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Black Club Women and the Creation of the National Asscoation of Colored Women* Stephanie J. Shaw Much of what we know about black dub women has been explained in the context of the creation of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).1 This scholarship often links black dub women's activities to the most immediate and most obvious stimuli—the rising tide of Jim Crowism, the increase in lynching and other acts of mob violence, the vile verbal and literary attacks on the character of black women, and the general deterioration of race relations throughout the nation.2 Historian Rayford Logan referred to these decades at the end of the nineteenth century as "the Nadir" in the history of American race relations.3 dub women themselves spoke out and wrote enough to suggest that those problems were important catalysts for their activism. Late-nineteenth -century journalist, community activist, and dub leader Ida B. Wells Barnett launched her antilynching crusade not simply after the brutal killing of her good friend, Thomas Moss, but also after her thorough investigation of lynching inddents conduded that the recent increase in lynching was carefully and deliberately orchestrated in response to black economic gains and political potential. Mary Church Terrell added the abuse of vagrancy laws, the convict lease system, and peonage to the increasing threats to black life and security. Prominent turn-of-the-century Virginia club woman Janie Porter Barrett summarized the feelings of sympathetic contemporary observers (and recent scholars) when she wrote: "No one can deny that the Negro race is going through the most trying period of its history. Truly these are days when we are Iseing tried as by fire/ "4 Considering the evidence that black club women left, it is not difficult to see why current-day scholars interpret the organization of the NACW as a response to these bad conditions. But such a condusion ignores considerable evidence that reveals the obvious flaw in the interpretation. According to historian Willie Mae Coleman, the Colored Women's League, formed in Washington, D. C, in 1892, was a coalition of 113 organizations. The more nationally oriented National Federation of Afro-American © 1991 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Fall)___________________ *An earlier version of this article was presented at the August 1988 meeting of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association in San Francisco. Robin D.G. Kelley, Gary W. Reichard, and William Toll provided useful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. And Elsa Barkley Brown was extremely helpful in the preparation of the original conference paper and in the revisions. 1991 Stephanie J. Shaw 11 Women, formed in 1895, represented the combination of 85 organizations.5 When these two federations combined in 1896 to form the NACW, the impetus and inclination for black women to form a collective was more than a few years old. In fact, it predated the so-called nadir of AfricanAmerican history by generations. The purpose of this artide is to formulate a new interpretation of the creation of the national black women's dub coalition of the 1890s—one that points to the internal traditions of the African-American community rather than activities in the white community. Numerous factors suggest the need for the alternative view. First, the history of "voluntary assodations" among African-Americans indicates an historical legacy of collective consdousness and mutual assodations. Second, individual histories of diverse club women reveal early lessons in radal consriousness and community commitment. And third, the work of organized black women before the formation of the NACW was no different from the activities of dub women after the creation of the NACW. Altogether, the founding of the NACW did not mark the beginning of the important organized work of black women against racism, sexism, and their effects, as earlier studies imply. Instead, the creation of the national organization represents another step in an internal historical process of encouraging and supporting self-determination , self-improvement, and community development. At least as early as the advent of American slavery, African-Americans consistently demonstrated inclinations toward community consdousness and collective activity. Historians of the antebellum South, slavery, and slave culture inform us that even...


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