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The story of Reconstruction – YouTube

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Book review instructions and book are down below with videos and choose chapter 7

Book Review Instructions
• Introduction must include a brief statement placing the work under review in its
appropriate historical context
• Brief overview of the monograph including information about the author and subject
• Restatement of author’s thesis
• Relevance to African American Studies
Strengths/Weaknesses –
• Student must identify specific strengths and weaknesses
• What does the student see as a major strengths or weaknesses?
• Student must use specific examples from the texts to support or to illustrate examples of
the strengths and weaknesses of the work
Historical Reception
• Student must identify and use several professional historical reviews, which appear in peer
reviewed academic journals and newspapers to describe the reception of the work by
professional historians and the general public.
• Why was the work significant?
• Why was it important?
• Did the author support his arguments according to professional historians?
• What did professional historians identify as the strengths and weaknesses of the work?
• Student must give an overall evaluation of the text
• What do you see as the most important aspects of the work
• Did the text help you to understand this historical topic any better?
• What is your opinion about the text?
Your paper must be typed in Times New Roman font 12pt only. The style for footnoting is
Chicago style only. This is an upper level history class and all students have been exposed to and
used Chicago style in your history courses, and it is the required format for the discipline (there
is no exception). You will be provided a guide and the expectation is that you will follow the
guide and email me or come to office hours with questions. Your papers must have clearly
defined paragraphs and edited before submission. This is an academic endeavor and the only
source you are allowed to use are the assigned book and the professional historical reviews you
will look up on JSTOR. Please note that I will know if you have not read the book, simply
reading the book review is not enough.
All students must read the introduction of the book and then select one additional chapter to read.
Mitchell, Michele. Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny
after Reconstruction. Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Copyright 2004. The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or applicable copyright law.
When we shall master our own vices,
when we shall become strong physically
. . . there will be no question in the
minds of the people as to the future of
the race.
—Dr. Furman J. Shadd,
Southern Workman (1898)
Seven years after Atlanta hosted the 1895
Cotton States Exposition, where Booker Washington
conjured up the image of black arms crafting, toting,
and casting down buckets, the city was the site of
the Negro Young People’s Christian and Educational
Congress. From the first day, when attendees heard an
‘‘Afro-American National Hymn’’ written by Ida German Carter, to the fourth day, when teachers went to
sessions on ‘‘the necessity of high moral character,’’
the interdenominational conference was an immense
meeting; it encompassed topics as diverse as black
mortality, evangelical work in Africa, crime, and the
efficacy of benevolent societies. But on Sunday, the
final day, women and men held separate ‘‘platform
meetings’’ to propose and discuss solutions for delicate ‘‘social issues.’’ As the women met at the People’s
Tabernacle and the men assembled in an auditorium
at Piedmont Park on that Sunday morning in August
1902, the day’s work for both groups would be, in a
sense, sex work. For men, Wilberforce College president Joshua Jones was slated to give a paper on male
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AN: 137921 ; Mitchell, Michele.; Righteous Propagation : African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny After Reconstruction
Account: s9008954.main.ehost
‘‘crimes’’ visited upon women, while H. T. Johnson, editor of the Christian
Recorder, was to describe the moral legacy that rakish fathers bequeathed to
their children. Dr. Sarah Jones of Richmond, along with scientist Josephine
Silone Yates from Kansas, was scheduled to appear at the Tabernacle to address ‘‘physical’’ matters pertinent to women.1
Activist Ariel Serena Bowen was another featured speaker on the women’s
program, and she believed that ‘‘passions running riot’’ would eventually
destroy people of African descent in the United States. Bowen took pains to
ensure that the audience at her afternoon session would leave the congress
fully capable of recognizing the true dangers of youthful ardor. Freewheeling fornication was not her primary preoccupation, nor did she spend much
time preaching that abstinence saved souls as well as bodies. Rather, Bowen
was vexed about ‘‘child marriage,’’ and she wasted no time outlining why
the practice was nothing less than criminal: ‘‘It produces physically puny,
weak and sickly offsprings. The child-mother is not perfectly developed.
