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Les femmes dans les Amériques : Féminismes, études de genre et identités de genre dans les Amériques, XIXe et XXe siècles – Actes du colloque international des 4, 5 et 6 décembre 2013 à Aix-en-Provence
Carrie Powell

African American Women’s Clubs’ Activism in Chicago: the Remaining Strength of Extended Kinship Solidarity

[26/11/2014]

Résumés

Au sein de la communauté africaine-américaine, la famille revêt une importance toute particulière, et ceci malgré les vagues de migration successives depuis l’esclavage. Pareillement, au sein du mouvement de clubs que les femmes Africaines-Américaines ont créé, mouvement qui connut son apogée de 1890 à 1920, le but était de maintenir et d’étendre les liens sociaux au sein de la communauté, liens de parenté mais aussi liens entre classes sociales, dans un contexte urbain qui leur était étranger. Cet article porte principalement sur les clubs de mères à Chicago où les réformatrices Noires avaient (et ont toujours) pour but de sauver les mères défavorisées de leur isolement social. Patricia Hill Collins montre que les activités de ces « autres mères », qui font partie de la parentèle étendue dans la communauté noire, ouvre la voie à leur activisme politique. Ces pratiques maternelles sont une norme de solidarité et de survie collective. En exposant tout d’abord l’histoire de ce mouvement de clubs, et en se centrant ensuite sur mon enquête de terrain à Sankofa Safe Child Initiative dans l’ouest de Chicago, cet article vise à évaluer l’héritage que ces femmes ont transmis et l’importance à toute épreuve de la famille au sein de la communauté africaine-américaine.

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Texte intégral

1At the beginning of the twentieth century, a network of African American women’s clubs formed to curb the problems facing the African American migrants coming from the rural States of the South of the United States and just settling in the large industrial cities of the North. As the black historian Darlene Clark Hine states, this migratory phenomenon known as “The Great Migration”, which took place in the United States mostly during the First World War, had a “gender dimension”. Indeed, not only did women have a different experience of migration than men, they also played a major role in the migration process, bonding the South and the North:

  • 1 Hine, Clark Darlene, « Black Migration to the Urban West: the Gender Dimension, 1915-1945 », in Tro (...)

“Black women served as critical links in the “migration chain”. They proved most instrumental in convincing family members and friends to move north. […] I suspect that it is precisely because women left children behind in the care of parents and other relatives that they contributed so much to the endurance and tenacity of the migration chain.”1

  • 2 Knupfer, Anne Meis, Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood: African American Women’s Clu (...)

2The movement of black women’s clubs from the beginning of the century proved to be a real activist movement. These clubs had a wide array of activities ranging from domestic concerns to political actions. They were “involved not only in kindergarten and mothering, but also in suffrage, antilynching laws, literary contests, political debates, embroidery, sewing, municipal reform, philosophy, youth activities, child welfare, care for the elderly, drama study, safe lodging for working women, health care, orphanages, home life and rotating economic credit.”2

3The clubs for women and young girls, including mothers' clubs, are of particular interest in this essay. These clubs gathered middle-class black women, reformers who undertook to educate “the less fortunate sisters of their race”, the disadvantaged black women, with the aim of raising the group as a whole. It must be emphasized that there was a huge socio-economic gap between these middle-class reformers and the young girls they were trying to help and it is the contact between the two classes that is of particular interest. Indeed, the motivation of these women reformers were shaped by the racial uplift ideology, initiated at the beginning of the century and subsequently spread by the great black intellectual figures of the time.

4Overall, the goal of the women’s clubs was to sustain families and facilitate access to an education for all the members of the black community, in an effort to bolster self-sufficiency in the face of the Government’s total indifference to the situation of this population. The question then became what kind of education they should have access to.

  • 3 The Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) was a centerpiece of the “War on Poverty” inaugurated under the (...)

5The legacy of those African American pioneer women is tremendous since nowadays, we find century-old organizations born of this movement. Although ideological and structural changes have occurred in the wake of the Civil Rights movement – one of the most important changes being that those organizations have gained financial support from the government since the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act3 –there exists a real sense of continuity between the early 20th-century and the contemporary Black women’s organizations.

6The purpose of this essay is to give an outline of the principles of what appears to be an activist movement through the clubs’ activities. This arena was a public space where women could redefine their place in society and therefore reclaim their rights. Still, by focusing on African American women, one discovers the complexity of this movement, moving across race, class, and gender lines. This work is centred on the clubs for women and young girls. I will first describe the activism of these African American women at its climax at the turn of the 20th century, as well as the ideology underlying it. I then establish what this activism has become today through the work of “Sankofa Safe Child Initiative” in the West Side of Chicago. We will find that the mother figure has remained totally central to the matter, and that the role that women played in these clubs, just as during the Great Migration, is the maintenance and the extension of kinship, through community othermothering, godmothering and fosterage.

Emergence and consolidation of the black women’s clubs

  • 4 Gere, Anne Ruggles, Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in the U.S. Women’s Clubs, 1880- (...)

7Anne Ruggles Geregives a definition of a woman’s club as a group “developed by individual women [who] created their own leadership structures, […] raised their own funds, shaped their own agenda, whether philanthropic or not.”4 The American women’s clubs, including the African American women’s clubs, turned out to be a real movement since, by Gere’s estimates, over two million women participated in it at the turn of the century. She therefore re-evaluates clubwomen’s contributions to national life, by showing how clubwomen enacted cultural work through their literacy practices and how, by so doing, they created an “intimate” public space of expression on aspects of social reality, especially the place of women in society.

