring attention to the traumas of enslavement. In addition, most self-help organizations were centered in the North because any type of collective movement in the South was seen as a threat to the slavocracy and mercilessly struck down. African Americans in the North had this to their advantage, but that is all they had.
During the antebellum period of the 19th century, in 1818, an African American religious self-help group was organized in Massachusetts called the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society. It was in many ways the first of its kind, but by no means the last. Throughout the 19th century, many organizations popped up in throughout the North with similar eyes set on freeing black people from ignorance, immorality as well as injustice and servitude. However, the major push for these organizations and movements came between 1880 and 1920. During this time, many prominent African American women were deeply involved in founding, organizing and developing movements that would shape the coming century of civil discourse. Moreover, the Black Women’s Club Movement was represented in a number of fashions. Meaning, there were civic organizations, political and economic movements, religious and cultural groups, and collegiate as well as esoteric guilds. The diversity of these organizations was made clear in their outlook and approach. That is to say, religious organizations centered on piety and devotion to God, while civic movements were centered on securing human rights for African Americans. Whatever the specific outlook of a particular group’s approach, there was one goal: uplifting the race.
Now despite this commonality, there has always been the accusation the powerful people within these organizations see themselves as better than those on the outside. That is, prosperity begets privilege, even for those on the bottom rung of society. Moreover, ideas such as W.E.B. DuBois’ philosophy of the “talented tenth”, seemed to promote a “trickle-down” posture in the Black community. The idea behind this philosophy is simple and not completely without merit, but flawed nonetheless. To explain, DuBois’ idea (shared by many in the Black Women’s Club Movement) argues that the top ten percent of the African American population, that is the richest, most educated and most successful individuals and/or families, should pave the way for the rest of the race by opening doors and creating opportunities. The problem with this “trickle-down” approach is that it has the potential to become nepotistic and rigid, where the privileged ten percent gain and maintain a sense of power over the rest and do very little to help those on the bottom to reach a more privileged position.
Along with the problem of elitism, there has always been the issue of anti-radicalism that centers around the talented-tenth. That is to say, many of the elites work with the idea that the people should maneuver within the established means of progress and not “rock the boat”, so to say. Because of this, some thinkers of the early 20th century, such as Marcus Garvey, were ostracized and labeled problematic deviants, rather than have their ideas, philosophies and strategies taken seriously. By extension, this also, means that many radical women were silenced as well. This is not to say, that good wasn’t done or that women did not have a voice, because through the Club Movement they made their own voice. To support, Nina Mjagkji author of Organizing Black America argues: “In addition to their work in the lodges, African American women also found an outlet for community activism in the women’s club movement, especially during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Between 1880 and 1920, Indianapolis’s black club women created more than five hundred clubs that addressed a wide range of social welfare issues and laid the foundation for political activism.” This passage uses Indianapolis as an example, however this is just one urban example. The work of the Black Women’s Club Movement was relatively wide-spread and extremely impactful across both space and time.
The critical role of Black women in America and throughout the world did not by any means begin with the Club Movement, however, this point in history accentuated the valor, courage and intelligence that Black Women have brought to the freedom struggle. Likewise, the role of religion has been critically important, but without the pillars (Black Women) of those communities all institutions, religious or otherwise are nothing. What the Black Women’s Club Movement did, was set the tone for activism for the 20th century and beyond. Today the daughters, grand-daughters and great grand-daughters of the Black Women’s Club Era move and shake with a certain ferocity that is to be marveled at. For instance, in St. Louis and Baltimore Black women lead the way as communities began to rise up against police brutality. As well Black Women have been at the forefront of both the #BlackLivesMatter and #HandsUpDontShoot hashtags which shed light on the brutality being suffered by African Americans in varying communities throughout the country. The Black Women’s Club Movement paved the way for the dynamic movements of our present day, as well the philosophies and strategies of that era continue to guide us.
 Robert L. Harris. "Early Black Benevolent Societies, 1780-1830." The Massachusetts Review 20, no. 3 (1979): 605. www.jstor.org/stable/25088988. See. AME Church, Richard Allen and Absolom Jones.
 Anne Firor Scott. "Most Invisible of All: Black Women's Voluntary Associations". The Journal of Southern History. 56 (1): 6.
 Nina Mjagki. Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations. (Routledge, 2003), 235. “Building coalitions across class and gender lines, black club women founded organizations such as the Norwood Citizens League (1906), which sought “to better conditions morally in the suburbs,” and the Woman’s Civic Club (1907), which emerged from the Idle Hands Needle Club, a late-nineteenth-century black women’s philanthropic association whose purpose was to provide winter fuel, food, and clothes for the city’s poor neighborhoods.”
 Leon Litwack and August Meier. Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. (University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago, 1991). Throughout this text, the Black Women’s Club Movement is referenced many times throughout the surveyed discourse on Harriet Tubman and Mary Church Terrell. Dorothy Sterling. We are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. (Revised ed.). (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997).
 Nina Mjagki. Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations. (Routledge, 2003), 235. Examples: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (some chapters started out as women’s group), the Order of Eastern Star, as well as a number of collegiate sororities such as Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta.
 Some may say, this is especially the case for those on the bottom, i.e., crabs in a barrel.
 William Edward Burghardt DuBois. The Talented Tenth. New York, NY: James Pott and Company, 1903.
 Joy James. Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black leaders and American intellectuals. (Routledge, 2014).
 Healy-Clancy, Meghan. "The Daughters of Africa and Transatlantic Racial Kinship: Cecilia Lilian Tshabalala and the Women's Club Movement, 1912-1943." Amerikastudien/American Studies (2014): 481-499.
 Nina Mjagkji. Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations. (Routledge, 2003), 235.