The organs are not fully grown. . . . So, too, with the boy-father. . . . This
is one of the supreme causes of the large number of emaciated, ill-formed
and sickly children with which the race is afflicted . . . [as well as] the high
death rate that menaces the race.’’ Bowen’s notions mirrored mainstream assumptions that premature sexual activity stunted intellectual development
and hastened death.2 Yet, when Bowen contended that the ‘‘high percentage
of premature motherhood’’ among black females compromised ‘‘the future
stability and prosperity of this race,’’ she was doing more than drawing upon
conventional wisdom: by invoking ‘‘puny, weak, and sickly’’ infants she was
also addressing the painful reality that African Americans had a markedly
high infant mortality rate. If black Americans wanted to be a ‘‘truly great
people,’’ argued Bowen, then sexual unions among youth simply had to
Ariel Bowen’s address abounded with genteel language about the sanctity
of the ‘‘marriage tie,’’ but it was also built upon strategic—albeit codified—
references to the carnal urges responsible for couplings among those barely
beyond childhood. In the process of rousing her audience from being too
complacent about racial reproduction, in the process of drawing attention to
the vitality of future generations, Bowen risked indelicacy and talked about
sex. Significantly, the president of the statewide Afro-American division of
the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Georgia did not concentrate
her energies on moralizing sexual behavior. While Bowen did indeed touch
upon the moral implications of early sexual activity and whereas she insisted
that labor and education should supplant fornication, her paper was not an
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out-and-out invective adjuring young people to abstain from intercourse.
The overarching, all-important issue for her was that youthful sex resulted
in a shoddy product, that ‘‘child marriages’’ kept young people from engaging in the enterprise of race building. Bowen even hinted that for African
American children, righteous learning should actually include careful instruction on sexual ethics—or, to invoke her own language, ‘‘training for the
responsible duty of founding families.’’ 4
The five-day conference at which Bowen spoke not only provided a space
where women and men could actively evaluate sexuality, it culminated with
those very evaluations: some attendees fretted over hygiene or urban temptations, some harbored anxieties about clothing and public conduct. Other
women and men chose to emphasize moral rectitude by asserting that sexual
purity was steadily taking hold among a people just removed from chattel slavery. Overall, then, both organizers and participants of the congress
firmly situated sexuality within the ‘‘problems and progress’’ of the race,
and in so doing they typified black American reformers at the turn of the
Congress participants undoubtedly saw themselves as representative race
members that embodied the promise of a people. But if these women and
men were representative in certain regards, they were not necessarily typical. Like other African Americans living in postemancipation society, most
participants rose from slavery or made their way from otherwise lowly beginnings. Their very attendance at the conference, however, signified access to
educational and financial resources beyond the ken of most laboring women
and men. As crucial as class status was when it came to reform, uplift work
served as a veritable fusion politics uniting African American activists who
belonged to different socioeconomic classes yet shared common goals and
outlooks; activism in and of itself differentiated the cohort of reformers from
women and men who primarily associated sex with leisure, pleasure, marriage, or even trade. Striving black women and men engaged in uplift work
did not share the lifestyles or attainments of their more elite brothers and
sisters, yet some of their attitudes about domesticity, personal carriage, and
sexual behavior could be quite similar. Poorer race members who struggled
for daily sustenance were indeed united by economic hardship. Yet, the social attitudes of aspiring women and men who decided to participate in uplift work nonetheless set them apart from working people who spent their
spare hours in other ways.
Uplift activists did not speak for all black people, then, yet they dealt
with a force that affected virtually every member of the race. Sexuality was
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not only a factor within individual households but it, along with gender,
affected larger questions of labor and citizenship. Moreover, sexuality encompassed a range of relationships and dynamics for African American
reformists: choice of sexual partner, courtship, heterosexual intercourse, reproduction, concubinage, miscegenation, rape. Late-nineteenth- and earlytwentieth-century reformers occasionally discussed ostensibly gender inappropriate behaviors in ways that suggested sexual inversion or, in rarer
cases, insinuated homosexuality. If ‘‘nascent models of sexual inversion and
homosexuality . . . were entwined . . . with the logic of American scientific
racism’’—the very scientific racism that spurred reform efforts within the
race—Afro-American reformists’ discussions of homosexuality remained
largely inchoate until the 1920s.6 Indeed, sexual conduct of a different sort—
public comportment, chastity, promiscuity, mating—became a matter of
concern for a variety of race institutions. Issues and reforms varied over time,
yet sexuality remained ‘‘a matter of general interest [and] part of the general
discussion of [racial] repression’’ for women, children, and men living in
the wake of Reconstruction.7
Sexuality was a paramount concern for other Americans as well. Between 1890 and 1920, decades when ‘‘the older Victorian value system was
under siege,’’ a range of women and men reassessed ‘‘intimate matters.’’ 8
Whether they migrated to cities for greater sexual freedom, chose to limit
pregnancies, rejected heterosexuality, or formed a series of erotic partnerships, changes in mores and practices were no less palpable for people at
the turn of the century than at any other time in U.S. history. But with social
purity campaigns, eugenic theory, settlement work, temperance crusades,
and birth control advocacy, as well as increased dissemination of sex information and the coalescence of sexology, sexuality was perhaps more public
than ever before.9
African Americans broached their own sexuality within this milieu. Black
sexuality was particularly charged—so much so that racialized anxieties
often devolved into interracial sexual violence, so much so that sexual practices of the black poor and working class caused a fair amount of distress
for social strivers within the race.10 Not only was sexual comportment a significant marker of class status within the race, stereotypes concerning black
sexual appetites kept many aspiring and elite race members from engaging
in turn-of-the-century social emancipations. These same women and men
would nevertheless explore ways in which sex could bolster the literal reproduction of the race, secure a healthy presence in the national body politic,
and strengthen the collective integrity of Americans with African heritage.
