Undermining Progress in Early 20th Century North Carolina: General Attitudes towards Delinquent African American Girls

By Brice, Tanya Smith | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Undermining Progress in Early 20th Century North Carolina: General Attitudes towards Delinquent African American Girls


Brice, Tanya Smith, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


This article examines efforts made to challenge progress towards adequate service provision for delinquent African American girls in early 20th century North Carolina. This article seeks to explore the nuances of aid, from the African American community and by progressive whites, as it relates to legislative efforts, economic backing and public health issues. It also seeks to examine motivations for engaging in undermining activities.

Keywords: African American girls; female delinquency; juvenile justice; legislative efforts; Progressive Era; syphilis

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African American women were instrumental in developing social welfare services for African American girls as a means to uplift the race, and more specifically, as a means to protect "true Black womanhood". Through the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), these women united to formalize social welfare services to meet the needs of the community. They established orphanages, old age homes, kindergartens, homes for working girls, homes for wayward girls, as well as other programs (DuBois, 1898; Hodges, 2001; Lerner, 1974; Salem, 1994). These clubwomen provided services (e.g. literary clubs, mother's clubs, religious studies) to the African American community through women's and girl's clubs. They also provided activities for boys (e.g. literary clubs, supervised sports activities) as a means of protecting young girls (Carlton-LaNey, 1999).

African American clubwomen were keenly aware of the negative perceptions that whites had of them. They were indefatigable in their efforts to improve the image of the race through the social uplift of its weakest elements, particularly delinquent African American girls. This quest for uplift motivated them to provide educational services, multilayered social welfare services, and refinement activities designed to teach social graces to those of the lower classes ("Charlotte Eugenia Hawkins Brown Papers, 1883-1961,"; Gilmore, 1994; Hodges, 2001; Hunter, 1983).

During the early 20th century, North Carolina's African American clubwomen gained support from the African American community and from progressive whites as they sought to meet the increasing needs of delinquent African American girls. Despite the semblance of aid, these women also battled elements that worked against their efforts. According to Carlton-LaNey (1994), this was a common occurrence. In examining Birdye Haynes' pioneering settlement house work, Carlton-LaNey found that Haynes was required to be diplomatic, tactful, and reticent as she interacted with the professionals, educators, advisory boards, and clients who were all key players in demanding success, yet they expected failure. At the same time, as a middle-class professional, she was expected "to inspire and share training and experiences" (p. 269).

Social welfare work among African American women required a skillful balancing act between interracial cooperation and commitment to the community.

African American women have historically been accustomed to concerted efforts to weaken their child-saving efforts, particularly as they touch upon the sometimes conflicting agendas of gender and race (Lerner, 1972). Whites were not willing to openly address race issues due to the social and political customs of the era. Likewise, men were not willing to openly address gender issues. African American women, however, were concerned with issues of race and gender. Yet, loyalty to both race and gender issues threatened notions of white privilege and male privilege (Beale, 1970; Cooper, 1892; Lewis, 1977). While there were those who acknowledged the disparate situation of delinquent African American girls, the level of aid was dependent upon their willingness to relinquish some aspect of their own privilege. As a result, there was a 'comfortable level' of backing manifested through positive action towards these delinquent girls. However, beyond that comfort zone, a seemingly contradictory level of assistance was manifested. …

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