Section 8: Associations of Women’s Clubs

As Lizzie Crozier French’s community work expanded in Knoxville, she soon saw the benefits of forming a statewide organization of women’s voluntary associations. In 1896, French called a meeting at the Ossoli Circle, and 20 women’s clubs from across Tennessee sent representatives, all of which agreed that there was strength in numbers. They created the Tennessee Federation of Women’s Clubs (TFWC) and elected a West Tennessean, Amelia Henderson Beard (1838-1912), as president. The next year, the TFWC held its meeting in Memphis, where delegates adopted the club motto, “Unity of Purpose.” Seeing the need for educational opportunities for women, the delegates also created an education committee with French as its chair. In time, the TFWC created the Hancock County Health Project and inspired the creation of the Sneedville Women’s Club, both in East Tennessee.

In 1896, almost concurrent with the formation of the TFWC, Black suffragists, who were increasingly frustrated with the exclusionary stance of suffragist groups, formed the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC). Memphis-born Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was elected as NACWC’s first president, and the national organization grew to 28 federations with more than 1,000 clubs and 50,000 members. A year later, the first NACW convention was held in Nashville, Tennessee, with Terrell presiding and Nettie Langston Napier (1861-1938) serving as treasurer. Attendees included Minnie Lou Crosthwaite (1860-1937); physicians Dr. Josie E. Wells (1876-1921) and Dr. Mattie E. Coleman (1870-1943); Juno Frankie Pierce (c.1864-1954), a founder of the Nashville Federation of Colored Women’s Club who also presided over the Negro Women’s Reconstruction League; Hattie Smith Jackson (1855-1946); and Georgia Bradford Boyd (1884-1952). 

During World War I, Dr. Coleman, a founder of the Women’s Connectional Missionary Council, championed women’s leadership positions in the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church and led national defense fund drives and health programs for soldiers. Coleman supported the reforms of white activists, reminding them that “12,000 Negro [sic] of the state are organized and are seeking a vocational school for their girls.” Coleman and Pierce made female vocational education a key component of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Movement.

African American women also established clubs within churches. The Women’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention, as well as the Woman’s Connectional Missionary Council within the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, became networks for Black suffrage. Greek-letter organizations such as Alpha Kappa Alpha (1908) and Delta Sigma Theta (1913) sororities were organized by Black suffragists and added to their growing sphere of influence.

Tennessee Woman Suffrage Trivia:

Which prominent African American suffragist with ties to Tennessee was a founding member of the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first Black suffrage club in Chicago, Illinois? Was it Juno Frankie Pierce or Ida B. Wells-Barnett?

Answer: Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1883 and became an educator, investigative journalist, and an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Wells-Barnett founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in 1913 as part of her organizing work in Chicago, Illinois; its mission was to further voting rights for all women and to teach Black women how to engage in civic matters.