This post contains highlights of material from the Triangle Research Libraries Network’s CCC project, digitizing 40 archival collections related to the long civil rights movement from four area institutions. For more on this digitization project, click here.
As we conclude Black History Month and begin a month dedicated to the appreciation of women’s history, we highlight two noteworthy photographs from the Jessie Daniel Ames Papers.
The first image features an assembly of celebrated African American women, including Mary McLeod Bethune, a civil rights activist and educator who founded Bethune-Cookman University; Bethune was a close friend of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt for many years and facilitated the formation of the “Black Cabinet,” a group of prominent African American leaders who advised FDR regarding concerns of the black community. Second from the right is Nannie Burroughs, remembered for helping to establish the National Association of Colored Women and for her work in the National League of Republican Colored Women. In 1940, she visited university president James E. Shepard at North Carolina Central University. Standing next to Burroughs is Charlotte Hawkins Brown, a well-known North Carolina educator.
In 1938, a joint meeting of two women’s groups was held at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Though they functioned as separate organizations, the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) and the African American women members of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) shared a common mission: the battle against racial discrimination and violence in the South.
During the Civil Rights Era, collaboration between organizations was a common method of sharing resources, ideas, and enthusiasm. An initiative from a 1934 CIC staff meeting showed both the importance of such collaboration and the value placed on women activists when it stated that “One of the most important pieces of work to be developed is securing closer cooperation between Women’s Organizations and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation.”1
Jessie Daniel Ames, who served as the director of the CIC’s Women’s Committee in 1929 before founding ASWPL in 1930,2 is pictured in the front row of the second image, second from the right. In the beginning, ASWPL constituted a small group of women; Ames’ initial membership goal was to have at least one representative from every Southern state. Many of these women were pastors’ wives and other well-connected upper and middle class ladies who could help in the recruitment of local and state officials to the anti-lynching cause. Over time, this small association grew to become one of the most effective social programs in the US, with a total of over two million members.3
Through the mission of community education, the efforts of these Southern women had tremendous effects. Between 1922 and 1938, the number of lynchings in the South decreased by fifty percent. Many lynchings were prevented by sheriffs and community leaders whose vocal support had been enlisted by ASWPL.3
At the time, a common justification of lynching was that the practice existed primarily as a necessary response to sexual attacks against white women. ASWPL was a strong opponent of this concept of lynching, and through the course of their research, ASWPL discovered that almost 80% of lynchings occurred over interracial conflicts unrelated to charges of sexual assault on white women.4 ASWPL was “profoundly convinced that lynching is not a defense of womanhood or of anything else, but rather a menace to private and public safety . . . [In addition] lynching tends inevitably to destroy all respect for law and order. It represents the complete breakdown of government and the triumph of anarchy.”5 With this message, ASWPL played a key role in effecting the decline of lynchings in the US. And in the process, the organization became extremely influential in changing traditional perceptions of gender in the South.