The Colored Woman of Today - 1897

The Colored Woman of Today: Some Notable Types (1897)

By Fannie Barrier Williams

There is something very interesting and wonderfully hopeful in the development of the woman side of the colored race in this country, yet no women amongst us are so little known as the thousands of bright, alert, cultured, and gracious colored women of to-day.

Mrs. Fannie Barrier Williams.

Mrs. Fannie Barrier Williams.

A little over a century ago colored women had no social status, and indeed only thirty years ago the term “womanhood” was not large enough in this Christian republic to include any woman of African descent. No one knew her, no one was interested in her. Her birthright was supposed to be all the social evils that had been the dismal heritage of her race for two centuries. This is still the popular verdict to an astounding degree in all parts of our country. A national habit is not easily cured, and the habit of the American people, who indiscriminately place all colored women on the lowest social levels in this country, has tended to obscure from view and popular favor some of the most interesting women in the land.

Mrs. Josephine Bartlett, Chicago.

Mrs. Josephine Bartlett, Chicago.

But in spite of these prejudicial hindrances and a lack of confidence the young colored women of this generation are emerging from obscurity in many interesting ways that will happily surprise those who have never known them by their womanly qualities and graceful accomplishments. Such women seem to have no relationship to the slavery conditions of the yesterday of history. In a surprisingly brief period of time they have been completely lifted out of the past by the Americanism which transforms and moulds into higher forms all who come under the spell of American free institutions.

It should also be noted that the thousands of cultured and delightfully useful women of the colored race who are worth knowing and who are prepared to co-operate with white women in all good efforts, are simply up-to-date new women in the best sense of that much-abused term. If there be one virtue that is conspicuous in the characters of these women it is the passion to be useful and active in everything that befits high-minded and cultivated women.

Godey’s Lady’s Book— Louis Antoine Godey began publishing Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1830. He designed his monthly magazine specifically to attract the growing audience of literate American women. The magazine was intended to entertain, inform, and educate the women of America.

Miss Ida Platt

Miss Ida Platt

It can also be said that they stand for something higher than mere social aims. Society there is, and much of it, but there is in all the graces and accomplishments that make good society something better than mere exchange of courtesies and formalities.

That they appreciate the value of culture and intelligence is shown in the ever-increasing number of young women who are graduates of those universities and professional institutions whose doors are open wide enough to include all women, regardless of color. Not a few of them are found in the institutions and studios of Europe, pursuing special courses of all kinds. There are few professions or callings to which women of special intelligence are eligible into which colored young women are not winning their way in spite of the paganish prejudice that would restrict their ambitions. In fact, to know these women of a new race, aspiring, buoyant, and achieving, gives one a happy sense of interest in them and what they typify.

Ida Gray Nelson

Ida Gray Nelson

The group of women whose faces are here given aptly illustrate all that has been said. They are merely representative and not difficult to duplicate hundreds of times. If the “new woman” has appeared in the colored race, these young women are fair types of that class. They have all won their independence in the world of effort, competition, and achievement.

That there are intellectual and gracious young women, like Dr. Harriet Rice and Dr. Ida Gray Nelson, of Chicago, with diplomas from Wellesley and Ann Arbor, respectively, pursuing the professions of medicine and dentistry successfully, are facts scarcely believed by those who still insist upon the hopeless inferiority of the Negro race.

Miss Ida Platt, also of Chicago, is a rather unique personality, because of her mental versatility. Either as lawyer, linguist, musician, or stenographer, she is exceptionally qualified to follow law, music, or stenography as a profession.

Miss Minnie Mitchell

Miss Minnie Mitchell

The employment of Miss Josephine Bartlett in one of the largest business houses in Chicago, where only the best intelligence in her profession as stenographer is tolerated, is interesting chiefly from the fact that it is next to impossible for colored young women too btain such employment in this free America. In nothing is the color-line so relentlessly drawn as it is against the employment of accomplished young colored women in the higher grades of occupations.

School-teaching has afforded the best field for young colored women. That profession has laid requisition upon the very best women of the race, and they in return have elevated the profession by a great variety of accomplishments. It is easy to find these young women capable of teaching everything that comes within the curriculum of the best American institutions. Miss Helene Abbott, of the St. Louis schools, is an interesting type of the young women who bring to the colored schools of the country everything that is best in modern pedagogy. Her specialty is kindergarten work, and she is the efficient assistant of Mrs. Haide Campbell, who is herself a woman of rare social accomplishments, and who has done more than any other colored woman in the country to develop the kindergarten system in public schools. These two progressive women have charge of a model kindergarten school at the Tennessee Exposition.

Miss Helene Abbott

Miss Helene Abbott

Miss Alice Ruth Moore and Miss Emma Rose Williams are fair types of the New Orleans Creoles, who are classed among the colored people. Whatever is best and distinctive in the Creole life of Louisiana is reflected in these young women. Their French is as musical and their personality quite as charming and attractive as the best Creole types, around which have clustered so much delightful romance and poetry. Miss Williams is one of the prized teachers in the public schools of New Orleans. Miss Moore is now pursuing a special course of study in Boston.

She is a little woman of many accomplishments. She is not only a bright and racy newspaper correspondent, but has published a book of delightful sketches and charming bits of poetry. Miss Mitchell is teacher of Latin and higher English in the St. Louis High School, and is a graduate of Oberlin College.

Miss Belle Garnett

Miss Belle Garnett

The Provident Hospital and Training-School for Nurses in Chicago is the first institution in the country to open up a new field of employment for young colored women. It has graduated several classes, and they have met with remarkable success. Miss Belle Garnett is one of the most promising graduates of the institution. For some time she was assistant superintendent of the training-school. Aside from her profession, she is a young woman whose rare qualities of character make her typical of the highest ideals of womanhood in the colored race.

Perhaps in no other city are there so many accomplished and efficient colored women as in Washington, D.C. The public schools and the Government departments give employment to a large number. The higher social life among the colored people of Washington is a most gratifying study and reveals much that is best in the race. Art-clubs, Shakespeare circles, folk-lore societies, and other organizations aiming at mental and social refinements and culture area distinguishing feature of Washington life.

Miss Alice Ruth Moore

Miss Alice Ruth Moore

Within the last two years this spirit of organization among the women has broadened out into clubs and leagues, with the stronger purposes of affecting helpfully the social condition of the more unfortunate of the colored race. A federation of clubs has been formed having a truly national character.

Enough has been said, perhaps, to show that colored women are proving themselves in every way to be women of spirit and progressiveness. They are fully alive to their responsibilities and have already advanced far beyond their opportunities.

The types here shown are merely representative of a large class of women who are a beautiful fulfilment of the prophecy that out of the social disorders of a bondaged race there shall arise a womanhood strong, spirited, and chaste in all the things that make for social uplifting and refinement.

Source: Godeys Ladys Book (July 1897)

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