Lillian Horace and the Respectable Black Woman: Black Women’s Activism in Combating Jim Crow
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Lillian Horace and the Respectable Black Woman Black Women’s Activism in Combating Jim Crow Nikki Brown The life and work of Lillian Horace makes a compelling case for reexamining the notion of respectability in African American women’s history and in civil rights history. In contemporary popular culture, respectability has been reduced to a synonym for having a good reputation. However, respectability, in the minds of middle-­ class African American women prior to World War II, presented the clearest path to circumventing and eventually overcoming institutionalized racism. Middle-­ class African American women considered good training, as expressed in good education, good manners, and lofty ambitions , to be part and parcel of empowerment. The community is Horace and members of Zeta Phi Beta 244 Nikki Brown strengthened when the individual is empowered, and the strength of African American communities relied heavily on the empowerment of their individual citizens. If we think of respectability as a step on the path to political empowerment or as a form of community activism, then respectability is much more complex than it has been perceived as being. How did Lillian Horace and other middle-­ class African American women teachers incorporate respectability into their activism for black political empowerment? Black Menace and Black Respectability in 1900 Black respectability is an idea best understood within the context of Jim Crow and the widespread fear of the black menace. The provocative and incendiary stereotypes of the promiscuous black woman, the lazy black woman, the thieving black woman, the foul-­ mouthed black woman, and the criminal black woman were commonly represented in newspapers, magazines, radio, and cinema at the turn of the twentieth century. Of course, these stereotypes did not appear out of nowhere; manufactured by a racist culture, they had long been used to pigeonhole and police black women. A single letter written in 1895 by John Jacks, a Missouri journalist claiming that African American women were “prostitutes, liars, and thieves” immediately led to at least two national conventions of African American women keen on making a rebuttal.1 Scholars such as Darlene Clark Hine, Paula Giddings, and Deborah Gray White have explored how the insult engendered one of the most proactive and community-­ oriented social movements in the twentieth century, the African American women’s club movement. Within this movement, the members worked toward repealing the predominant stereotype of black women as menaces.The club movement was devoted to presenting African American women instead as respectable and committed to instructing future generations on the value of respectability. It is important to note that by 1900, the South had thrown itself fully into the arms of Jim Crow.The successful efforts led by southern states to deny African American men the right to vote and the right to engage in politics or hold political office are well documented.2 The last thirty years of African American historical literature have also concentrated on the system of racial etiquette that was emerging in the South. The institutionalization of white supremacy in the South engendered a 245 Lillian Horace and the Respectable Black Woman structure of widespread black inequality and inferiority. We have come to understand that this period witnessed the birth of stereotypical racist depictions of African Americans with grossly exaggerated features, and these depictions were supposed to show black people as they really were.The black menace was, and remains, a powerful social construct, meant to inspire fearand hostilityamong whites. It was one of the most useful tools in the arsenal of Jim Crow. It struck at the heart of racist fear of black power—fear for the safety of white women and the security of white men’s power and privilege, and fear of the development of black political voices and black economic self-­ sufficiency. The image of the black menace deeply troubled Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, both of whom devoted parts of their political philosophies to dispelling claims that black people, men and women, were predisposed to violence. What did respectability mean from 1900 to 1940 for women like Lillian Horace? It revolved around morality, education, and the home. African American women were the moral center of the home. They were the family’s primarycaretakers.Their status as respectablewomen Horace and club women 246 Nikki Brown was reflected in their conservative appearance—they were modest in dress and personality. Furthermore, they saw themselves as having a responsibility to uplift their lower-­ class sisters. They were part of the Talented Tenth, or, as...


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