Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Lifting As We Climb Revisited: The Clubwomen of the Kansas State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs

On June 14, 1916, Mrs. Charles W. French of Newton, Kansas, rose from her seat during the 16th Annual Session of the Kansas State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in Parsons, Kansas, to denounce the Jim Crow laws in the host city.  Mrs. French stated that “[the women], regardless of color be admitted to theatres, and that some step be taken to investigate the reason they could not attend the five and 10 cent theatres.”  The women, who had descended on the small southeastern city of Parsons from all over the state, were repeatedly turned away from local theaters during their time in the town. 

After some discussion, which one can only imagine was boisterous, the women approved a motion to appoint a committee to contact the county attorney.  Henrietta Harper served as president of the State Federation at that time, and was an undeniable force in the struggle for racial justice in a state with a storied history of “Free”-dom.  She selected the most steadfast and unwavering women to serve on the exploratory committee.  The women penned a critical reprimand citing the Kansas laws of 1874, stating that owners of “places of amusement” cannot refuse admittance to people based on race.

The committee’s efforts were effective, as the city attorney quickly responded, assuring them that the matter would immediately be investigated and resolved. In that moment, the women of the State Federation established their position as a collective body challenging the degradation, segregation, and disenfranchisement of black people.   In the midst of conference sessions concerning the importance of child-rearing and home cleanliness, the group of determined club women worked to shut down the forces of white supremacy in the state.

Even in spite of growing discrimination, racial violence, out migration, and limited resources, these women sought to conquer the challenges that the black community had to overcome in order to build their Kansas communities.    Thus even in the uncertainty of life in Kansas in the early twentieth century, women labored to provide a stable home.  For their moment in the struggle, Black Kansas women became Race women.   

Mrs. Anna Hodge of the Kansas State
Federation of Colored Women's Clubs

The founding of the State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1900 created a communal space for Kansas club women to assert their emerging middle class status, organize their growing population, and further define their purpose.  Although not widely chronicled, Black Kansas women actively participated in clubs in their own communities. Kansas clubwomen established organizations in the central and western counties and cities such as Salina, Great Bend, and Newton, to the southeast cities of Parsons, Pittsburgh and Coffeeville, to the northeastern communities in Topeka, Kansas City, Lawrence, and Leavenworth.

The State Federation supported the activities of Kansas club women, which included groups organized around the arts and humanities, and domestic science.  However, these women also found themselves battling legislators, school boards and church authorities.  African Americans understood the importance of stimulating the economics of the state, often purchasing advertisements touting the benefits of purchasing from local businesses and farms. 

Mrs. Mayme Watkins of the Kansas State
Federation of Colored Women's Clubs

Kansas women experienced a sense of pride, noted by the establishment of the John Brown Club, an organization which sole purpose was to remember its namesake’s life and work.  These women composed their state and regional songs with references to sunflowers, the Kansas River, wheat, and rolling plains. 

Black women were not only striving to create more stable present, they were preparing to finally enjoy and participate in the life they dreamed of when their ears first heard the phrases, “Ho! To Kansas,” and Free State country.  The women were seeding this soil, fertilized with the blood of war and stirred by the feet of black migrants, to grow communities.

By Doretha K. Williams, Ph.D.

Dr. Williams is the Project Director of the D.C. Africana Archives Project at the George Washington University in the Africana Studies Program. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Kansas American Studies Program in 2011. Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, she is currently working on the manuscript for Kansas Grows the Best Wheat and the Best Race Women: Black Women in Kansas, 1900-1925.

Photos courtesy of the Afro-American Club Women's Project records, 1900-1986, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

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