  • 5 Ibid., p. 5.

“Through reading and writing, social practices embedded in the historical circumstances of turn-of-the-century America, clubwomen engaged with and helped transform perplexing issues of their time. Reading and writing papers on women suffrage, for example, put these women in dialogue with the larger culture, helping them understand and negotiate with conflicting ideologies of womanhood.”5

8But in the increasingly racist society of late 19th-century America, womanhood failed to emerge as a universal category. Although instances of interracial collaboration existed within the women’s rights movement, the fight for suffrage and more generally for women’s issues, the club movement was not conducted on an integrated basis since African Americans were officially excluded from white women’s clubs. Indeed, the position of black women was far more complex since they not only had to fight sexism, but also racism and the class bias within the black community.

  • 6 Following the Civil War and the victory of the Union ,the country needed to be « reconstructed » : (...)
  • 7 “This was the name given to the thousands of state laws, city ordinances, and local customs whose i (...)

9The conditions for the African Americans in the 1890s were very challenging. Indeed, following the abolition of slavery in 1865, a prosperous period for the new emancipated slaves started, the Era of Reconstruction6, during which African Americans acquired new civil rights, in particular the right for the black men to vote. By 1890, the situation had dramatically changed, as a new wave of racism was rising. The Jim Crow laws7 were enacted, institutionalizing segregation in all public facilities. The African American club movement was principally founded out of the constant oppression and threats of violence that this population was under.

  • 8 Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African (...)

10A powerful basis for this network was the church institution which can be considered, as stresses the black historian Evelyn Higginbotham8, to be the most powerful institution of racial self-help in African American community. Higginbotham discusses the public dimension of the church in the black community through the activities provided by the African American Baptist church women. The church was naturally a house of worship but bore many other functions for African Americans, as their meagre space of liberty in a discriminative society.

  • 9 Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, Righteous Discontent: the Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church (...)

“In time the black church – open to both secular and religious groups in the community – came to signify public space. It housed a diversity of programs including schools, circulating libraries, concerts, restaurants, insurance companies, vocational trainings, athletic clubs – all catering to a population much broader than the membership of individual churches [...] The church also functioned as a discursive, critical arena – a public sphere in which values and issues were aired, debated and disseminated throughout the larger black community.”9

11It is largely through the fundraising efforts of women that these activities and social welfare services were established. More than a decade before the formation of the first national club of African American women in 1896, those networking and fundraising skills were enhanced and valued in the church. Therefore, the church was a strong and reliable basis for reform and women’s rights activism, as well as for the secular movement of clubs that was to grow.

  • 10 Fannie Barrier Williams (1855-1944) was a prolific writer, a prominent lecturer and a respected soc (...)
  • 11 Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842-1924), coming from a mixed ancestry, was a leader in the Black cl (...)

12The African American national club movement emerged from three centres of club life in the North and the East: Washington, D.C., mainly represented by Mary Church Terrell, Fannie Barrier Williams10 and Anna Julia Cooper; New York, and Boston, managed by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin11. While these three centres were developing services for their communities, several events soon drew these women together in a national collective effort.

  • 12 Hendricks, Wanda A., Gender, Race, and Politics in the Midwest, Black club women in Illinois, Black (...)
  • 13 Ibid., p. 66.
  • 14 Hendricks, Wanda A., “Wells Barnett, Ida Bell” in Hine, Darlene Clark, Brown, Elsa Barkley and Terb (...)

13Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was a bright anti lynching leader and an advocate for African American civil rights and women’s rights. Her work as a journalist and editor, particularly of the Free Speech and Headlight, brought her to public knowledge. In 1892, the lynching of three of her friends triggered off her lifelong fight against mob violence. She expressed her indignation and her outrage in an editorial and the publishing of her investigative research, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its phases, which so infuriated the white community in Memphis that, during one of her trips to Philadelphia that year, the office of the Free Speech was burned down. Besides her active lecturing in America and Europe against lynching, she also protested the exclusion of black women at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago by distributing a pamphlet to publicize the rampant racism of the Fair’s administration. She decided then to create the first black women’s club in the city of Chicago, the Ida B. Wells Club: “Known as the mother of the women’s clubs in Illinois, it placed African American women squarely in the reform movement in the Midwest and served as a model for many newly created associations.”12 In 1910, she also opened in Chicago the Negro Fellowship League in order to “create a local forum for young African American males, in which they could openly discuss the atrocities directed at them.”13 Enfranchisement for all African Americans, she believed, was the key to reform and economic, social and political equality. The vote became one essential battle and she continued writing and reporting about racial injustices until the end of her life, despite the controversies surrounding her.14

14In the preparation for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, when black women’s groups from Washington, D.C. and Chicago petitioned for inclusion in the planning process, they were rejected on the grounds that they had no national organization to represent them. But the true catalyst for calling a national convention was a letter sent to Josephine Ruffin, editor of the Women’s Era, by a southern journalist, in order to discredit Ida B. Wells, in which he characterized Black women “as having no sense of virtue and altogether without character.” This caused the Black elite’s indignation and outrage and was a unifying banner for women’s mobilization. After many endeavours, the leadership of the emerging club movement decided to join into a national organization: the National Association of Colored Women. Founded in 1896, this national association was a merger of the two earlier federations, the National Federation of Afro-American Women led by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and the National League of Colored Women led by Mary Church Terrell.

