Lifting as We Climb: African American Women’s Clubs in Progressive Era Chicago

Ida B. Wells

How the work of African American clubwomen deepens our understanding of the Great Migration and the Progressive Era.

By Linda Becker
Westinghouse College Prep
National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution–Chicago Chapter 2016 Newberry Teacher Fellow


When one considers the typical Progressive Era (1890-1930) reformer, figures such as Jane Addams, founder of Hull House, John Dewey, educational reformer, or political progressives, like Robert La Follette or Teddy Roosevelt come to mind. All of these progressive reformers were committed social and political activists. They are also all white and upper middle class or affluent. If pushed to consider some African American Progressive Era reformers, one might name W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and maybe Ida B. Wells. The purpose of this digital collection is to broaden our understanding of the Progressive Era by looking at the reform activities and accomplishments of African American clubwomen in Chicago.

Women’s Clubs, generally formed by wealthy elite women, focused on a variety of social and political issues, such as suffrage, juvenile justice, legislation to protect women and children, the formation of kindergartens, education of immigrants, and public health. Middle and upper-middle class African American women were also active participants in the Women’s Club Movement. African American clubwomen in Chicago responded to the needs of African Americans who had relocated to the North during the Great Migration, during which at least 50,000 African Americans moved to Chicago between the years of 1916 and 1920. Encouraged by the positive stories of good jobs and better living conditions published in the Chicago Defender, African Americans fled the violence, discrimination, and segregation of the South, only to find similar conditions in the North. The middle class African American women that were already established in Chicago responded to the need of these rural migrants much like other progressives responded to the new immigrants arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe. Progressives working with immigrants created programs to assist newcomers assimilate to respectable American society. They also wanted to help produce informed citizens with an understanding of American civic values. Similarly, African American women reformers were concerned with the respectability of the “Race” and created programs that focused on literature, the arts, and civic values. African American women, like their white counterparts were also concerned with suffrage. African American women’s suffrage clubs were very active and were able to successfully organize for the election of Chicago’s first Black alderman, Oscar Stanton de Priest in 1914.

Although African American women’s clubs had similar causes and concerns to their white counterparts, they were also concerned with protecting and advancing the image of “the Race,” as well as tackling issues like lynching and racial injustice. African American progressives were motivated to respond to the conditions of their day. A violent race riot in Springfield, Illinois in 1909 which displaced more than 2000 African Americans prompted W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, and other reformers to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP. This early civil rights organization sought to use legal means to win battles of injustice, especially by promoting anti-lynching legislation and an end to legal segregation. Ten years later, the industrial North was plagued with more race riots. The Red Summer of 1919 began in Chicago, after an angry white mob killed a black teenager for accidentally venturing near a white beach. The three subsequent days of rioting ended with 500 injuries, 48 deaths, and the destruction of 1000 black homes . It was within this racially tense era, that African American women organized themselves to improve their own lives and strengthen the African American community.

The idealism and zeal of the African American women despite difficult conditions, reveals a new insight into the historical agency of African American women during the Progressive Era. This collection introduces some of the leaders in this movement, their goals, obstacles, and accomplishments, while highlighting the complicated intersectionality of race, class, and gender. It also complicates our understanding of racism and segregation in the North during the Progressive Era.

Historical Context

The Tenements of Chicago, 1908-1935 / Edith Abbott. by University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Circa 1936

These address some of the conditions that inspired African American clubwomen to organize and act. There were a number of social and political obstacles that African Americans faced in the early 20th century across the United States.

The Tenements of Chicago, 1908-1935 / Edith Abbott. by University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Circa 1936

Although many African Americans migrated to Northern cities in search of a “promised land,” they often found overcrowded living conditions, and limited employment prospects. Dean of Social Work at the University of Chicago, Edith Abbott, utilized interviews, surveys, and photographs to expose Chicagoans to the living conditions that immigrants and African Americans faced.

Race adjustment; essays on the Negro in America / Kelly Miller. by The Neale Publishing Company, New York. 1908

Another academic, Dr. Kelly Miller, an African American professor at Howard University, published his collection of essays on race which describe the social conditions of African Americans nationally during the Progressive Era. Miller was very concerned with the violence targeting the African American community, particularly lynching and rape. Together these authors illustrate the social conditions that concerned Progressive activists.

African American Clubwomen and Their Organizations

Progress of a race; or, The remarkable advancement of the Afro-American Negro from the bondage of slavery, ignorance and poverty, to the freedom of citizenship, intelligence, affluence, honor and trust / Henry F. Kletzing. by J.L. Nichols & Co., Atlanta, Ga. 1898

These documents introduces some of the leaders of the African American Women’s Club movement and their organizations. As a destination for the Great Migration, Illinois was a hotbed of club activity; there were over 150 African American women’s clubs in Chicago alone from 1900-1940. African American migrants left the South seeking economic opportunities in the industrial North and a more racially tolerant climate. Many of these rural migrants had limited education, and found overcrowded living conditions, and dim employment prospects.

