Providing for Women (#2)



Nick Carlson

LaShawnDa Pittman


7 December 2015

The Great Migration was an important event in the lives of African Americans. This is when a majority of Blacks would leave the South and head north, in hopes of a better life. The North offered many things that the South did not, such as better employment and educational opportunities. Also, the harsh conditions and white violence in the South pushed many Africans Americans towards the Northern states. However, when the millions of African Americans migrated from the South, they experienced multiple housing challenges. “On a single day in Chicago real-estate brokers had over six hundred black families applying for housing, with only fifty-three units available” (“The Great Migration” 1). There was a significant amount of competition for housing, and when blacks did find housing it was always in the least desirable area of town (Pittman). In particular, African American women had a rough time finding quality housing and work, resulting in a vast majority of women working domestic jobs. The creation of the Phyllis Wheatley Club attempted and succeeded in providing women with a more appealing living situation and desirable job. The founders of the Phyllis Wheatley Club “sought to improve the status of African American women in American society by promoting a proper Victorian image for the African American societal elite and by work on behalf of the poor to improve their condition” (Anderson 1). The Phyllis Wheatley Club was an extremely important creation, in order to provide recently migrated women from the South with a better lifestyle.

The Phyllis Wheatley Club, “named after Phyllis Wheatley, a slave poet who lived from 1753 to 1784” (Anderson 1), granted African American women with many beneficial factors that contributed to their overall sense of living and protection in the North. “It was difficult for African American women to find decent housing and work and the clubs provided services to establish these women in Northern urban society” (Anderson 1). Since a majority of African American women were vulnerable to being manipulated sexually, not only did the house provide competent housing, but it also was a key factor in protecting black women from sexual exploitation. This limits the ability of women being taken advantage of, which is one of the most important factors because sexual manipulation was and still is a horrific concern in today’s society. I was drawn to this specific club because I believe that all African Americans that migrated to the North deserved to be granted with some form of housing, and the Phyllis Wheatley Club provided that for women. The significance and importance of this special home really provoked me to research and learn about all the difficulties blacks, especially women, faced after migration, in terms of housing and employment. The highly recognized Phyllis Wheatley Club managed to make life much easier for women, and allowed them to reach out to the community through a working environment, as well as always feeling a sense of protection inside the home.

A national women’s rights activist, Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, first founded and created the Phyllis Wheatley Club in attempt of improving the living standards of African American migrant women who had come to the North for better employment opportunities. Elizabeth Lindsay, born in Peoria in 1855, was a strong leader in the advancement of African American women’s rights. She attended Princeton Township High School and later became a schoolteacher. However, once she moved with her husband to Chicago in 1885, she became very involved with multiple different clubs as well as being a strong active member in the church. “Not only did she found the Phyllis Wheatley Club, but she was active in other clubs, including the Ida B. Wells’ Club, the Giles Charity Club, and the Woman’s City Club” (Knupfer 223). She and many of the other women in the clubs took on the role of domestic work, in which their duties reached out in helping the community as a whole. Responsibilities such as being “other mothers”, who are women that provide care for other children in the community that are not biologically their own, was one of the primary roles in order to fulfill the requirements of domestic work. The work of other mothering “combined elements of feminism and Black economic nationalism in their quest for uplifting Black migrant women, and the Black Belt community” (Kimani 2). Elizabeth Lindsay played a key role in the advancement of African American women with not only the creation of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, but also her involvement in multiple different clubs and the publishing of her book in 1933 titled “Lifting as They Climb”, which portrayed the “history of the National Association of Colored Women” (Cooper 1).

The very first Phyllis Wheatley Club was created in 1895 in Nashville, Tennessee; however, after the first discovery of the club, more began to develop soon after. For example, in 1896 a Chicago club opened, followed by the opening of a club in Detroit in 1897 (Anderson 1). The opening of these clubs came at the perfect time, as they just preceded the beginning of the Great Migration, which began in 1910 and ended in 1970 in two separate waves. This historical event was the migration of approximately 6.5 million African Americans who left the South in hope of finding better employment and living standards in the North. This time period was significant to African Americans because it allowed them to escape the harsher conditions and racial climate that was experienced in the South (Pittman). The creation of the Phyllis Wheatley Clubs, allowed many migrant women more suitable housing and faced less competition while searching for places to live and work. “To alleviate the dire living and employment conditions which newly-arrived African American women faced, the Phyllis Wheatley Home was founded by the Club in 1907” (Knupfer 221). It provided “wholesome surroundings for colored girls and women who were strangers in the city and to house them until they [found] safe and comfortable quarters” (Drake 146). The availability for housing was very scarce in the North for African Americans, so these clubs were very beneficial to the women in need of secure housing.

