BY WALTER OPINDE
The First National Conference of the Colored Women of America was a three-day conference in Boston organized by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, a civil rights leader and suffragist. In August 1895, representatives from 42 African-American women’s clubs from 14 states convened at Berkeley Hall for the purpose of creating a national organization. It was the first event of its kind in the United States.
Speakers included Margaret Murray Washington (the wife of Booker T. Washington), author and former slave- Victoria Earle Matthews, anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, scholar Anna J. Cooper, civil rights leader T. Thomas Fortune, and social reformers Henry B. Blackwell and William Lloyd Garrison. The National Federation of Afro-American Women, which became the National Association of Colored Women the following year, was organized during the conference.
In 1892, Boston activist Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin founded the Woman’s Era Club, an advocacy group for black women, with the help of her daughter, Florida Ruffin Ridley, and educator Maria Louise Baldwin. It was the first black women’s club in Boston, and one of the first in the country. Its members, prominent black women from the Boston area, devoted their efforts to education, women’s suffrage, and race-related issues such as anti-lynching reform. Its slogan was “Help to make the world better”. The Woman’s Era, an illustrated monthly publication, was the club’s newspaper.
In the early 1890s, when the Woman’s Era polled readers to see if there was a need for a national organization of black clubwomen, the response was overwhelmingly positive. In 1895, an obscure Missouri journalist named John Jacks sent a letter to the secretary of the British Anti-Slavery Society, Florence Belgarnie. In the letter, Jacks criticized the anti-lynching work of Ida B. Wells, and wrote that black women had “no sense of virtue” and were “altogether without character.” Outraged, Belgarnie sent the letter to Ruffin, who distributed the letter to various women’s clubs in her call to organize. Soon after, Ruffin organized a national conference in Boston and asked clubs to send delegates. The first day was to be devoted to the business of organizing, and the second and third to “vital questions concerning our moral, mental, physical and financial growth and well-being.
On 29th July, 1895, representatives of 42 black women’s clubs from 14 states—including the Colored Women’s League of Washington, the Women’s Loyal Union of New York, and the Ida B. Wells Club of Chicago—gathered in Berkeley Hall for the First National Conference of the Colored Women of America, with Josephine Ruffin presiding. They convened at the hall for three days, with an extra session on August 1 at the Charles Street Church. According to the New York Times, it was “the first movement of the kind ever attempted.”
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