At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:
- discuss how black Americans and their allies fought for civil rights decades before the emergence of the modern civil rights movement.
- recognize and write about the role of Mary Church Terrell and the NACW in working for civil rights in the decades before the modern civil rights movement
- analyze the intersection of race, class and gender in the black women’s club movement.
How did African American women advocate for their rights before the modern civil rights movement?
What role did African-American women play in advancing social and civil equality?
- African American women advocated for their rights many years before the start of the modern civil rights movement by organizing local groups that worked to help other women.
- African-American women working in local women’s clubs played a major role in advancing social and civil equality. They educated women on skills needed to work in the house and to raise children. They also provided training for nurses, worked to repeal Jim Crow laws, and advocated for free kindergarten classes.
Most history textbooks include the story of Rosa Parks, an African-American woman whose act of defiance—refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man—sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a cornerstone of the mid-20th-century movement for African-American equality. But Rosa Parks is only one among many African-American women who worked for equal rights and social justice. This series profiles four other important female civil rights activists. In this lesson of the series, “Beyond Rosa Parks: Powerful Voices for Civil Rights and Social Justice,” students will read and analyze text from “The Progress of Colored Women,” a speech made by Mary Church Terrell in 1898. Terrell was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), an organization that was formed in 1896 from the merger of several smaller women’s clubs, and was active during the period of Jim Crow segregation in the South. Using the slogan “Lifting as We Climb,” the NACW worked to improve the lives of African Americans and to secure their rights in the United States.
baleful [beyl-fuhl] (adjective) full of menacing, harmful, or evil influences
devolved [dih-volvd] (verb) to pass responsibility (or power) from one person or group to another person or group at a lower level of authority
fetters [fet-ers] (noun) chains or shackles, usually placed around the ankles
fruition [froo-ish-uhn] (noun) attainment of anything desired; realization or accomplishment
iniquitous [ih-nik-wi-tuss] (adjective) characterized by injustice or wickedness
Word Work: Tools for Understanding Unfamiliar Words
1. Explain to students: “Sometimes you will read something that has a lot of words you haven’t seen before, but those unfamiliar words don’t need to cause you problems. At times, you will have to look up a definition. However, there are other strategies you can use to figure out what a word means.”
Then read the following sentence from the Mary Church Terrell’s speech as an example: “But, from the day their fetters were broken and their minds released from the darkness of ignorance…colored women have forged steadily ahead in the acquisition of knowledge and in the cultivation of those virtues which make for good…”
2. Next, offer explicit instruction: “Read the first part of the sentence. Do you know the word fetters? If so, read the sentence again, substituting a word that means the same thing as fetters. If not, consider the sentence as a whole. The sentence says that black women’s minds were released from darkness. Fetters were broken to release their minds. In the context of the sentence, then, what do you think fetters means? Fetters are something that kept black women locked in ignorance. They are something that got in the way of black women’s learning. From the sentence, you can figure out that the word fetters means things that restrain or limit people. These are called ‘context clues.’”
3. Provide another example: “Now read the second part of the sentence. Do you know the word acquisition? If so, read the sentence again, substituting a word that means the same thing as acquisition. If not, look at the word to see if you recognize part of it. Acquisition is related to the word acquire, which means to get. Acquire is a ‘familiar root’ that can help you figure out what acquisition means: It means ‘getting.’ As you read the central text, you will come across some unfamiliar words. Some of them are highlighted in yellow. Working with a partner, use the skills described in this section to help you figure out what the words mean.
Close and Critical Reading
As the class begins reading the materials, describe the following pre-reading, during reading and post-reading strategies.
Tell students, “Start by asking a few basic questions so that you have a good idea of what you’ll be reading. For example:
- “What is the title of the text?
- “Who wrote it?
- “In what form did the text originally appear? (e.g., in a magazine or on the radio)
- To whom was the text directed?”
2. During Reading
Say the following to the class:
“One way to read a text like this is one paragraph at a time, making sure you understand each paragraph before you move on. This selection has 14 paragraphs, which have been numbered to help you use this strategy. Read the first paragraph. Using the Close Reading Sheet, write a sentence that states the most important point in the paragraph or that summarizes its main idea. Continue by writing a summary sentence after reading each paragraph.”
Tell students, “When you’re done, read what you’ve written on the Close Reading Sheet. Circle what you think are the most important points in the piece. Write a sentence or two to sum up what the complete text says.”
Ask students to complete the activities below with a partner or in a small group of three or four.
1. Find the places in the text where Terrell sets the historical context. Using the information you find there, answer these questions with your group:
- When was the text written?
- What significant past events does Terrell refer to?
- How have these events affected black Americans in general?
- How have they affected black women in particular?
2. Find the places in the text where Terrell explains the important roles women play in homes.
Answer these questions:
- What roles do women fill in the home?
- Why does Terrell see these roles as important and powerful?
- Do you agree with her? Why or why not?
3. Find the places in the text where Terrell speaks about class differences among black Americans.
- From what class do you think Terrell comes? What makes you think so?
- What attitude does she have toward blacks of a different class?
4. Now think about the contributions of the National Association of Colored Women. Using the information in the text, answer these questions:
- In what ways did members of women’s black clubs help African-American communities?
- Which contributions improved the quality of life for black Americans?
- Which contributed to economic equality?
- Which contributed to legal justice?”
Write to the Source
Ask students to compose a note to Mary Church Terrell: “Write the letter from your perspective living more than 100 years after she gave this speech. In your note, explain what you like about what she says and why it still makes sense to you all these years after it was written. Also explain what does not make as much sense to you. Explain to her what has changed that makes her speech less relevant now than it was then.”
Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts CCSS R.1, R.2, R.5, R.6, R.10, W.1, W.2, W.4, W.9, SL.1, SL.4, L.1, L.2, L.3, L.4, L.5
Encourage students: “Find out more about the National Association of Colored Women. You might start by reading about the organization on its website. (It is now called the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.) Working with a group, identify one of the organization’s significant projects or actions. Report to the class your findings. After all the groups have reported, discuss the importance and impact of the NACW since its founding.
Explain the following: “In her speech, Mary Church Terrell spoke about how black women who had greater advantages had helped those who had fewer advantages. As a class, look around your community for examples of people who help others less fortunate than they are. Decide on an action you can take to help people in your community who are in need, such as volunteering at a soup kitchen, setting up a clothing drive in the community or at school, or working toward a policy change. Then carry out that action.”