History of the Chicago Women’s Club organized 1876 / Chicago Woman’s Club (Chicago, Ill.). 1888

Clubwomen responded with a number of community supports like child care and hygiene classes. They also provided educational opportunities, such as kindergartens for African American children. Although there was a wide variety of clubs with different foci, from art and literature, to politics or helping destitute women, there was a common purpose of strengthening the image and standing of the African Americans.

Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities / Monroe A. Majors. by Donohue & Henneberry, Chicago, Ill. 1893

African American Progressive Era reformers wanted to inspire the next generation of African American leaders to continue the struggle for civil rights and serve the African American community.

The story of the Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, 1900-1922 / Elizabeth Lindsay Davis. Circa 1922

The motto of many of the African American women’s clubs, “Lifting as We Climb,” demonstrates their ambition to improve the condition of all African Americans, including their own social and political status.

Race Relations: Segregation and Integration in the Women’s Clubs of Chicago

Club Movement Among Negro Women / Fannie Barrier Williams. From Progress of a race [microform] : or, The remarkable advancement of the colored American, from the bondage of slavery, ignorance, and poverty to the freedom of citizenship, intelligence, affluence, honor and trust, by J. W. Gibson . Circa 1912

These documents focuses on the controversies of racially integrating women’s clubs during the Progressive Era. Fannie Barrier Williams was an active African American clubwoman in Chicago. She was an associate of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois, and a suffragette. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, which helped organize African American Women’s clubs nationally. She also assisted in creating Chicago’s Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, which trained African American women as nurses and served an interracial clientele. Along with Ida B. Wells, she fought to have African American representation at the 1893 World’s Fair. Williams herself, was appointed to work on exhibits for the women’s hall, and she offered two addresses on “The Intellectual Progress of Colored Women of the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation,” and “Religious Duty to the Negro.” Her recognized status as a prominent leader, led to Chicago’s most elite club, the Chicago Women’s Club, offering her membership in 1894. Prominent members included Jane Addams, Julia Lathrop, and Lucy Flower. Williams was admitted as a member in 1895, but not without controversy. Although she had support from the majority of the club’s members, there was a small contingency that was concerned that her membership would create some tension around the “color question.” She was the only African American member of the Chicago Women’s Club for the next 30 years.

The history of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs for the first twenty-two years of its organization / Mary I. Wood. by History Dept., General Federation of Women’s Clubs, New York. Circa 1912

There were many women’s clubs that made the decision to integrate at the local level, but integrating national women’s conferences was decidedly more complicated, especially because many Southern women’s clubs would not participate in an integrated conference. In 1900, an African American journalist, Josephine Ruffin, attended the General Federation of Women’s Clubs conference in Milwaukee as a delegate. She belonged to three women’s clubs: two were interracial, and one was an African American women’s club. The conference said that she could sit as a delegate representing the white clubs, but that African American women’s clubs could not be part of the General Federation. The various women’s clubs were polarized. A number of clubs, primarily Southern, vowed to leave the Federation if it integrated, while other clubs stood in support of Ruffin. The leadership determined that it would be too difficult to debate “the color question” in the heat of the moment and so delayed taking a position until the Wednesday Club of St. Louis proposed a compromise at the next Biennial conference. The compromise deferred the question of membership in the General Federation to the states. If states granted membership to integrated and African American women’s clubs, the Federation would seat them. The stories of Fannie Barrier Williams and Josephine Ruffin provoke a deeper analysis of race relations during the Progressive Era.


Some historical facts about Jean Baptiste Point De Saible : Chicago’s first permanent citizen / Blanche V. Shaw. by National De Saible Memorial Society, Chicago. 1933

The story of the Great Migration should not be told without recognizing the significant impact that African American women’s clubs had on the lives of many of the rural migrants. The motto of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, “lifting as we climb,” demonstrates their leaders’ optimism in improving their own lives and the lives of others. Beyond their targeted programs to help children, the poor, and single women, they were dedicated to countering the negative views of African Americans locally and nationally. They pushed for African American inclusion as presenters and equal recipients of employment opportunities in the World’s Fairs of 1893 and 1933. Clubwoman, Annie Oliver, resurrected the history Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable as Chicago’s founder, as a reminder of the important contributions African Americans have made to Chicago history. Once enfranchised to vote through the Presidential and Municipal Suffrage Bill in 1913, African American women also helped elect Chicago’s first African American alderman, Oscar Stanton de Priest. It was this same year, that Ida B Wells organized Alpha Suffrage Club, an African American Women’s club, committed to ensuring that all women received the right to vote. African American Women’s clubs almost universally supported the suffrage movement because enfranchisement would improve their ability to achieve better educational opportunities and anti-lynching legislation.

Selected Sources

  • Hendricks, Wanda A. Gender, Race, and Politics in the Midwest: Black Club Women in Illinois. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998. Print.
  • Hendricks, Wanda. “Alpha Suffrage Club.” Encyclopedia of Chicago Online. Chicago Historical Society, 2005. Web. 17 Sept. 2016.
  • Knupfer, Anne Meis. “African American Women’s Clubs.” Clubs. Illinois Periodicals Online, 2003. Web. 17 Sept. 2016.
  • Williams, Fannie Barrier. Winning the Vote. Rochester Regional Library Council, 22 Dec. 2014. Web. 02 Oct. 2016.

Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, 09.05.2017, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.