A Club of Young Black Women Who Made Good in the Early 20th Century
They were determined to win despite the racist obstacles they faced
I have always been fascinated by this photograph. It shows a group of young ladies who banded together to help one another make something extraordinary of their lives at a time when doing so was a daunting task for American Americans. But with all the difficult obstacles they knew would be unjustly thrown in their way, they still seem, to my eye, to be determined, serene, and confident as they look to the future. I wish I could have known them.
I did, in fact, want to know more about them, so I tried to track down as much information as I could find about who they were and what happened to them. I wasn’t able to uncover anything about them as individuals, but the background of this photograph tells its own story.
The world these young women faced
The photograph was published in 1916 in a book by Dr. Charles Victor Roman. As the original caption in the book notes, the picture was then eight years old. That means it would have been taken in 1908.
The early years of the twentieth century were a time when black Americans were being subjected to the worst kinds of prejudice, discrimination, oppression, and even physical violence. Jim Crow segregation was spreading not just through the South, but in many parts of the nation. Lynching was well on its way to being the weapon of choice among racists determined to keep black people in their place.
And that “place” still held a firm grip on the majority of African Americans during the early years of the century. As indicated by the census of 1900, 90% of black families were concentrated in the states of the former Confederacy. Three-quarters of them lived in rural areas, with many eking out a living as tenant farmers. In the year before the census, most black children had not attended school at all. The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision reaffirming “separate but equal” segregation had conferred upon Jim Crow discrimination the legal imprimatur of declared constitutionality.
Yet, this was also a time of great hope. Knowing the irrationality of the racial attitudes that limited African Americans to the fringes of the economic, social, and political life of the country, many middle class black people, such as these young women, believed that if they could show the rest of the country that African Americans were just like anyone else, with the same dreams, aspirations, and innate abilities as the rest of the country, attitudes would change.
One man who expressed that hope most insistently was Dr. Charles Victor Roman.
Dr. Roman’s mission
Charles Victor Roman (1864–1934) was a prominent physician who taught at Meharry Medical College, Fisk University, and Tennessee State University, all institutions dedicated to higher education for African Americans. Roman was a prolific writer and lecturer who strove to make the case, through his many books and public addresses, that African Americans were a capable people who could achieve great things if just given the chance.
That’s why Dr. Roman included the social club photo in his book, which was entitled American Civilization and the Negro; the Afro-American in Relation to National Progress. He wanted to present to the American public a graphic image of upstanding and upwardly striving young black people whom he hoped would be seen as representative of the race as a whole. That focus is made clear by the paragraph that immediately follows the picture in the book:
The scientific data submitted in the preceding chapter and other parts of this work establish by incontrovertible evidence the Negro’s innate capability to meet the conditions of a favorable environment. America is such an environment. It is proper, then, to submit some further evidence that the Negro is manifesting his capabilities by responding to this environment.
Looking back from the vantage point of the 21st century, and knowing the decades of struggle for equal rights and equal treatment that lay ahead at the time this photo was taken in 1908, I have tremendous admiration for Dr. Roman and for the young ladies he held up as role models for both African Americans and whites to see. I grew up in the segregated South of the 1950s and 60s, so I have some appreciation for what these young people faced. How easy it would have been to give up in despair when attitudes in the wider society seemed to be hardening rather than changing for the better.
They fought the good fight!
But they didn’t give up. They, and their spiritual descendants, fought the good fight, and kept on fighting when disrespect and discrimination toward African Americans accelerated in the years that followed.
They kept fighting when President Woodrow Wilson imposed segregation on the federal government workforce starting in 1913. They continued the fight in 1914 when every Southern state, and many Northern ones, adopted pervasive Jim Crow laws. And they fought on in 1915 when D. W. Griffith’s racist epic film, The Birth of a Nation, portrayed blacks as subhuman and the KKK as heroic defenders of the American way of life. This photo, and the 1916 book in which it appeared, made their own unique contribution to that fight.
I am reminded, when I look at these young women who seemed so determined to overcome the odds against them, that the fight continues today, even after an African American has twice been elected President of the United States.
Maybe that’s why I admire the members of that “social club of young women who made good” so much. If they could aspire to great things in spite of the humiliations so widely inflicted on African Americans in 1908 and beyond, how can I allow myself to be discouraged by the relative few in our country who still cling to the same old prejudices today.
How Confederates Kidnapped and Enslaved Blacks at Gettysburg
Robert E. Lee’s army terrorized black Pennsylvanians before the Battle of Gettysburg