Nation & World

Women's clubs in Kentucky played key role in lives of black women

When she was growing up, it was assumed that Anna Allen-Edwards would join the Phyllis Wheatley Charity Club in Paris.

"It was understood you'd go to college. It was understood you'd join the club," Allen-Edwards said.

It was, and is, a family tradition.

Today, Allen-Edwards' 11-year-old great-niece, Hannah Moore, is the fifth generation of the family to join.

The club, which has 18 members, focuses on helping others in myriad ways, from buying books for college students to stocking the pantry of a mother who lost her job.

"We try to give quietly, without fanfare," said Allen-Edwards, 57.

The 102-year-old women's club is one of just a few such groups left in the state.

At one time, there were hundreds of them affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and its Kentucky chapter.

In addition to providing a social outlet for middle-class women, the clubs were known for helping the poor and striving to improve the neighborhoods where they lived.

"They were community builders," said Karen Cotton McDaniel, who has researched the Kentucky clubs extensively.

Women's clubs became popular in the decades after the Civil War, as blacks worked to make a place for themselves in American society.

"They came out nationally in defense of women," McDaniel said. Black women who had been raped by white men had been labeled "predators" by whites, she said.

"They were just battling so many different stereotypes," said Nancy O'Malley, assistant director of the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. "They really sought to help people of color sort of pull themselves up. ... There was this idea that you should be aspiring for a sort of social position.

"It was very much fueled by the black middle class."

George C. Wright wrote in A History of Blacks in Kentucky: In Pursuit of Equality, 1890-1980, that the women "optimistically believed that improvement in decorum, health conditions, and especially the neighborhoods where their race predominated would lead eventually to the breaking down of racial barriers in society.

"In short, blacks would show whites they were indeed worthy to be treated as equal citizens."

The Kentucky Association of Colored Women's Clubs was founded in 1903, with 13 clubs and 180 members.

By 1934, there were 125 Kentucky clubs with 2,000 members. But the groups declined after the civil rights movement, presumably as a result of the traction blacks did gain in the effort to be treated equally.

Today, there are just two or three women's clubs in Kentucky, McDaniel said.

In its heyday, the statewide association had a host of departments focused on education, black history and interracial relations and on home economics, art and health.

The "club women" of Kentucky adopted the motto "Looking upward not downward, outward not inward, forward not backward."

In 1945, when Lucy Harth Smith of Lexington compiled the Pictorial Directory of the Kentucky Association of Colored Women, she listed a host of clubs, each with its own niche.

There was an embroidery club in Louisville that made bedding for orphans, the elderly and sick folks.

The George Washington Carver Art Club in Winchester tried to foster an "appreciation for art, charity and education."

In Elizabethtown, the Jolly Matrons Improvement Club focused on school needs.

Lexington had 40 such groups at one point, McDaniel said.

There was the Tip Top Tippers Club, which bought eyeglasses for the needy and sponsored an annual fashion show.

The Dorie Miller Chapter of American War Mothers did patriotic work and served veterans.

And the Woman's Improvement Club ran a day care for children whose parents worked.

The day care on Pine Street had "cared for thousands of children" by the time Smith compiled her directory.

"These children are taught politeness, good table manners, love of God and obedience to the laws of society and government," according to the publication.

A 1934 issue of The Kentucky Club Woman reported that the "day nursery" provided care for about 35 children each day, and many more when tobacco-sales season came.

The Woman's Improvement Club supported the day care through donations from city commissioners and the Lexington Community Chest, and with membership dues and rent from a house the club owned.

Smith, principal of Booker T. Washington School for 20 years, led a group of women who raised money to start a Lexington summer camp aimed at feeding hungry children.

McDaniel said Smith talked local lumber yards into donating the lumber, and they built a kitchen.

The "health camp" opened in 1944 with 40 children and was serving 120 children by the summer of 1946.

Elizabeth "Lizzie" Fouse of Lexington was a leader in the National Association of Colored Women and founded a "scholarship loan fund" to help young people attend college.

In her role as chairwoman of the national association's Better Homes Department, she advocated for affordable housing and home ownership.

According to Wright's book, the Kentucky club women formed a committee in 1918 to lobby the legislature in the interest of women and children.

The organization was successful in getting two books on black history and culture added to the list of materials approved for study in Kentucky schools.

Wright also credited the women with urging black doctors and nurses to move to Lexington and Louisville, and with helping those professionals set up offices when they arrived.

At a time when there was no government safety net, the clubs worked to fill the void.

They also stepped in to make sure black people got the care they needed from a segregated system that often neglected their health care needs.

McDaniel said the club women in Frankfort helped support a hospital for blacks because "they couldn't go to the other hospital."

Paris' Phyllis Wheatley Charity Club started as a knitting or sewing group that made sure the segregated ward for blacks at the local hospital had the necessary linens, Allen-Edwards said.

Without the club women, "we probably would've lost a lot of people," McDaniel said.