African American women and the Niagara Movement, 1905-1909.
Black women were the gender capital of the Niagara Movement, though perhaps that was not the intention of the 29 men who came together to form this group. This article is divided into four sections in order to create the story of the women in the Niagara Movement: Mary Burnett Talbert, Carrie W. Clifford, Gertrude Morgan and the Membership Lists.
MARY BURNETT TALBERT
The first meeting of the Niagara Movement opened on July 11, 1905 at the house of Mary Burnett and W.M Talbert. A graduate of Oberlin College, Mary Talbert became one of "the most widely known activist[s] in Buffalo" by the turn of the century. (2) (photo #1) Talbert was an active participant in many different organizations in Buffalo including those created within and outside of the church. In her lifetime, she held such high positions as the President of the Buffalo Phyllis Wheatly Club in 1899, President of the National Association of Colored Women in 1916, and led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's anti-lynching crusade in 1922 as the National Director of the Anti-Lynching Committee and became the first woman to speak before the Norwegian House of Parliament in 1920. As a result of her many years of hard work in support of the improvement of the lives of African Americans, and her work with the Anti-Lynching campaign, Talbert became the first woman to receive the highest award given by the NAACP, the Spingarn Medal in 1922. (3)
Mary Talbert was also an acquaintance of Booker T. Washington, as well as DuBois. Washington sought Talbert's assistance in keeping him informed of the actions of the participants in the Niagara Movement. In a letter dated July 8, 1905, Washington wrote to his wife Margaret asking her to, "write to Mrs. Talbert to keep you closely informed about proceedings and names of people connected with the Buffalo meeting next week". (4) Expressing her usefulness as an informant in another letter dated the same day, Washington wrote, "Tell Crosby look after Buffalo meeting sharply. It is to be held next week. Inside data can be gotten from Talbert ..." (5)
Washington seemed to have been aware that the meeting was to be held at the Talbert's residence from a latter correspondence by Clifford H. Plummer to Washington. In the letter he states, "My dear Mr. Washington: I arrived home this morning and called you up first thing ... the report was not true; in fact there really was no conference in Buffalo where delegates were in attendance ... I was located near 521 Michigan Avenue from Wednesday morning until Friday and I can state positively that none of the men named in the report were present except DuBois." (6) It is not certain as to which report this was, however, 521 Michigan Avenue was the Talbert's address. The meeting began at their residence on July 11th and the next day moved to the Erie Hotel on the Canadian side of the Falls. (photo #2) Washington's spy arrived at the residence a day late.
The fact that the Niagara Movement meeting began at the Talbert's residence on July 11, 1905 is corroborated by other contemporary sources. A letter dated June 13, 1905 written by DuBois to Mr. W.M. Talbert, Mary Talbert's husband informs him of the proposed meeting. DuBois writes to him about finding accommodation for the gentleman who would be coming to Buffalo for the meeting. The letter has the address, 521, Michigan Avenue at the top. This letter proves that the Talberts knew DuBois and that they were aware of the impending Niagara Movement. It also confirms that the address 521 Michigan Avenue belonged to the Talberts.
Contemporary newspaper accounts also confirm that the Niagara Movement meeting began at the Talbert's residence on July 11, 1905. The Buffalo Enquirer reported on July 12 that "Colored men from eighteen states held a national conference at No.521 Michigan Street yesterday ... " (7) On July 13, the same newspaper reported that the meeting, " ... opened Tuesday," and that it was being held at " ... the Erie Beach Hotel." (8) This supports three points, that the Niagara Movement started on July 11, 1905, at the residence of the Talbert's and that it moved to the Erie Beach Hotel on the second day--July 12.
The Buffalo Commercial also noted on July 12, 1905 that, "A national conference of Negroes is being held at 521 Michigan Street ... The leader of the meeting is Prof. W. E. B. DuBois ... "and again the Buffalo Daily also noted on July 12, 1905 that, " ... a national conference of colored men from eighteen different states held at 521 Michigan Street, the opening session yesterday .... " (9) The final proof of the meeting having begun at Mary Talbert's residence is the official address given on top of the page of the list of members and program of the first Niagara meeting. It reads,
First Annual Meeting
Place: Erie Beach Hotel, Ontario and 521 Michigan Ave.,
Time: July 11, 12 and 15 1905." (10)
While at the time the notation of Mary Talbert's address on the meeting list probably had no great significance for Black women, in retrospect it is a very significant part of Black women's history in the movement for the race. Mary Talbert was a willing partner with her husband to allow DuBois and the other men to meet at their house to form a new movement, one that was in opposition to Booker T. Washington. There was a risk involved in this as Washington also knew the Talbert's and had already been in correspondence with them to gain information on the meeting. The Talbert's did not inform him of the fact that the meeting was going to convene in their residence. In the process the Talbert's signaled their support of DuBois's new radical movement. Mary Talbert was already an active race supporter and did not object to the meeting being convened at her residence even though she was not invited to be a signatory to the Niagara Movement's birth. We do not find any contemporary documents that reveal her taking credit for allowing the first 29 men to gather at her residence. Nor do we find any minutes of the Niagara Movement Meeting acknowledging her name in relation to the formation of the Niagara Movement. Thus Mary Talbert's silent contribution to the foundation of the movement is saluted.
