Black Feminism in Indiana

Thomas Y., Sallie Wyatt Stewart, 1942, print, Who's Who of Colored America : 426.

Image of Sallie Wyatt Stewart (Photo credit: Thomas Y., Sallie Wyatt Stewart, 1942, print, Who’s Who of Colored America : 426.)

When viewing feminism through traditional means, it is common to focus on suffrage. While the push to secure the right to vote was integral for the advancement of women’s agency and advocacy from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, there were also lesser-known and equally colossal antislavery efforts undertaken by black women alongside confidants from both black and white communities. The widely obscured origins of Black feminism in Indiana are closely tied to women’s club activities within the state. Such clubs were much more than frivolous escapades that only those in positions of privilege and wealth enjoyed.1

Black female-led contributions in racial uplift made it possible for Indiana to step into a new age as an enlightened and progressive state. Black women had legitimate concerns in the areas of religion, education, vocation, music, civics, industry, professions, domestic (home and children) life, interracial relations, literature, and the fine arts. In time, the fruits of their non-violent labors came in the form of successful day nurseries, kindergartens, working girls’ homes, club houses, orphan homes, rescue missions and homes for delinquents, or the aged and infirmed. Indiana’s Black clubwomen owned them all.2 To these influential women, normalizing Racial uplift was a core goal, so that it seemed more like human advocacy (rights) and not as if one was inciting a radical revolution (Though revolutionary it still was).

The official “birth” of Indiana’s black women’s activist history came when forty-two delegates arrived at the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Indianapolis on April 27, 1904. Under the unified banner of the Indiana Association of “Colored” Women’s Club, they conducted their first major meeting at an Atlanta Exposition. Mrs. Lillian Thomas Fox, Indianapolis clubwoman, attended and spoke at the meeting.3 By the time their first annual meeting came in Marion, Indiana on April 26-27, 1905, Mrs. Fox was presiding alongside a Mrs. Herrold, the elected (soon-to-be reelected) president. By 1933, the Indiana federation branched out and represented some fifty-six clubs and hosted a membership of two thousand. Its budget easily exceeded twenty thousand dollars—over $44,968.62 in today’s money. Women in the federation spanned numerous professions. Many were teachers and hairdressers, but others were sundry business representatives, book-keepers, ministers, barbers, modistes, juvenile court officers, steam launderers, grocers, stenographers, real estate agents, insurance agents, attorneys and various self-employed professionals who called themselves cake specialists, agriculturists, and manufacturers of hair preparations.4

Billionairess Madame C. J. Walker of Indianapolis would participate at both the local and national levels. Frequently, she gave tours of her mansion. She often addressed strategies and issues that plagued the black businesswoman.5 The late nineteenth and early twentieth century held a promise for black women everywhere; the birth of a new world where they could meet the changing needs of a rapidly increasing industrialized nation in a united force, as opposed to being relegated to “women’s work.” This was fueled even more so by the ever-increasing number of black women receiving college educations outside of marriage confines and entering industries side by side with men. Factory-work too was no longer just “men’s work.”6

The notable club woman, Mrs. Mary Church Terrell, earned national attention for her speeches dealing with relevant concerns like Temperance—wherein many women saw the direct relationship between broken homes/divorce and alcoholism alongside abusive behaviors. Early feminism was greatly concerned with the preservation of the family model and pushed for “charity at home”; A woman’s humanity must be guaranteed at home before it can begin elsewhere.7 Since the inception of the National Association of Colored Women, black women of Indiana were present in both participation and representation. One of the Indiana Association’s past Presidents, Mrs. Sallie Wyatt Stewart of Evansville, lifted the state to its highest level of representation in the national organization. Mrs. Stewart served as the Indiana delegate to the 1918 National Association meeting in Denver, Colorado. She herself served in the office of the National Association, then for four years as the Chairperson of the Social Science Department, for two years as chairperson of the executive board, for four years as vice president at large, and for five years as president (1928-1933), and thereafter as an honorary president.8

The publication of the Indiana federation reveals an obvious shift from “mother’s meetings” of the “plantation woman” to home-making classes, research, statistics, suffrage, anti-lynching committees, domestic work and women in industry. The anti-lynching committees were the most active in the entire state of Indiana. The accomplishments of the Indiana Association of Colored Women’s Clubs blew far beyond its originally modest goals; evident within the various homes, rescue missions, schools, nurseries and kindergartens that the Association owned and operated. By 1933, they owned over nineteen thousand dollars (over $433,069.92 today) worth of property. Even from the earliest days, these movements were founded within the walls of churches; the most successful and welcoming meeting places for these women. The clubs proved that black women could single-handedly birth and foster their own institutions for intellectual stimulation.9

About the Author

Easton Phillips is originally from the beautiful city of Cincinnati; Easton Phillips’ historical journey began with the Youth Docent program at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. After studying History at the University of Cincinnati he was hired as a Research associate at Conner Prairie in August of 2021. Easton is now the co-host for the Conner Prairie podcast, ‘This is Problematic!’ Although the title may seem “problematic” itself, acknowledging nuance and abandoning presentism is at the core of its mission. The podcast crew does not explore these topics to label history holistically ‘problematic’ or to blame the parties involved, but rather to bring to light the issues that have existed in history that still exist now. However, a proper call to action can now be created for anyone willing to listen and act in the present. Easton, along with his fellow host Zoë Morgan take on the role of ‘Historical detectives’, giving the often lost historical context and analysis to these relevant, modern issues.

Bibliography

Stetson, Erlene. Black Feminism in Indiana, 1893-1933. Clark Atlanta University, 1983.
Yenser, Thomas. Sallie Wyatt Stewart. 1942. print. Who’s Who of Colored America : 426.

Citations

1 Erlene Stetson, Black Feminism in Indiana, 1893-1933 (Clark Atlanta University, 1983), 292.

2 Stetson, Black Feminism in Indiana, 292-293.

3 Stetson, Black Feminism in Indiana, 294.

4 Stetson, Black Feminism in Indiana, 295.

5 Stetson, Black Feminism in Indiana, 295.

6 Stetson, Black Feminism in Indiana, 296.

7 Stetson, Black Feminism in Indiana, 296.

8 Stetson, Black Feminism in Indiana, 297.

9 Stetson, Black Feminism in Indiana, 296.