15There were many divisions in the nascent movement around issues of leadership. Still, another debate questioned whether the movement should be integrated. Great figures of the movement such as Josephine St Pierre Ruffin and Fannie Barrier Williams fought to prevent the black women’s clubs from being racially segregated. Even though their lives were exemplary of a considerable success in this direction, the extreme majority of African American women stayed secluded from white women’s clubs.

  • 15 Fulton, DoVeanna S., Speaking Power, Black Feminist Orality in Women Narratives of Slavery, Albany, (...)

16The image of African American women at the turn of the 20th century was stereotyped in the mainstream society, which injured their inclusion in the white women’s club activity. The main preoccupation for African American reformers was then to re-establish African American women’s dignity in public life. Even though they supported the reform movement by “seeking moral purity, temperance, self-improvement and suffrage”, they had different perspectives on women’s issues because they were American, Black and women. DoVeanna S. Fulton15 suggests that the Victorian middle-class identity demanded essentialist notions of gender proprieties, such as gentility for women, which circumscribed the concept of civilization. But this concept, she says, depended not only on gender dichotomies, but was intimately linked to racial hierarchy as well. Quoting Gail Bederman, she demonstrates how African American women and men as well were ranked inferior to white Americans:

  • 16 Ibid., p. 62.

““In the Darwinist 1890’s, ‘civilization’ had become a racial concept. Rather than simply meaning ‘the west’ or ‘industrial advanced societies’, ‘civilization’ denoted a precise stage in human evolution – the one following the more primitive stages of ‘savagery’ and ‘barbarism’. “Savage” or nonwhite races were understood to have minimal or nonexistent gender distinctions. By blurring the demarcation of gender characteristics, white supremacists pronounced nonwhite males unmanly, nonwhite females unfeminine, and “naturalized white male power by linking male dominance and white supremacy to human evolutionary development.””16

17Therefore the defensive stance of NACW was unquestionable in the organization’s mission to prove the moral, mental and material progress made by people of color.

Class lines, activism and ideology

  • 17 Harley, Sharon, “The Middle Class” in Hine, Darlene Clark, Brown, Elsa Barkley et Terborg-Penn, Ros (...)

18An important element for understanding the formation of the club movement is the class bias inside the black community: there were indeed different strata inside the African American middle class. As Sharon Harley notes, “Increased educational opportunities and urbanization greatly enlarged the social distinctions among Black people in the United States.”17 Social status could be defined through income and occupation but other determinations of the time were even more important, such as decorum, respectability and moral refinement.

  • 18 Ibid., p. 787.

19Women belonging to the black upper middle class usually combined a prominent family background, income and very light skin. Indeed, women like Mary Church Terrell, who was elected first president of the National Association of Colored Women, were considered to be the best representatives of black womanhood, “partly to combat widespread racist theories about Black female immorality and lack of respectability”. While many of the black upper middle-class reformers tended to differentiate themselves from the less fortunate, other activists considered their middle-class status as a result of their educational and professional success. Often teachers, such Anna Julia Cooper, and white collar office workers, they came from more humble backgrounds and therefore shared more cultural values with ordinary black folk. This had a direct influence on the nature and level of their community work. Unlike their upper middle-class contemporaries, they never restricted membership to any particular strata of the black community. Even so, as Sharon Harley points outs, all reformers shared a common duty of accountability to the poorer classes. Thus the black middle-class elite were driven by the same spirit of responsibility and sacrifice to help their social inferiors.18

  • 19 Salem, Dorothy, “National Association of Colored Women” in Hine, Darlene Clark, Brown, Elsa Barkley (...)

20The movement of African American women’s clubs from the turn of the century proved to be a real activist movement. By 1916, 300 new clubs had joined the NACW since their last biennial in 1914. As described by Dorothy Salem: “The departments within the NACW grew and changed from social science, domestic science, juvenile court, humane and rescue work, religion, temperance, music, literature, and publication, to include mothers’ clubs, kindergartens, and business/professional women.” They also provided industrial training programs in cooking, laundry, sewing, chair caning and wood burnishing. As she states, before the Great Migration, women had already developed self-help services devoted to the aged, infirm and/or dependent populations in major cities such as New York and Chicago. Still, “the seeds for the development of urban multiservice centers”, such as the settlement houses, grew out of the concern for “the protection of women coming to the Northern population centers.19

  • 20 Carlton-LaNey, Iris, Hodges, Vanessa, « African American Reformers’ Mission: Caring for Our Girls a (...)

21The focus of this research is clubs for women and young girls, including mothers’ clubs, whose general goals were to provide education, personality development, protection and shelter, and most importantly refinement.20 As African Americans arrived by the thousands in the big northern industrial cities such as Chicago in search for opportunity, the environment was unknown to them and African American women who moved to cities alone were targeted by unscrupulous people who desired to prey upon their social isolation. The first goal was therefore to offer these women a safe and protected environment, a shelter where they could feel at home.

