Monday, June 15, 2015

A social club of young women who made good for African Americans

Photo: A social club of self-supporting young women

A social club of self-supporting young women (teachers, stenographers, bookkeepers) who have made good. This picture is eight years old. One of the group is dead, eleven are married and four are successful "bachelor maids." While the club is still intact, the original  membership here presented is scattered from New England to Panama and from Georgia to Colorado. [Original caption]

I have always been fascinated by this photograph. It shows a group of young ladies who banded together to help one another make something extraordinary of their lives at a time when doing so was a daunting task for American Americans. But with all the difficult obstacles they knew would be unjustly thrown in their way, they still seem, to my eye, to be determined, serene, and confident as they look to the future. I wish I could have known them.
I did, in fact, want to know more about them, so I tried to track down as much information as I could find about who they were and what happened to them. I wasn’t able to uncover anything about them as individuals, but the background of this photograph tells its own story.
The photograph was published in 1916 in a book by Dr. Charles Victor Roman. As the original book caption notes, the picture was then eight years old. That means it would have been taken in 1908.
The early years of the twentieth century were a time when black Americans were being subjected to the worst kinds of prejudice, discrimination, oppression, and even physical violence. Jim Crow segregation was spreading not just through the South, but in many parts of the nation. And lynching was well on its way to being the weapon of choice among racists determined to keep black people in their place.
Yet, this was also a time of great hope. Knowing the irrationality of the racial attitudes that limited African Americans to the fringes of the economic and social life of the country, many middle class black people, such as these young women, believed that if they could show the rest of the country that African Americans were just like anyone else, with the same dreams, aspirations, and innate abilities as the rest of the country, attitudes would change.
Dr. Charles Victor Roman
That was certainly Charles Victor Roman’s hope. A prominent physician who taught at Meharry Medical College, Fisk University, and Tennessee State University, Roman was a prolific writer and lecturer who strove to make the case, through his many books and public addresses, that African Americans were a capable people who could achieve great things if just given the chance.
That’s why Dr. Roman included this picture in his book, which was entitled American civilization and the Negro; the Afro-American in relation to national progress. He wanted to present to the American public a graphic image of upstanding and upwardly striving young black people whom he hoped would be seen as representative of the race as a whole. That focus is made clear by the paragraph that immediately follows the picture in the book:
The scientific data submitted in the preceding chapter and other parts of this work establish by incontrovertible evidence the Negro's innate capability to meet the conditions of a favorable environment. America is such an environment. It is proper, then, to submit some further evidence that the Negro is manifesting his capabilities by responding to this environment.
Looking back from the vantage point of the 21st century, and knowing the decades of struggle for equal rights and equal respect that lay ahead at the time this photo was taken in 1908, I have tremendous admiration for Dr. Roman and for the young ladies he held up as role models for the world to see. I grew up in the segregated South of the 1950s and 60s, so I have some idea of what these people faced. How easy it would have been to give up in despair when attitudes in the wider society seemed to be hardening rather than changing for the better.
But they didn’t give up. They fought the good fight, and kept on fighting when disrespect and discrimination toward African Americans seemed to accelerate in the decades that followed. And that fight hasn’t ended, even after an African American has twice been elected to the White House.
Maybe that’s why I admire the young ladies in Dr. Roman’s photo so much. If they could aspire to great things in spite of the humiliations so widely inflicted on African Americans in 1908, how can I allow myself to be discouraged by the relative few in our country who still hang on to old attitudes today.

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