Sisters-in-Service: The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs 125-Year Legacy

Sisters-in-Service: The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs 125-Year Legacy

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin by T. A. Charron.

Mary Church Terrell by Betsey Graves Reyneau.

By Levi Perrin

The power of Black women gathering is timeless. So intimidating was the very act of coming together as a group, it was outlawed and codified into slave codes. Even threatened by death, meetings were a sacred tradition interwoven into their survival.

Sometimes celebratory, other times solemn but always essential, the convenings were passed from grandmother to aunty to mother and sisters. Black women social circles were the spark to intersectional work, embodied in the oldest and longest-serving national Black organization. A collection of doers, sewing circles, faith leaders and troublemakers, they unified in the toolshed of social change.

In 1896, Boston journalist Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin joined with fellow Washington, DC suffragist and educator Mary Church Terrell to organize the largest gathering of Black women leaders and activists ever convened in the 19th Century. 

Adopting the slogan “building as we climb,” they would eventually wear the title National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC). They embraced the far-flung interests of their people including women’s suffrage, education, economic empowerment and human rights of emancipated citizens. The early anti-lynching campaigns and philanthropic work for food, housing and land for freed-people were supported by this emerging body. 

The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs was founded in July 1896. 

Their ranks included the educated elite and daughters of the enslaved from both the north and south.These founding sisters-in-service included Ida B. Wells and scores of lesser known activists of that day. The honorary founders also included marathon elder stateswomen Harriet Tubman and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.  

While hardly given its credit in history, the NACWC would lay the blueprint for the NAACP (founded in 1909) and sororities and fraternities established nearly a decade later. By 1924, the Women’s Club membership swelled to over 100,000. And until the Great Depression, the organization was an umbrella for some 100 local clubs and federations.

Renowned and erased, the NACWC members stitched the threads in a collective fabric of action and equity, the bedrock upon which giants stood. 

They mentored the next generation of movement shakers in an inheritance upon which Black women have shared for centuries. The bodies nurtured by Mary McLeod-Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Rosa Parks, Harriette Moore, Dorothy I. Height, Mary Church Terrell, Septima Clark and Anna Julia Cooper, to name a few, lowered the shoulders on which so many Black women leaders stand today. 

Bold, brave and brilliant, the achievements of Black women working together remain a force for democracy and progressive change 125 years later.

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