  • 21 Ibid., p. 262.
  • 22 Ibid., p. 262-264.

22Through these club activities, the women reformers also promoted education and character development. The mothers’ clubs provided programs that included both educational and character-building aspects. Through these programs, the reform women could teach “the fundamentals of child rearing, home making, and self-improvement to their poorer counterparts”21. The mothers’ meetings promoted economic self-sufficiency. They were highly successful and attracted a large number of rural women.22

  • 23 Ibid., p. 266.

23The ultimate goal of the clubs at the turn of the century was refinement. They thought in fact that African American women would become more acceptable in the eyes of the society if they became refined and “discarded racially demeaning habits and practices”. These women understood the significance of images as determinants of the type of treatment that African American girls and women could expect from the larger society. They thought that eradicating negative images of African American women would help to protect them from criminal abuse and sexual assaults.23 The aim was to uplift the group as a whole.

  • 24 Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, Righteous Discontent: the Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church (...)

24As E. Higginbotham explains, they felt certain that “respectable” behavior in public, which means middle-class manners, would earn their people a measure of esteem from white America. Therefore “they strove to win the black lower class’s psychological allegiance to temperance, industriousness, thrift, refined manners, and Victorian sexual morals.” This attitude revealed the reformers’ conservatism, as if “proper decorum” could eradicate the pervasive racial barriers surrounding African Americans.24 There was indeed a process of replicating dominant behavioral norms that effectively suppressed more overt forms of political protest.

  • 25 Gaines Kevin K., Uplifting the Race, Black Leadership, Politics and Culture in the Twentieth Centur (...)

25The whole concept of racial uplift was, as Kevin Gaines25 recalls, deeply ambiguous. As the black elite and black women reformers from the middle class strove to “lift as they climb” the poorer classes – stressing the solidarity in the community that helped to face the indifference of the Federal government to protect and defend their citizen rights – they also imposed the social norms of the white bourgeoisie that they internalized as standards of “respectability” to enable African Americans to be accepted by the larger society.

  • 26 Ibid., p. 5.

26Indeed, black historian Darlene Clark Hine introduces the concept of culture of “dissemblance”, which she first describes as the defensive response to the gendered dimension of racial oppression. It is to curb the traumatizing experience of black women’s tolerated rapes and constant insecurity during slavery that the repressive Victorian sexual mores, emphasizing respectable reproductive sexuality within the safe confines of marriage, were adopted by the black community.26

  • 27 Ibid., p. 42-43.

27Black women’s public activities, independence and leadership were therefore controversial insofar as they reached beyond the only “legitimate realm” of black women’s activities, their reproductive capacity within black patriarchal family.27

28However, through their club movement, African American women created a space in between the public and private spheres, an extended form of private sphere, where they could share their expertise on public matters and exercise, through their activism, a pragmatic influence on the well-being of their families and neighbors.

African American women’s club’s activism at the turn of the 21st century

29The question of what remains of these networks at the turn of the 21st century is of great interest, particularly the one linked with mothering.

  • 28 McDonald, Katrina Bell, « Black Activist Mothering, A Historical Intersection of Race, Gender and C (...)

30Two contemporary studies illustrate the legacy from the club activism from the turn of the 20th century, even though the authors focus on two forms of class cooperation: inter-class cooperation between middle-class black women and disadvantaged black women, and intra-class cooperation between disadvantaged women. The first study by Katrina Bell Mc Donald28presents the work of the organization “The Birthing Project” created in 1988 in Sacramento, and describes new bonds of solidarity between middle-class maternal activists and disadvantaged young mothers in the African American community in the 1980s and 1990s. Mc Donald uses the theoretical framework of “normative empathy” to analyze the activists’ motivations, a combination of personal concern for young mothers that suffer the same social disadvantages as they have experienced themselves in the past, and the social motivation of the African-American tradition of responsibility and accountability. The “Birthing Project” establishes a form of godmothering of the disadvantaged young mothers by the maternal activists in order to recreate a maternal support for the disadvantaged.

  • 29 Ibid., p. 783.
  • 30 Ibid., p. 785.

31Strong analogies with the activism of the beginning of the century stand out. A first element of heritage is the fact that the activist women must be role models, “a living example of success and self-actualization attained despite the odds”, for the young women they are seeking to help.29 Moreover, like their foremothers, the middle-class women of the Birthing Project see educational advancement as the key vehicle for helping young Black urban mothers “avoid the abyss of inner-city life.”30 Last, the author notes the importance of morality in the Black women activist’s thought process:

  • 31 Ibid., p. 786.

“Similarly, while normative empathy and middle-class obligation provide the political motivation for combating oppressive social forces that have contributed to the contemporary urban crisis, they also frequently call upon the middle-class sister-friends to take a moral stand against what they see as self-defeating values and behaviours exhibited by some members of the little sisters.”31

  • 32 Naples, Nancy A., « Activist Mothering: Cross-Generational Continuity in the Community Work of Wome (...)

32The second study illustrates the heritage of the activist tradition of African American women, while exposing the influence of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 in encouraging intra-class cooperation. This study, conducted by Nancy Naples32, demonstrates the complex ways in which gender, race-ethnicity, and class contribute to the social construction of mothering. She attempts to define the mothering practices of disadvantaged women in the 1990s through the concept of “activist mothering”:

  • 33 Ibid., p.448.

