Suffage and Black Belt Women

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series. The second will run in Sunday’s Lifestyles.

The women of the Blackbelt began to move into the public world of politics and reform as Reconstruction loosened its hold. Few if any fit the role of the mythical Southern lady confined to home and hearth. Their ancestry lay with those gutsy pioneer women who traveled by horseback and ox cart, in wagon trains and on foot from Virginia and the Carolinas into the wilderness of the Mississippi Territory .Wresting their livelihood from virgin forests and untilled soil, they built well their churches, homes and communities, then looked ahead to the future of their children and grandchildren.

It was a future that included, indeed, was founded on the rights of citizenship for all and equal voice. And often, indeed, black women and white (a generation removed from mistress and slave) stood together, bound with ties not of bondage but of common interests and recognition that in community lay their strength.

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The suffrage drive is usually treated as an institutional reform entirely within the context of political history. However, suffrage was only one of the many interests and issues of the new women of Alabama. The abolition of child labor, the problems of poverty, the creation of reform schools for juvenile offenders, improvement of public schools and numerous other reforms were the special projects of both black and white women within the state.

During the decade of the 1890s the women of Alabama created a large number of clubs and organizations that took them out of the home and gave them a world in the public arena. Rapid industrial growth had exacerbated problems of poverty in urban communities: illiteracy, delinquency, and the lingering aftermath of the Civil War, which freed African Americans from bondage but left them to struggle in a world with few schools, little preparation for jobs and scant medical care.

Martha L. Spencer was president of the Alabama Women’s Temperance Union which addressed the problems of poverty. Elizabeth Johnston Evans Johnston of the Alabama Federation of Women’s Clubs took on juvenile delinquency. And Margaret Murray Washington worked in the black community to improve homes and schools. Nellie Kimball Murdock, chair of the Alabama Child Labor Movement, spearheaded the movement to abolish child labor, and Pattie Ruffner Jacobs created the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association to fight for the right of women to vote, and by so doing, find a way to resolve these problems.

These spirited women, middle-class and black and white, faced strong opposition not only from husbands and politicians, but also from other women who clung to their identity – and subordinate positions – as wives and mothers. The emerging strength of these strong, independent women, many of whom were descendants of slaves, threatened the sisterhood of Blackbelt women and disturbed political leaders, who saw their role of leadership threatened. However, it would be another score of years before the vote was actually theirs in law.

In Selma, as early as the 1830s, a committee of six women organized themselves into the Ladies Educational Society and prodded their husbands into action. In 1839 the Alabama Legislature granted them a charter. In the years that followed they helped build an Episcopal church building, a Masonic Academy (now the Smitherman Building) and finally Dallas Academy, under the leadership of Harriet Benham Johnson. Their organization marks the birth of public education in the Balckbelt.

The first women’s clubs in the nation were established in the east in 1868. By the 1890s General Federation of Women’s Clubs numbered almost 500 with 100,000 members They tackled non-controversial topics, such as tree-planting, establishing libraries, building hospitals and creating playgrounds. It was but a short step to social welfare projects and another to resolutions on national issues.

Middle-class Alabama women created literary clubs, and the honor for the first with formal organization and regular meetings goes to Selma, with its Thursday Literary Club begun in 1890 by Mary LaFayette Robbins. The Alabama Federation of Women’s clubs was one of the earliest in the country, having begun with six clubs in 1895 and growing to 153 by 1915.

The WCTU organizations numbered among their members the most prominent women’s leader in the state. Julia S. Tutwiler, known primarily as an educator, was involed in every reform in the state: prison, prohibition, the abolishment of child labor and early suffrage drives. rn

in Tuscaloosa in 1845, she is a marginal member of the Blackbelt through her years in Livingston at the Female Academy. She brought many needed changes although her struggle to end the system of convict lease was not successful. She did bring about night schools in the prisons, traveling by train each weekend from Livingston to Birmingham to teach them.