Lifting As We Climb Revisited: The Clubwomen of the Kansas State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs

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On June 14, 1916, Mrs. Charles W. French of Newton, Kansas,
rose from her seat during the 16th Annual Session of the Kansas
State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in Parsons, Kansas, to denounce the
Jim Crow laws in the host city.  Mrs.
French stated that “[the women], regardless of color be admitted to theatres,
and that some step be taken to investigate the reason they could not attend the
five and 10 cent theatres.”  The women,
who had descended on the small southeastern city of Parsons from all over the
state, were repeatedly turned away from local theaters during their time in the
town. 

After some discussion, which one can only imagine was
boisterous, the women approved a motion to appoint a committee to contact the
county attorney.  Henrietta Harper served
as president of the State Federation at that time, and was an undeniable force
in the struggle for racial justice in a state with a storied history of
“Free”-dom.  She selected the most
steadfast and unwavering women to serve on the exploratory committee.  The women penned a critical reprimand citing
the Kansas laws of 1874, stating that owners of “places of amusement” cannot
refuse admittance to people based on race.

The committee’s efforts were effective, as the city attorney
quickly responded, assuring them that the matter would immediately be
investigated and resolved. In that moment, the women of the State Federation
established their position as a collective body challenging the degradation,
segregation, and disenfranchisement of black people.   In the midst of conference sessions
concerning the importance of child-rearing and home cleanliness, the group of
determined club women worked to shut down the forces of white supremacy in the
state.
Even in spite of growing discrimination, racial violence,
out migration, and limited resources, these women sought to conquer the
challenges that the black community had to overcome in order to build their
Kansas communities.    Thus even in the
uncertainty of life in Kansas in the early twentieth century, women labored to
provide a stable home.  For their moment
in the struggle, Black Kansas women became Race women.   

Mrs. Anna Hodge of the Kansas State
Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs
The founding of the State Federation of Colored Women’s
Clubs in 1900 created a communal space for Kansas club women to assert their
emerging middle class status, organize their growing population, and further
define their purpose.  Although not
widely chronicled, Black Kansas women actively participated in clubs in their
own communities. Kansas clubwomen established organizations in the central and
western counties and cities such as Salina, Great Bend, and Newton, to the
southeast cities of Parsons, Pittsburgh and Coffeeville, to the northeastern
communities in Topeka, Kansas City, Lawrence, and Leavenworth.
The State Federation supported the activities of Kansas club
women, which included groups organized around the arts and humanities, and
domestic science.  However, these women
also found themselves battling legislators, school boards and church
authorities.  African Americans
understood the importance of stimulating the economics of the state, often
purchasing advertisements touting the benefits of purchasing from local
businesses and farms. 

Mrs. Mayme Watkins of the Kansas State
Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs
Kansas women experienced a sense of pride, noted by the
establishment of the John Brown Club, an organization which sole purpose was to
remember its namesake’s life and work. 
These women composed their state and regional songs with references to
sunflowers, the Kansas River, wheat, and rolling plains. 

Black women were not only striving to create more stable
present, they were preparing to finally enjoy and participate in the life they
dreamed of when their ears first heard the phrases, “Ho! To Kansas,” and Free
State country.  The women were seeding
this soil, fertilized with the blood of war and stirred by the feet of black
migrants, to grow communities.


By Doretha K. Williams, Ph.D.
Dr. Williams is the Project Director of the D.C. Africana Archives Project at the George Washington University in the Africana Studies Program. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Kansas American Studies Program in 2011. Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, she is currently working on the manuscript for Kansas Grows the Best Wheat and the Best Race Women: Black Women in Kansas, 1900-1925.

Photos courtesy of the Afro-American Club Women’s Project records, 1900-1986, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.