“Activist mothering not only involves nurturing work with those outside one’s kinship group but also encompasses a broad definition of actual mothering practices. The community workers defined good mothering to comprise all actions, including social activism that addressed the needs of their children and community.”33

  • 34 Collins, Patricia Hill, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empow (...)

33This definition comes close to Patricia Hill Collins’s definition of community “othermothering”. While defining the nature of motherhood, she claims that the community othermothers, who are part of the networks of extended kinship, help build community institutions and fight for the welfare of their neighbors, and by so doing pave the way for their political activism.34

Sankofa Safe Child Initiative

  • 35 Mary Mc Leod Bethune (1875-1955) was a great humanitarian, a devoted educator, an outstanding clubw (...)

34Another contemporary illustration of the heritage from the club movement can be found in Chicago, through the fieldwork I conducted from February to August 2011 in the Chicago West Side Chapter of the National Council of Negro Women. NCNW is an umbrella organization that was created in 1935 by Mary Mc Leod Bethune35, with the goal of bringing together into a coalition 34 existing national African American women’s organizations, for more efficiency in dealing with the issues pertaining to the African American community, and for better leadership. Annetta Wilson, head of the West-side Chapter of NCNW, was referred to me as the most active organizer in Chicago by the headquarters of NCNW in Washington, D.C.

  • 36 Quoted from a flyer provided by Sankofa Safe Child Initiative on their purpose and history.

35Annetta Wilson explained, in a 2010 interview, that it is in the spirit of her foremothers that she founded the grass-roots non-profit organization “Sankofa Safe Child Initiative” in the West Side of Chicago, whose “mission is to provide referrals, resources and skills that encourage underserved families and communities to be strong, self-sufficient and remain intact.” 36

36To enable me to carry out my anthropological field study, Annetta Wilson generously invited me to fully integrate as a staff member this non-profit organization. “Sankofa Safe Child Initiative” was born out of a meeting that was held on Adoption, Placement and Parental Rights and convened by the Honorable Congressman Danny K. Davis of the 7th Congressional District in 1998. It was born out of the assessment that 40% of the children in this district of Chicago were involved with the child welfare system. This “center” is unique in that it brings together a social work agency on the ground floor with five upper floors of apartments, which Annetta Wilson is leasing to African American grandparents raising their grandchildren.

  • 37 This expression is used to designate the inclusion of these children falling in the care of the sta (...)

37Annetta Wilson has long worked with the social systems dedicated to the placement of orphaned children and could therefore measure the associated risks: many children, despite the adoptive-parents selection process in place, were victims of frequent abuses, sexual and psychological in nature, and would end up being re-assigned from one adoptive family to another, increasing their sense of abandonment. After years of experience and observation, A. Wilson concluded that it would be very damageable to assign these children to outside families, and for the kids to fall within “the system”37; instead, she claims that it is better for them to remain within their own families, even if with relatives other than their biological parents.

38She explains that her first priority was to provide social housing and to create this great Home, “Sankofa House”, with the idea that the one element absolutely indispensable for maintaining a family is first and foremost a clean and safe space to raise the children. This is no easy task in the context of the West Side underserved community. Indeed, the grandmothers living there speak of Sankofa House first as a place to nurture life, essential for the healthy development of their grandchildren.

  • 38 During my stay in Chicago, three public conferences were given, sponsored by Sankofa Safe Child Ini (...)

39There are many services provided by Sankofa Safe Child Initiative’s social agency, by which essential goals are targeted. The grandparent program is at the heart of this initiative: beside the empowerment process conveyed by support groups on topics that affect them, one of the most effective services is the “computer lab”, where the grandparents are taught how to use the internet. It is meant to fill the gap between the three generations at stake by familiarizing them with the modernized world. There remain other avenues taken in helping to reunite the families, such as supporting families with one member recently out of jail in the legal proceedings. Thirdly, there are mentoring services: case managing and “Life Skills”. Those services provide job referrals and counseling in order to motivate the grandparents to regain self-sufficiency. Moreover, apart from supplying financial support (buying school supplies, furniture, air conditioning etc.), there are recreational activities and tutors to help the children with their homework. This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that Annetta Wilson, in association with Congressman Danny K. Davis, promotes the education of the members of the community through public conferences of great magnitude.38

40Annetta Wilson’s initiative is fully inscribed in a tradition of preservation of the African American family which black women, especially through the club movement, sought to protect from the threats and risks inherent to a new urban context. As we saw through the study of the mothers’ clubs, it is the community othermothers, the activist mothers who are the guardians of the proper functioning of the community and the district. Annetta Wilson is fully part of this tradition.

  • 39 Kelch-Oliver, Karia “The Experiences of African American Grandmothers in Grandparent-Headed Familie (...)

41Following the approach of leaders such as Mary Mc Leod Bethune, there is a constant mindset of fighting on a daily basis. Through her activism, Annetta Wilson’s efforts converge to maintaining and strengthening family ties. She confronts a complex challenge: maintain the family unit by keeping the children within their family of origin while facilitating communication between the grandparents and the grandchildren, and thereby, helping to rehabilitate the intermediate generation. The reasons for this intermediate parents’ inability are: parental illness, whether mental or physical, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, unemployment, homelessness, incarceration, death, divorce, family violence, child abuse, neglect and poverty.39

  • 40 Chivallon, Christine, La diaspora noire des Amériques: expériences et théories à partir de la Caraï (...)