Carrie Clifford, an activist, a reformer and a writer of the Harlem Renaissance is the second woman to be associated with the Niagara Movement, though openly, unlike Mary Talbert. Clifford was from Ohio and Washington and a long time friend of DuBois. Clifford was also on the committee of one hundred that founded the NAACP in 1909 and a president of the National Association of Colored Women. Through sketchy contemporary documents Clifford's role in the Niagara Movement can be gauged. She was made, "in charge of appeals to women for the Niagara Movement." (11) A letterhead for the Niagara Movement carries her name at the top. It says, "Secretary for Women (South)." (12) In another account it is stated that, "in 1906, DuBois asked several women to lead a national committee for a female auxiliary of the Niagara Movement. Clifford assumed responsibility for encouraging women to join later that year at the Niagarites second meeting held in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Although women were denied admission to the sessions until the third meeting held in Boston the following year, they met among themselves. In 1907 at the Boston meeting, half of the eight hundred delegates were women. Thus, it is obvious that the campaign led by Clifford to persuade more women to join the Niagara Movement was most successful." (13) And a final document states that she was to work " ... jointly with Mrs. Morgan." (14) Mrs. Morgan was later appointed in charge of the women's auxiliary to the Niagara Movement.
Clifford was also the person who suggested in 1906 that race organizations ought to work together and said that the Niagara Movement and the Afro-American Council should join forces and work together. (15) However many were suspicious that she belonged to the Washington camp, thus her ideas were ignored as possible attempts by Washington to infiltrate and influence the group. (16) However, she was known to be a radical. She was a poet of the Harlem Renaissance and in her vibrant poetry she appeared very much the rebel. "In her poetry and in her life, Carrie Clifford did indeed speak with a determination and resolve that would not be quenched by America's accomodationist desires for its black constituency." (17)
In two of her poems Clifford exhorted women to work for the race. The first one is directly addressed to women and in the second there is a reference to women that inspire Black women to struggle for the common cause of the race. The first poem is titled, Duty's Call.
Come, all ye women, come! Help till the work is done, Help to uplift! We must sin's blight remove, By deeds of kindness prove The wondrous power of love, God's greatest gift. We must remove the ban Placed on our fellow-man, Thro' Satan's power; Let us as one unite, Darkness and wrong to fight, Then will the glorious light Break in God's hour. "Tis now, we must begin; If we our cause would win; The foe is strong; But we can make him quake, His forces swerve and break When we old earth shall shake With victory's song." (18)
In the second poem titled, Marching to Conquest, she stresses upon the noble virtues of women.
We are battling for the right with purpose strong and true; "Tis a mighty struggle, but we've pledged to dare and to do; Pledged to conquer evil and we'll see the conflict thro' Marching and marching to conquest. All the noble things of life we'll teach our girls and boys, Warn them of its pitfalls and reveal its purest joys, Counsel, guide and keep them from the evil that destroys As we go marching to conquest. Loving confidence and trust must mark our intercourse, Harmony and unity will our success enforce; Seeking guidance from the Lord of good, the boundless source As we go marching to conquest. Come and join our anthem then and raise a mighty shout, Sing it with such fervor as will put our foes to rout, Sing it with conviction strong, dispelling every doubt, As we go marching to conquest, Women, when our work is o'er and we to rest have gone May our efforts doubled, trebled, still go sweeping on, And the voices of millions swell the volume of our song, As they go marching to conquest. Hurrah, hurrah, we'll shout the jubilee; Hurrah, hurrah, we'll set the captives free, Ignorance, distrust and hate at our approach shall flee, Marching and marching to conquest. (19)
In early 1906, DuBois decided to organize a woman's auxiliary to the Niagara Movement. DuBois chose Gertrude Morgan, the wife of his old friend Clement Morgan to head the woman's auxiliary and it was decided that Mts. Clifford was to work " ... jointly with Mrs. Morgan." (20) Mr. Clement Morgan was a lawyer and a classmate from Harvard and also one of the 29 men who joined the Niagara Movement in 1905. (photo #3) Trotter it is said rejected the creation of a woman's auxiliary. William Trotter, also one of the 29 founder members of the NM and the owner of the newspaper Boston Guardian, has been considered to be adamantly opposed to women becoming involved in the movement and skeptical of the women's rights movement. (21) However, had that been the case then why would Trotter let his wife Dennie Trotter join the Niagara Movement? The Niagara Movement was riddled with difficulties from the beginning. The movement was plagued by two "fundamental" issues, "it lacked coherence (both intellectually and organizationally), and it lacked the power to challenge the Tuskegee hegemony." (22) With Morgan's appointment as the head of the woman's auxiliary a tension also developed between the Trotters and Morgans.
