Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

"If You Can't Push, Pull, If You Can't Pull, Please Get out of the Way": The Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home in Chicago, 1896 to 1920

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

"If You Can't Push, Pull, If You Can't Pull, Please Get out of the Way": The Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home in Chicago, 1896 to 1920

Article excerpt

In 1978, Gerda Lerner noted that the activities and significance of African-American's women's clubs had not received proper attention from historians.(1) Since that time, the scholarship on African-American women's clubs has increased substantially. Studies have explored individual club women's lives and contributions; social institutions and facilities created by the clubs; collaborative efforts between clubs on the regional, state, and national levels; and African-American women's exclusion from white women's clubs.(2)

To date, though, there has not been a thorough analysis, much less chronicling, of African-American women's clubs and their activities in Chicago. Chicago is a critical locus for study as it had one of the largest African-American urban populations in the early twentieth century, due largely to the substantial southern migration there. Chicago was also known for its social reformers and settlement workers, including Jane Addams, Edith Abbott, Mary McDowell, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Barrier Williams, and Mary Waring. Although African-American and white social workers and reformers occasionally worked side by side, more often than not the Chicago settlements and other social institutions were racially segregated. This necessitated the creation and sustenance by African-American women's clubs of community institutions such as settlements, kindergartens, nurseries, youth clubs, homes for the aged, and homes for young girls and women.

One such African-American women's club was the Phyllis Wheatley Club. Founded in 1896 by Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, a prominent state and national organizer in the African-American women's club movement, the Phyllis Wheatley Club was one of the oldest African-American women's clubs in Chicago. The original interests of the Club, in conjunction with the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACW), centered on "all things pertaining to the elevation of home among all women."(3) However, particularly from 1905 to 1918, poverty, segregation and discrimination increased, particularly in the city's Black Belt. To alleviate the dire living and employment conditions which newly-arrived African-American women faced, the Phyllis Wheatley Home was founded by the Club in 1907. It offered "wholesome surroundings for colored girls and women who [we]re strangers in the city and to house them until they [found] safe and comfortable quarters."(4)

Although frequent references have been made to the Home and Club in the African-American women's club scholarship and in historical studies of Chicago, there has been no complete analysis of either the Club or the Home.(5) This is most likely due to the dearth of primary historical sources available on Chicago's African-American women's clubs.(6) The most useful historical sources have been two Chicago African-American newspapers from this time period, the Broad Ax and the Chicago Defender. Not only did they publish many of the women's clubs annual reports, but also weekly accounts of club meetings, fund-raisers, and other club activities in the society, church, and women's columns. Such accounts, along with editorials and articles written by club women, provide rich contextual information on the Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home.

Using such documentation, this article will examine the activities of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, particularly those which focused on the Home. The first section will describe the Club's early activities, goals, and members prior to the creation of the Home. The second section will examine the conditions in Chicago which precipitated the founding of the Home, followed by an analysis of the Home and the Club activities associated with it.

THE PHYLLIS WHEATLEY CLUB

The Phyllis Wheatley Club was organized in 1896 in accordance with the National Association of Colored Women's (NACW) departments of Home, Education, Domestic Science, Philanthropy, Industry, Literature, Art, Suffrage, and Patriotism. …

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