Mary McLeod Bethune and members of the NCNW. BlackPast.org.
Historian Deborah Gray White explains that this period in black women’s history presents an unusual tension that remained an element within the larger African American cultural. The lingering issues of colorism, classism, regionalism and other “isms” that divided black people were laid bare during the 1930s.
“These heady times presented new challenges for black women, and for the National Association of Colored Women. One might have thought that with the victory of woman’s suffrage that the Association could have capitalized on the new political order; organized as they were around local self-help issues, the clubs seemed situated to take advantage of the new black pride. The energy that catapulted Marcus Garvey onto center stage in black America might also have undergirded an organization pledged to save the race and defend black women. Not so. Instead this decade of transition in women’s rights and black circumstances marked the permanent decline of NACW. With it went the idea that the progress of African Americans was marked by the progress of black women. Put colloquially, it was just not “ready” for the new age ushered in by the “New Negro” and the “New Woman.”5
The idea of educated people speaking on behalf of the masses no longer applied. The Great Migration and urbanization contributed to a growing militancy within the black community, ending the era of accommodation. This shift in ideology contributed to the diversity of options black women sought to use in improving their social situations.
In areas of professionalism and the arts black women continued to reinvent themselves in the midst of a division within the national ideology for black self-help. In 1935 Mary McLeod Bethune called together a meeting of 28 national black women leaders. She sought to create an “organization of organizations,” this newly formed group would serve as a lobbying agency for black women issues. The National Council of Negro Women would not be another organization but a clearing house and epicenter where larger issues could be identified and argued from each perspective, yet collectively as one voice on behalf of black women, their children and the larger community. In 1938 Miriam Stubbs Thomas, together with sixteen other black women, formed a club to sponsor cultural events for their children and Jack and Jill of America was born. Jack and Jill sought to bring together children in a social and cultural environment for personal and collective enrichment.
In 1946 The Links was founded in Philadelphia by Margaret Roselle Hawkins and Sarah Strickland Scott. The Links sought to be a volunteer service organization populated with professionally established and connected women committed to sustaining and ensuring the culture/economic survival of African Americans and other people of African ancestry. These organizations augmented the work of the NACW, targeting international and specific social issues often related to career and personal interests. All three of these groups remain viable resources within the African American community today, however, their requirements for membership and legacies of elitism confirm and support the observation of historian Deborah Gray White. Yet, their activism and vigilance benefited the larger black community throughout the 1930s and especially during the civil rights era.
In the arts, Mary Lucinda Carwell Dawson founded the National Negro Opera Company in Pittsburgh in 1941. In 1946 Camilla Williams became the first black woman to perform with the New York City Opera.