Trotter's opposition to DuBois's decision to form a woman's auxiliary to the Niagara Movement may have stemmed from DuBois's choice of the person to head it, Mrs. Clement Morgan. Trotter and Morgan did not get along and DuBois was aware of the tension between the two men and attempted to resolve it, albeit unsuccessfully. According to Stephen Fox, the appointment of Gertrude Morgan to head the women's auxiliary to the NM was, "the first sign of breach" (23) between Trotter and DuBois and this affected the smooth functioning of the meetings of the NM and the relationship between its key members. It is said that after Trotter, Clement Morgan was "the most prominent anti-Bookerite in Massachusetts." He was also the State Secretary of the Niagara Movement's local branch. He had also been Trotter's attorney in the Boston riot trials. (24)
A paper written by DuBois in 1906, titled "A Brief Resume of the Massachusetts Trouble in the Niagara Movement", enumerates the tension between Morgan and Trotter. The first line of the paper reads, "July 1906--Trotter opposed admission of women to the Niagara Movement, and opposed Miss Baldwin and Mrs. Grimke in particular. Mrs. Morgan favored." Initially he seemed to be in favor of Mrs. Morgan according to the above noting made by DuBois. Besides being opposed to Miss Baldwin and Mrs. Grimke, (for which no reasons are found in the contemporary documents), another woman mentioned in the records, whom he opposed, was Mrs. Forbes. The rift between Trotter and Morgan widened so much that it became one of the causes for Trotter's resignation from the Niagara Movement.
The above paper written by DuBois can be divided into three parts for a deeper understanding of what exactly appears to have transpired between Trotter, Morgan and some of the other women. These divisions include:
1) The staging of a play in June 1907 at Massachusetts before the Third Niagara Movement Meeting at Boston in July 1907
2) The meeting itself
3) A discussion on the election of new members to the Massachusetts meeting.
THE STAGING OF THE PLAY:
In a noting in April 1907, Mrs. Morgan's name first appears in relation to the staging of a play in order to raise money for the next meeting to be held in Boston, Massachusetts. "General Secretary has sent out a call for raising state quotas of Legal Defense Fund." Mrs. Morgan replies making first mention of the 'Peter Pumpkin--eater Play' and urging Boston as a meeting place in August. (25) Both Mr. and Mrs.Trotter are said to have opposed the staging of the play. The opposition centered on personal jealousies. " ... Mrs. Trotter was not invited to cooperate until late, and that the Forbes were allowed to help." (26) The paper goes on to give the reply of the Morgans, "Counter-charge of Morgans that Trotters refused to let their boy take part, blocked arrangements, and that without Mrs. Forbes work in gathering children the play would have failed." (27) Ultimately the play did take place, without the Trotters involvement and brought a total of $65 to the Movement. (28)
THE MEETING ITSELF:
Tension over Trotter's perceptions of the Boston meeting also became a cause of tension between the Trotters and the Morgans. DuBois tried hard to achieve reconciliation between the two, but failed. Trotter blamed Morgan for being bossy, while the later labeled him as domineering. DuBois urged Morgan to put Trotter on the Committee of Arrangements for the annual meeting to which he latter agreed. However, the Trotters gave a " ... written document of 22 pages, virtually rescinding agreement and demanding an official reprimand of Morgan." (29) DuBois refused and as a reaction, Mrs. Trotter resigned from the Niagara Movement. In July, Trotter too resigned from the Committee of Arrangements and presumably criticized Mr. and Mrs. Morgan. In the paper it is noted that, "Policy of Secretaries Morgan and Mrs. Morgan attacked." (30) DuBois urged Morgan to reinstate Trotter. Morgan did so and Trotter rejoined but refused to cooperate.