42The impact of slavery on the African American family has been the subject of a complex and ongoing debate. Some studies suggest that the African-American family, during or after slavery, is necessarily pathological. Other researchers, followers of the “continuity theory”, think that instead, it retained traits from its African origins, which therefore gives it a particular organization40: beside the central importance of the mother (matrifocalization) and women in general, another lead that surfaces is the hypothesis of a facilitated circulation of children between different members of the family, which is considered as quite normal.

  • 41 See also, as a mode of comparison, the very interesting work of Anne Raulin on the working-class ne (...)
  • 42 McDonald, Katrina Bell, « Black Activist Mothering, A Historical Intersection of Race, Gender and C (...)

43Reading through the diverse theories about the black family, one comes to realize that the design of the family nucleus among African Americans exceeds the design of the “Western nuclear family” and that extended kinship is mandatory.41 This leads to the hypothesis of an African heritage. Indeed, African American maternal activism is also known as “community othermothering”, which would be a transplantation of traditional African tribal principles: Other mothersareThose who assist the biological mothers with their responsibility to the child's education [...] They can be, but are not exclusively, their kin such as their grandmothers, sisters, aunts, cousins or any other supportive fictive kin”.42 This definition is very close to the concept of fosterage which is a phenomenon that is commonly practiced in the countries of West Africa.

44Fosterage may take different shapes and is a concept relatively difficult to define. Here are three leads from the Oxford English Dictionary of 2002:

45• “Care, keeping, fostering”
• “Having a specified family relationship not by blood or adoption, but by virtue of nursing, bringing up, or care, as foster-brother, foster-daughter, foster-sister, foster-son”
• “Concerned with the care of orphans, or children in need of a temporary but stable home”

  • 43 Lallemand, Suzanne, La circulation des enfants en société traditionnelle, Prêt, don, échange, Paris (...)
  • 44 Soko, Edwige Kouadio, « Du fosterage à l’adoption plénière : quels rôles pour les pouponnières dans (...)

46These definitions, even though succinct, are revealing: fosterage is indeed a family relationship but not an adoption and it is temporary. In addition to the very interesting and detailed book by Suzanne Lallemand on the circulation of children in West Africa43, the thesis by Edwige Kouadio Soko is pathbreaking.44 Indeed, in trying to define fosterage as opposed to full adoption, Soko introduces the useful concept of “suppleance”:

  • 45 Ibid., p. 7. Translation by Shepard Powell.

“The principle of removal from the environment of the family of origin responds to the idea of protection. It is based on the principle of “suppleance” and not of substitution. Since “family substitution” involves the replacement of the same by the same, “suppleance” refers simultaneously to a void never filled and to a supplement of a different order than the void […] The idea of help then comes to the forefront, or even reparation, which leads to the moment where the reparation would be complete, when the help would have fulfilled its purpose and the void would have dissolved. The concept of “suppleance” thus returns one back to the temporary aspect.45

47The concept of “suppleance” helps to understand the process and purpose of fosterage. On my field study, I discovered that the grandparents support their grandchildren because the parents were found to be unfit to raise their children for various reasons, but always in a sudden, unexpected and often temporary manner. As a common practice among Africans and African Americans, fosterage enables the child to maintain ties with his family of origin, and his community. But this practice of fosterage is also put forward in the hope that the parents, who have been temporarily judged inept to be parents, can resume their parental rights once their situation has been re-established without going through the judicial system. For situations where the child can never retrieve his parents, Annetta Wilson attempts to facilitate the adoption of the child by a family member. She also attempts to have this practice of fosterage recognized by passing legislation so that the “foster parents” can also qualify for social assistance to support the grandchildren’s education that has a considerable cost for the family who was not initially prepared for this event.

Conclusion

48Even though the motives of the “racial uplift” ideology are questionable, this tradition of self-help mobilized millions of women through the 20th century until today, rural or urban, middle-class or disadvantaged, to build community institutions and fight through their activism for the welfare of their people. Furthermore, this study may highlight the resources of the African American family. Through their history, what cemented the strength of the African-American community is the importance allocated to the extended family as a reference group and as a weapon to deal with societal problems in a context of racism and subordination and economic distress.

  • 46 Crosbie-Burnett Margaret, Lewis Edith A., “Use of African-American Family Structures and Functionin (...)

49Indeed, I was able to discuss the fact that there were elements of heritage between the clubs of the turn of the twentieth century and organizations that exist today. Sankofa Safe Child Initiative is a proof that the intraclass cooperation – between disadvantaged women – that was also studied by Nancy Naples as exposed herein, is very active nowadays and was probably facilitated by the financial funding allowed by the Economic Opportunity Act. Indeed, this funding, which is destined for organizations orchestrated by the poor, enables women like Annetta Wilson to fight to perpetrate traditions of African American extended family inherited from their African ancestors. Moreover, Annetta Wilson takes it to a new level by wanting those practices – here grand-parenting, which is presumably a continuation of traditional fosterage – to be recognized by law. This has many implications since African American families have long been pathologized by scientific research and this law would prove the latter erroneous. One can’t help noticing articles that are published today and that observe the organization of African American families to find solutions to the organization of modern “blended families”.46

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Bibliographie

Carlton-LaNey, Iris, Hodges, Vanessa, « African American Reformers’ Mission: Caring for Our Girls and Women », Affilia, 2004, Vol. 19, n°3.

