Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood: African American Women's Clubs in Turn-of-the-Centruy Chicago / Gender, Race, and Politics in the Midwest: Black Club Women

By Blocker, Jack S., Jr. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood: African American Women's Clubs in Turn-of-the-Centruy Chicago / Gender, Race, and Politics in the Midwest: Black Club Women


Blocker, Jack S., Jr., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood: African American Women's Clubs in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago. By Anne Meis Knupfer. (New York and London: New York University Press, 1996. xii + 209 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. Cloth: $50; Paper: $18.95.)

Gender, Race, and Politics in the Midwest: Black Club Women in Illinois. By Wanda A. Hendricks. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press,1998. xx + 163 pp. Notes and index. $27.95.)

No scholar has yet ventured to construct a history of African Americans in Illinois from Emancipation to the Great Depression, but Anne Meis Knupfer and Wanda A. Hendricks have now provided a key building block for that important enterprise. Focusing respectively on the benevolent work of African-American women in Chicago and across the state, these works demonstrate clearly the initiative and tenacity of African-American club women, the scope of their vision and the breadth of their activity. Furthermore, both books explore benevolence's social and political implications and effects. From the vantage point gained by these authors' efforts we can see where historians of black Illinois might fruitfully direct their steps next.

Knupfer's study covers the years 1890 to 1920, and Hendricks also devotes the bulk of her book to these years. Although neither author tells us when the first clubs began or attempts to justify her starting or ending point, the year 1890 seems appropriate because the ensuing acceleration of African-American population growth, primarily through migration, created the concentrations of women in Chicago and other cities that were required to support significant club organization. The terminal point of 1920 seems arbitrary, however, since the fide of migration, which produced both the numbers of women necessary to conduct benevolent work and the growth in social problems which benevolence sought to check, rose unabated for another decade. But whether the patterns of club life traced by Knupfer and Hendricks continued during the 1920s remains in question.

Few original records of the clubs seem to have survived. For primary sources, both books rest upon the African-American press and the writings of Chicago club women Fannie Barrier Williams, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Elizabeth Lindsay Davis. Knupfer and Hendricks exploit their sources in quite different ways. Knupfer employs a sociological approach. She organizes her book topically, scrutinizing in turn club women's ideologies and discourses; socioeconomic change; political reform; homes for children, young working girls, and the elderly; settlement houses; and literary and social clubs. Furthermore, she reads her sources through a theoretical lens, seeking to tease from them clues to the motivations, perceptions and impact of club life. Hendricks, in contrast, constructs a series of narratives. Chapter by chapter, these narratives explain how and why club women in 1900 founded a statewide organization, the Illinois Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (IFCWC); describe creation of an African-American social-welfare network; sketch the outlines of anti-black violence after 1900, the formation of the state NAACP affiliate, and African-American women's support for woman suffrage; show how African-American women worked politically both before and after Illinois women won limited suffrage in 1913, including Chicagoans' participation in Oscar S. De Priest's successful aldermanic campaign two years later; and portray the broadening of welfare work provoked by the onset of the First Great Migration after 1915. The two books, in short, are complementary. To find out what was going on at the grass roots of the club movement or to learn what status rewards club women reaped from benevolent activity, see Toward a Tenderer Humanity. For historical context, an overview of club activity statewide, or an emphasis upon political implications, use Gender, Race, and Politics. …

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