ELECTION OF NEW MEMBERS:
The third part of the paper deals with the charges made against the induction of new members to the Massachusetts Niagara chapter. DuBois goes to great lengths to assert that the balloting had been free, secret and under no pressure at all. For those out of town at the time of the vote, Mr. Morgan and Mrs. Morgan sent the ballot papers to them. DuBois says at one place in the paper that he appealed to Morgan and Trotter to get those men to join that they knew best and urged Mrs. Morgan to get those women to join that she knew best. Trotter, however, signaled that the elections had not been fair. To which DuBois replied, " Mr. Morgan was State Secretary of the Niagara Movement; the election was necessarily in his hands. Mrs. Morgan is at the head of all Niagara Movement women. The election as far as the women were concerned was necessarily largely in her hands. I could not have usurped the place of these secretaries in conducting the elections even if I wanted to and I did not want to. I could see that the vote was fair and this I did." (31) The last sentence is an addition to the typed version made by DuBois in his own handwriting. The elections were voted as fair and valid.
Mrs. Gertrude Morgan continued to enlist Black women into the movement, thereby greatly helping in the proliferation of the membership and the movement itself. Under her efforts the Massachusetts branch of the Niagara Movement's third meeting at Boston had a total of 38 women members out of 91. Though a list of the total members of the Niagara Movement is not available, 1909 records are available of payments made as dues by the members. From these it is known that 38 female members paid their dues out of a total number (men and women) of 74. Another list of members that paid money for the special Jim Crow Fund shows that out of the total of 17 members that paid, nine were women (32) Mrs. Morgan's selection by DuBois for the position of Secretary of Women created a wedge between the Morgans and Trotters. This added pressure on an already weak movement that had been handicapped from the beginning by lack of funds and infighting between its members.
Besides information available on Talbert, Clifford and Morgan, a study of the limited sources available on membership records of the various NM meetings from 1905-1909 reveals a growing interest of Black women in the movement. During the second meeting at Harper's Ferry, the Niagara Movement began to open its doors to female members. This was indeed a landmark decision considering that in the original 29 members there were no women members and that the Declaration of the Principals stressed on Black male membership. In the minutes of the second meeting, it was stated that, "properly qualified persons may be admitted to the Niagara Movement without distinctions of sex ... " (33) Two types of membership existed; full and associate and women were allowed in both. In a member list dated August 15, 1906, there were four women members and they had all paid their dues. In another list dated August 18, 1906, two more women are mentioned who had paid their dues. Another list gives the names of the associate members (those who did not have the right to vote at the annual meetings and hold office), who were primarily women--39 out of 51 listed and all had paid their dues. (34) These lists are useful in collating the number of African-American women that were involving themselves in the activities of the Niagara Movement as membership opened up to them.
One very important document that supports the inclusion of women to the Niagara Movement is a paper dated 1906 (no month is mentioned) entitled, "Women and the Niagara Movement." (35) This paper offered three types of membership to women. These included, "Full Membership: The Niagara Movement welcomes to full membership on invitation both men and women ... Associate Membership: Women who sympathize with the Niagara Movement ... Affiliated Membership; Any women's club may as a club become affiliated with the Niagara Movement ... " (36) The change in DuBois's decision to include women members may have resulted from either the realization that Black women were essential for race reform or that they were short of members. Perhaps it was a combination of the two.
In this paper it is also mentioned that Mrs. Gertrude Morgan had been appointed as the National Secretary for Women. (37) The paper also had the names of the various other secretaries and the committees. In the women's committee there were six members besides the secretary and they were all women. In the other committees except for the Arts Committee there were no women! The other committees consisted of Legal, Army and Navy, Crime, Health, education, The Press, Pan-African, Students, Suffrage, Civil Rights, Economics and Ethics. Presence of women in these committees might have held a more significant meaning. The Arts Committee was the only other one that had a woman member, Mrs. M. A. McAdoo, who in 1907 became the chairperson of the committee, as the minutes of the third NM meeting noted on August 27, 1907 in Boston. (38) The minutes of the third meeting also noted that the group did not feel that women were doing "a great deal of work." (39) What is the precise implication of this sentence it is not clear. For women had begun to join the movement only a year earlier. It could mean that not much work was done for the women, or that women in the NM had not done much work for its cause or that not too many women members as yet had been enrolled in the Niagara Movement.
