February is Black History Month. In celebration, today’s post highlights two Black Christian educators, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Mary Church Terrell. These two women advocated for the social welfare of African American children as leaders in the Black Women’s Club movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the 19th century, emancipation, reconstruction, and urbanization forever changed the lives of Black Americans. It was a time of upheaval and social hostility. Both those who were free before the end of slavery and those recently freed found themselves oppressed by the majority culture. Jim Crowe laws and religious ideologies like the curse of Ham segregated and limited opportunities for Black Americans. They responded by creating institutions that were parallel to those from which the White majority had excluded them—independent churches, schools, banks, insurance companies, burial societies, and clubs for social reform.
Scarcity of work and growing illegitimacy during urbanization influenced the African-American family in ways that undercut the influence of fathers and established de facto matriarchal structures. As a result, African American women founded many of the most important social reform clubs.
These women believed that children are gifts to the community (not simply to a single family) who represent the community’s theological hope for the future. They were rightly convinced that if Biblical morality, a Biblical theology of justice, and the Bible’s story of liberation and reconciliation were to be passed down to the next generation, literacy and basic education were the necessary foundation.
Practically, this meant that the Black Women’s Clubs advocated for education of the community’s youngest members. They formed many kindergartens across the South—often in association with black colleges such as Hampton in Virginia and Tuskeegee in Alabama. Mrs. A. H Hunton was chair of the executive board of the Southern Federation of clubs in 1905. She wrote this about the kindergartens:
To those who believe that everything that contributes to the culture of right thought contributes also to the culture of right character, the kindergarten must hold a deep and active interest, since it is the most beautiful system of education extant for the training of those tender little human plants we call children in all of their relations to nature, man, and God... It is in meeting this special need that our women have united their earnest efforts, for they know the value of this phase of education as a redeeming force in the world.
In was in this context that Ruffin and Terrell worked as advocates as well:
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842-1895)
Ruffin was born in Boston, MA. Her father was a successful clothier and founder of the Boston Zion Church. She was educated in public schools around Boston and in New York. As an activist, Ruffin was a strong supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. Later in life, Ruffin started the Women’s Era, the country’s first newspaper published by and for African-American women. She served as the editor and publisher from 1890 to 1897. She was also a pioneer of Black Women’s Clubs including the New Era Club in Boston (1894) and the National Federation of Afro-American Women (1895). In a speech about children’s education to The First National Conference of Colored Women in America in 1895, she said simply “We need to talk…”
We need to talk over those things that are of especial interest to us as colored women—the training of our children, openings for our boys and girls, how they can be prepared for occupations and occupations may be found or opened for them, what we especially can do in the moral education and physical development, the home training necessary to give our children in order to prepare them to meet the peculiar conditions in which they shall find themselves, how to make the most of our own, to some extent, limited opportunities.
Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)
Terrell was born in Memphis, TN, in the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. She did not know slavery herself, but both of her parents had been slaves. Later in life, she spoke with feeling and anger about the impact of slavery on the lives of mothers and children. Because her parents wanted the best education for their daughter, she was sent to Ohio to attend Charles Finney’s Oberlin School. She graduated from both high school and college there. After college, she traveled abroad to continue her education and later began an active career as a public lecturer. She served three terms as president of the National Association of Colored Women. What birthed in Terrell was a fierce conviction that education is the foundation for reconciliation:
Through the children of today, we must build the foundation of the next generation upon such a rock of integrity, orality, and strength, both of body and mind, that the floods of prescription, prejudice, and persecution may descend upon it in torrents, and yet it will not be moved. We hear a great deal about the race problem, and how to solve it. This theory, that and the other, may be advanced, but the real solution of the race problem, both so far as we who are oppressed and those who oppress us are concerned, lies in the children.
African-American Christians needed social advocates like these women to first lay a foundation. Like brave Deborah in the time of the Judges, these reformers of the Black Women’s Clubs stood in the gap for children in a time of tremendous family upheaval. Their work for literacy and general education provided a necessary foundation for local contexts where the full gospel message is now proclaimed. Their lives should be truly celebrated.
“African American Children, ‘The Hope of the Race’: Mary Church Terrell, the Social Gospel, and the Work of the Black Women’s Club Movement” by Marcia Y. Riggs in The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.
“Family Ministry: Discipleship and Family Ministry in African American History,” and interview with Kevin Jones, Kevin Smith, and Timothy Paul Jones. Accessed at http://www.timothypauljones.com/leadership-discipleship-and-family-ministry-in-african-american-history/
“The Challenge of Matriarchy: Family Discipleship in the African-American Experience” by Kevin Smith. Accessed at http://www.sbts.edu/family/2012/10/08/the-challenge-of-matriarchy-family-discipleship-and-the-african-american-experience/