The emergence of the Phyllis Wheatley Clubs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was essential, as it correlates with the Great Migration. Without the opening of many of these homes, a vast majority or African American women would be without housing and potentially forced to move back to the brutal conditions in the South. Its significance was greatly appreciated in the advancement of African American women’s rights, as the club helped counteract racial and sexist slurs. However, over time the significance of the Phyllis Wheatley clubs changed in a way that it wasn’t just to provide a home and safety for women, but it “began a long tradition of establishing and supporting self-help and advocacy programs in this community that spanned nearly 100 years” (Nevergold 1). Their plans revolved around the development of different programs “to feed the hungry, donated books by Black authors to school libraries, established kindergartens for black children and organized “mother’s clubs” to teach parenting skills” (Nevergold 1). All of these programs centered around the idea of African American women justifying their position and belonging in society, and their ability to provide for others. The club developed further into the twentieth century as it began to home more and more women by the year, as well as helping them succeed in finding domestic employment.

Recently in African American Studies 101 we have learned about all of the challenges African Americans faced that came along with the Great Migration, especially in terms of housing and employment. For example, housing for blacks was always in low income, undesirable areas, as well as higher rents compared to housing for whites. A majority of women were employed in the field of domestic work, in which some did not receive a living wage, but were given “leftovers” such as old clothes for their children and food as a different form of payment to counter the minimal money they earned, a phenomenon known as service pan. However, with the introduction of the Phyllis Wheatley Clubs in the area, women did not have to compete as hard for housing and employment, because these homes would take in migrant women who were struggling to find a satisfying life in the North. “The Home not only provided a Christian influence, but assisted homeless girls and women in securing employment, especially by “elevating” the standards of domestic service” (Knupfer 227). This home was significant in offsetting the struggles faced by women who had recently migrated to the North, by being able to provide sufficient housing and allow the women to serve as “other mothers” to the community, which was a primary value in African American motherhood culture. The founding of the Phyllis Wheatley Club by Elizabeth Lindsay was a noteworthy creation and really impacted the lives of many African American migrant women in an extremely positive way.

Though the details of working class Black women’s situation have changed since the early 1900s, many of the problems that these women faced remain the same (housing available in less desirable neighborhoods, difficulty securing jobs, especially good ones, sexual exploitation).  Though many people are now skeptical about “racial uplift” movements and the rhetoric of “uplift”, these clubs, formed by women and for women, were crucial to the welfare of many women and their families, and the visibility of the help that they provided remains inspiring and is the basis for contemporary clubs and Black women’s organizations today.  The fact that this club was named after Wheatley, a former slave and a poet, is a fitting tribute to her and indicates that Black women have always been highly resourceful, even in situations aimed to deflate and defeat them.


Works Cited

Anderson, Meg. “Phyllis Wheatley Women’s Clubs (1895- ) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.” Phyllis Wheatley Women’s Clubs (1895- ) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

Cooper, Sarah. “Making History: Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, 1855-1944.” Bureau County Republican. N.p., 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

Drake, St, and United States. Churches and Voluntary Associations in the Chicago Negro Community. W.P.A. District 3, 1940. Web.

Kimani, Abraham, Finch, Aisha, Brown, Scot, and Moore, Mignon. Mothers of the City: The Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home, the Great Migration, and Communal Family in Black Chicago, 1910–1930 (2012): ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Web.

Knupfer, Anne Meis. “”If You Can’t Push, Pull, If You Can’t Pull, Please Get Out of the Way”: The Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home in Chicago, 1896 to 1920”. The Journal of Negro History 82.2 (1997): 221–231. Web.

Phyllis Wheatley YWCA Girls Reserve, Seattle, Ca. 1940. Digital image. BlackPast. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. 

Pittman, LaShawnDa. (2015). The Great Migration & The Great Migration Part 2 [PowerPoint Slides].

Seals Nevergold, Barbara A. “The Phyllis Wheatley Club of Buffalo, New York.” Buffalo Rising. N.p., 02 Mar. 2015. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

“The Great Migration.” AAME :. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Washington, DC YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Club Terra Cotta. Digital image. Flickr. N.p., 16 Aug. 2007. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. 

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