Chivallon, Christine, La diaspora noire des Amériques: expériences et théories à partir de la Caraïbe, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2004.

Collins, Patricia Hill, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Boston, Unwin Hyman, 1990.

Crosbie-Burnett, Margaret, Lewis Edith A., “Use of African-American Family Structures and Functioning to Address the Challenges of European-American Postdivorce Families”, Family Relations, Family Diversity, July 1993, Vol. 42, n°. 3, p. 243-248.

Davis, Angela, Women, Race and Class, London, The Women’s Press, 1984.

Fulton, DoVeanna S., Speaking Power, Black Feminist Orality in Women Narratives of Slavery, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2006.

Gaines Kevin K., Uplifting the Race, Black Leadership, Politics and Culture in the Twentieth Century, London, University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Gere Anne Ruggles, Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in the U.S. Women’s Clubs, 1880-1920, University of Illinois Press, 1997.

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Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, Righteous Discontent: the Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993.

Hine, Clark Darlene, « Black Migration to the Urban West: the Gender Dimension, 1915-1945», in Trotter, Joe William Jr., The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class and Gender, Indiana University Press, 1991(1984), p. 127-147.

Hine, Darlene Clark, Brown, Elsa Barkley and Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn (éd.), Black Women in America: an Historical Encyclopedia, Brooklyn, New York, Carlson Publishing Inc., 1993.

Katz William Loren, Eyewitness, a Living Documentary of the African American Contribution to American History, New York, First Touchstone Edition, 735 p.

Kelch-Oliver, Karia “The Experiences of African American Grandmothers in Grandparent-Headed Families”, The Family Journal, 2011, vol. 19:73, p. 73-82.

Knupfer, Anne Meis, Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood: African American Women’s Clubs in turn-of-the-century Chicago, New York, New York University Press, 1996.

Lallemand, Suzanne, La circulation des enfants en société traditionnelle, Prêt, don, échange, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2011.

Le Dantec-Lowry, Hélène, De l’esclavage au Président, Discours sur les familles noires aux Etats-Unis, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2010.

McDonald, Katrina Bell, « Black Activist Mothering, A Historical Intersection of Race, Gender and Class », Gender and Society, 1997, Vol. 11, n°6, p. 773-795.

Naples, Nancy A., « Activist Mothering: Cross-Generational Continuity in the Community Work of Women from Low-Income Urban Neighborhoods », Gender and Society, 1992, Vol.6, n° 3, p. 441-463.

Raulin, Anne, Anthropologie urbaine, Cursus, Paris, Armand Colin, 2001 (2002).

Salem, Dorothy C. (ed.), African American women: a Biographical Dictionary, Biographical dictionaries of minority women, 2, New York, Garland Publishing., 1993.

Soko, Edwige Kouadio, « Du fosterage à l’adoption plénière : quels rôles pour les pouponnières dans la prise en charge des enfants abandonnés en Côte d’Ivoire ? Le cas de la pouponnière d’Adjamé », Coordinator Véronique Vasseur, 2011.

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Notes

1 Hine, Clark Darlene, « Black Migration to the Urban West: the Gender Dimension, 1915-1945 », in Trotter, Joe William Jr., The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class and Gender, Indiana University Press, 1991 (1984), p. 127-147.

2 Knupfer, Anne Meis, Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood: African American Women’s Clubs in turn-of-the-century Chicago, New York, New York University Press, 1996, p. 1.

3 The Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) was a centerpiece of the “War on Poverty” inaugurated under the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. The legislation provided support for neighborhood-based community action agencies that would be directed and staffed by the poor.

4 Gere, Anne Ruggles, Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in the U.S. Women’s Clubs, 1880-1920, University of Illinois Press, 1997, p. 4.

5 Ibid., p. 5.

6 Following the Civil War and the victory of the Union ,the country needed to be « reconstructed » : « In a broad way, the Reconstruction was threefold : it was first, and quite simply, to wind up the affairs of the Confederacy, get the Southern States back in the Union, repair and reanimate the shattered mechanisms of national politics and administration. It was, second, to assure the newly emancipated Negro not only his freedom but his political and civil rights…” Reconstruction ended in 1877. Nevins, Allan, Commager, Henri Steele, Morris, Jeffrey, A Pocket History of the United States, (1976) 1992, p. 231.

7 “This was the name given to the thousands of state laws, city ordinances, and local customs whose impassable color line kept people of color from opportunities which were open to whites. In the period from 1890 to 1910, each Southern state wrote into law (often into their Constitutions) the many devices which kept black men and women from enjoying the rights and privileges of citizens. And in the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson case, the United Supreme Court laid down the “separate but equal” doctrine when it ruled that laws segregating people because of their race did not violate the United States Constitution.” KATZ William Loren, Eyewitness, a Living Documentary of the African American Contribution to American History, New York, First Touchstone Edition, p. 318.

8 Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is currently the chair of the Department of African and African American Studies and has held this position since 2006.

9 Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, Righteous Discontent: the Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 7.

10 Fannie Barrier Williams (1855-1944) was a prolific writer, a prominent lecturer and a respected social performer through her club activity in Chicago.

