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// Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood": African-American Women's Clubs in Chicago, 1890 to 1920 Anne Meis Knupfer He [the Negro aristrocrat] is very much needed and has good services to perform. The only hope is that he will not imitate the codfish variety so much in evidence on the other side of the color line. ... This is not the kind we are developing in Chicago.1 As a member of Chicago's African-American elite, Fannie Barrier Williams exhorted other African Americans of aristocratic standing to observe proper demeanor and deportment. Williams was not alone in prescribing such protocol. Julius Avendorph likewise recommended the strict observance of social class divisions through decorum: "Society must stand for something and its cardinal principle ought to be class distinction ."2 Acceptance into the African-American "Elite 400" in Chicago was certainly no small consideration, although even within this assemblage conflicts existed between the old elite and the emerging middle dass. On one occasion, Mrs. George Hall, a middle-class member, received a chilling lessonn at a reception when Williams exited upon her entry. Reportedly, Mrs. Halls' attire and behavior were considered too "loud" and, thus, unworthy of approval.3 Despite such evidence in the 1890s of social class demarcations in Chicago, middle-dass and elite African-American women not only established clubs and sodeties but worked collectively in uplifting those less fortunate. By 1920, there were well over 160 women's clubs in Chicago's African-American communities, which "had good services to perform." Accordingly, many created kindergartens, day nurseries, settlements, reading rooms, employment agencies, homes for the elderly, orphanages, recreational facilities, debate clubs, and lyceums. Some clubs engaged in the social pastimes such as whist tournaments, masquerades, balls, and high teas. However, most clubs partidpated in both sodal uplift activities and socializing. For example, it was not unusual to deliberate on a charity case over a six-course dinner or while listening to a classical recital on the Victrola, nor was it uncommon for women to be attired in evening gowns, © 1995 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 7 No. 3 (Fall) 1995 ANNE MEIS KNUPFER 59 reputed to be as costly as $500, at charity balls to raise money for homes for working girls and women. Such activities were neither contradictory nor paradoxical but rather portrayed the complexity of African-American club women's lives. In fact, the very motto of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACW), "lifting as we climb," attested to the sodal class differences between club women and their benefidaries. As a matter of course, the club women's tenets of respectability and of self-cultivation were reinforced through literary and musical study theatrical productions, and formal addresses on critical "race" issues. Simultaneously, they raised monies for settlements, kindergartens, and group homes through a multitude of benefits, such as bazaars, picnics, whist contests, costume parties, raffles, debate contests, and musicales. Thus, dub adivities were not simply intellectually and socially enhancing, for social uplift was an expected part of most club activities. These dual roles were commended by most club women, including Williams, who despite her insistence on sodal distinctions, envisioned the women's clubs as "well purposed" in their "struggle ... against the whole brood of sodal miseries born out of the stress and pain of a hated past."4 To more fully understand this dual emphases on "social uplift" and sodal dass, two conceptual frameworks are conjoined. The first, a Weberian framework of sodal class stratification, examines social class positioning not simply in economic terms but, rather, in terms of status, prestige, organizational affiliation, and membership. Historically, the AfricanAmerican elite and middle class were defined less by employment and capital than by ancestry, educational attainment, life style, and occasionally , color.5 In the Chicago African American communities, membership in particular women's clubs, churches, and organizations were emblematic of status and prestige. Furthermore, the appreciation of classical music, the study of Shakespeare, and the winning of whist prizes were markers not only of educational attainment but conspicuous consumption and comparative wealth as well: The second framework focuses on dub practices and activities which reflected radal solidarity and community. African-American women...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 58-76
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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