The lists of members available for 1907 are not complete. For Baltimore, the list shows twenty members, however, there were no indications of how many in this group were women. From New Bedford, 18 members are listed, again not indicating how many of the members were female. And the District of Columbia branch showed two full women members out of a total of 14 and 57 Associate members out of a total of 68. (40)
Contemporary newspapers carried news about the NM from its inception. Though nothing substantial can be gained about the role of women, snippets about the presence of women and some of their work are available. For example the Boston Guardian reported in its August 25, 1906 issue about the women in the Second NM meeting at Harper's Ferry. A picture of seven women is given with their names, specifying in some the work or the place they came from. And they have been referred to as, " ... pioneer women members." The picture and the statement indicate the media's acknowledgement of the presence and specific roles of the Niagara women. However, this was the only paper that carried this news item. And the owner of the newspaper was Mr. Monroe Trotter, who was a member of the NM. W. E. B. DuBois papers include two pictures--one of the second NM meeting in 1906 and the other of the third meeting in 1907. (photos #4 and #5) The first does not show women, while the second does. This was because though the NM encouraged women to join the movement, they were officially recognized as members only from the third meeting. It needs to be mentioned here that Mary White Ovington, a journalist and a socialist became the first white member and first white women to be invited by DuBois to join the NM in 1908. She played a very important role in the founding of the NAACP. This paper addresses only the role of Black women in the Niagara Movement.
Thus the above lists and the minutes of the NM meetings, the few primary sources that exist and the sparse newspaper accounts, are witness to the role of the African-American women in the Niagara Movement. From no women members in 1905 when it started, to women as members and as chairpersons of some committees, Black women played a significant role in the growth of this new radical Black movement at the turn of the twentieth century.
Desirous of achieving primary race status, Black men have tended to ignore the role of Black women in race movements, with the emphasis being on the contributions of Black men. Further the struggle for gender parity within the Black community was submerged in the larger interests of the race. As such the actual goals, programs, policies and agendas of race movements have centered on the role and encouragement of Black men. Yet when given a role, Black women fulfilled it with enthusiasm and commitment, for they too viewed it as their contribution to race reform. Their aim was to seek empowerment for the race and in the process if they had to neglect their own needs as women, so be it. From the churches to schools, to factories, to women's clubs, to their own national women's movement, to finally race movements like the Niagara Movement, Black women gave quietly and strongly. The above article is an example of their important role that few know about, but history records.
Anita Nahal and Lopez D. Matthews Jr. (1)
(1) Anita Nahal is former Reader (Associate Professor) of History, Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi, India and is currently Director of International Affairs and Women's Studies Programs, Graduate School, Howard University, Washington DC. Lopez D. Matthews Jr. has just completed his Master's in History, at Howard University, Washington DC. He started in the doctoral program in History in fall 2006 as a McNair Fellow at Howard University.
(2) Lillian S. Williams, And Still I Rise: Black Women and Reform, Buffalo, New York, 1900- 1940 in Darlene Clark Hine, Wilma King and Linda Reed (eds.), We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible (New York: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1998) p. 523.
(3) Cynthia Neverdon-Morton, Afro-American Women of the South and the Advancement of the Race 1895-1925 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1989), 226.
(4) Louis R. Harlan, Raymond W. Smock (eds.) The Booker T. Washington Papers, Vol. 8, 1904-6 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979), 321.
(7) Buffalo Enquirer, 12 July 1905.
(9) Buffalo Commercial, 12 July 1905.
(10) W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, Reel 2, Frame 853, State University of New York at Binghamton Library, Binghamton, New York. Henceforth referred to as WEBDB, R, F.
(11) W.E.B. Du Bois, Correspondence of Du Bois, Vol. 11. Herbert Aptheker, ed. (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973).
(12) WEBDB, R2,F 1037.
(13) Jessie Carney Smith, (ed.), Notable Black American Women, Book II (New York: Gale Research Inc., 1996), 105 - 108.
(14) WEBDB, R 2, F 979.
(15) Elliot M. Rudwick, The Niagara Movement Journal of Negro History, Vol. XLII, 1957, 188.
(17) P. Jane Splawn, Writings of Carrie Williams Clifford and Carrie Law Morgan Figgs (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1997), 14.
(20) WEBDB, R 2, F 979.
(21) Stephen R. Fox, The Guardian of Boston, William Monroe Trotter (New York: Atheneum, 1970), 103.
(22) Kathryn Kish Sklar, Gender and the Color Line in the Founding of the NAACP, paper read at the Berkshire Conference in Women's History, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, June 1996, 6. and David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (New York: Henry Holt, 1993).
(23) Fox, 103-105.
(25) WEBDB, R 2, F 962.
(31) WEBDB, R 2, F962.
(32) WEBDB, R 2, F969, 1004-1005.
(33) WEBDB, R 2, F 872
(34) WEBDB, R 2, F 874, 883 and 884.
(35) WEBDB, R2, F 893.
(37) WEBDB, R 2, F 893.
(38) WEBDB, R 2, F 911.
(39) WEBDB, R 2, F 913.
(40) WEBDB, R 2, F 922.