11 Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842-1924), coming from a mixed ancestry, was a leader in the Black club movement, in women’s suffrage and in civil rights. She militated for an integrated club movement.

12 Hendricks, Wanda A., Gender, Race, and Politics in the Midwest, Black club women in Illinois, Blacks in the Diaspora, Indiana University Press, 1998, p. 17.

13 Ibid., p. 66.

14 Hendricks, Wanda A., “Wells Barnett, Ida Bell” in Hine, Darlene Clark, Brown, Elsa Barkley and Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn (ed.), Black women in America: an Historical Encyclopedia, Brooklyn, New York, Carlson Publishing Inc., 1993, p. 1242-1246.

15 Fulton, DoVeanna S., Speaking Power, Black Feminist Orality in Women Narratives of Slavery, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2006.

16 Ibid., p. 62.

17 Harley, Sharon, “The Middle Class” in Hine, Darlene Clark, Brown, Elsa Barkley et Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn (ed.), Black women in America: an Historical Encyclopedia, Brooklyn, New York, Carlson Publishing Inc., 1993, p. 786.

18 Ibid., p. 787.

19 Salem, Dorothy, “National Association of Colored Women” in Hine, Darlene Clark, Brown, Elsa Barkley et Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn (ed.), Black women in America: an Historical Encyclopedia, Brooklyn, New York, Carlson Publishing Inc., 1993, p. 846-848.

20 Carlton-LaNey, Iris, Hodges, Vanessa, « African American Reformers’ Mission: Caring for Our Girls and Women », Affilia, 2004, Vol. 19, n°3, p. 260-264.

21 Ibid., p. 262.

22 Ibid., p. 262-264.

23 Ibid., p. 266.

24 Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, Righteous Discontent: the Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 15.

25 Gaines Kevin K., Uplifting the Race, Black Leadership, Politics and Culture in the Twentieth Century, London, University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

26 Ibid., p. 5.

27 Ibid., p. 42-43.

28 McDonald, Katrina Bell, « Black Activist Mothering, A Historical Intersection of Race, Gender and Class », Gender and Society, 1997, Vol. 11, n°6, p. 773-795.

29 Ibid., p. 783.

30 Ibid., p. 785.

31 Ibid., p. 786.

32 Naples, Nancy A., « Activist Mothering: Cross-Generational Continuity in the Community Work of Women from Low-Income Urban Neighborhoods », Gender and Society, 1992, Vol. 6, n° 3, p. 441-463.

33 Ibid., p.448.

34 Collins, Patricia Hill, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Boston, Unwin Hyman, 1990.

35 Mary Mc Leod Bethune (1875-1955) was a great humanitarian, a devoted educator, an outstanding clubwoman, and a brilliant political advisor (she worked hand in hand with the Roosevelts) because she understood the necessity for organization and political action at a Federal level to make change.

36 Quoted from a flyer provided by Sankofa Safe Child Initiative on their purpose and history.

37 This expression is used to designate the inclusion of these children falling in the care of the state in the D.C.F.S department.

38 During my stay in Chicago, three public conferences were given, sponsored by Sankofa Safe Child Initiative and partners and countless national private companies, and were also covered by the media: The Resiliency of Women and Girls Conference, State of the African American Male Conference and the Health and Wellness Summit.

39 Kelch-Oliver, Karia “The Experiences of African American Grandmothers in Grandparent-Headed Families”, The Family Journal, 2011, vol. 19:73, p. 73-82.

40 Chivallon, Christine, La diaspora noire des Amériques: expériences et théories à partir de la Caraïbe, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2004. See also Le Dantec-Lowry, Hélène, De l’esclavage au Président, Discours sur les familles noires aux Etats-Unis, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2010.

41 See also, as a mode of comparison, the very interesting work of Anne Raulin on the working-class neighborhoods in London and Boston in Raulin, Anne, Anthropologie urbaine, Cursus, Paris, Armand Colin, 2001 (2002), p. 98-104.

42 McDonald, Katrina Bell, « Black Activist Mothering, A Historical Intersection of Race, Gender and Class », Gender and Society, 1997, Vol. 11, n°6, p.792.

43 Lallemand, Suzanne, La circulation des enfants en société traditionnelle, Prêt, don, échange, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2011.

44 Soko, Edwige Kouadio, « Du fosterage à l’adoption plénière : quels rôles pour les pouponnières dans la prise en charge des enfants abandonnés en Côte d’Ivoire ? Le cas de la pouponnière d’Adjamé », Coordinator Véronique Vasseur, 2011.

45 Ibid., p. 7. Translation by Shepard Powell.

46 Crosbie-Burnett Margaret, Lewis Edith A., “Use of African-American Family Structures and Functioning to Address the Challenges of European-American Postdivorce Families”, Family Relations, Family Diversity, July 1993, Vol. 42, n°3, p. 243-248.

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Carrie Powell, « African American Women’s Clubs’ Activism in Chicago: the Remaining Strength of Extended Kinship Solidarity », Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 26 novembre 2014, consulté le 19 juin 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/nuevomundo/67421 ; DOI : 10.4000/nuevomundo.67421

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Carrie Powell

doctorante en socio-anthropologie à l’Université de Nanterre
carrie_powell80@yahoo.com

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