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For a people forced to protect their civil rights, pertinent sexual issues in
postemancipation life included lynching, concubinage, and interracial rape;
for a people long denied access to resources and facilities, intraracial concerns about sexual health assumed a sense of immediacy as well. In an era
when sexual terrorism was an ominous reality for black Americans, at a time
when disease and early death cast a pall over many black households, a significant mass of black women and men acted upon the notion that the race’s
destiny and sexual practices were intertwined.
Self-proclaimed crusaders seized the gauntlet of policing sexual behavior
within the race as they poured their energies into ensuring that sex contributed to—rather than detracted from—the work of Afro-American reproduction. The very concept of ‘‘racial destiny’’ emphasized later generations:
it implied that biological processes of generation should result in an abundance of vigorous offspring that would, in theory, continue to reproduce a
hearty people. Private coupling became public concern in part due to demographic shifts. Beginning in 1890 and lasting until at least 1930, the black
population in the United States underwent a massive transformation besides
migration and urbanization—the Afro-American birthrate was in flux if not
decline. Beyond this trend, infant mortality and disease exacted heavy tolls
on black communities throughout the United States. For women and men
concerned with the quality and quantity of black people, the era between
1890 and 1930 was an era of crisis. It would prove to be an era of crusades
as well. African Americans produced literature about sex, launched grassroots campaigns to promote greater numbers of robust babies, and educated their communities about perilous diseases. Individuals, media, and
public forums forged a clear link between group vitality, racial reproduction, and sex; all were instrumental in vivifying that particular link for the
Afro-American public.
Reform-minded black women and men proceeded to contend that race
progress was contingent upon eradicating vice, increasing the number of
‘‘well-born’’ children, and monitoring sexuality.11 In the process they drew
from contemporary impulses, many of which were built upon eugenic arguments. Eugenic theory was rife with raced, classed, and gendered conceptions of fitness, and its implications were more than a little problematic for black people. But with its basic tenet that sexual behavior was a
decisive factor in determining whether children were ‘‘well-born,’’ eugenic
thought suggested that individuals possessed the potential to improve their
offspring through strategic mating. Eugenics further implied that an ethnically, racially, or nationally configured people could ensure their vitality via
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concerted efforts to impose boundaries and order upon the sexual collective.
Thus, whereas African Americans had to contend with a legion of theory
that implied all people of color sprung from degenerate stock, they could
actually subvert racism within eugenic thought through the guise of uplift.
When it came to race progress, furthermore, black women and men found
certain eugenic concepts appealing if not pointedly useful. Along these lines,
activists such as Ariel Bowen belonged to a black cohort within the American social hygiene movement that ‘‘addressed questions of sexuality in order
to advance their own standing and . . . that of the entire race.’’ 12
Afro-Americans—especially the aspiring, middle class, and fairly elite—
mobilized social and intellectual resources to alleviate morbidity and channel sexual practices into healthy racial perpetuation. Furthermore, public
considerations of black sexuality by African Americans emerged when their
very survival was questioned as well as scrutinized. Black reformers were
therefore insurgents in that they challenged a plethora of racist notions concerning black sexuality and humanity. But, when these same women and
men labored in the name of race uplift, they at times ‘‘condemned . . . perceived . . . negative practices and attitudes among their own people.’’ 13 African American sexual politics thus reflected interracial as well as intraracial
conflict. ‘‘The politics of respectability’’ could be subversive in contexts
where Afro-Americans consciously decided not to allow stereotypes and insults to affect their own measure of self-worth, yet attempts to enforce ‘‘respectable’’ behavior could be oppressive for those black women, men, and
children who opted to live by different standards. As much as respectability
and uplift were on the minds of a substantial number of black women and
men, perhaps concerns about the future—not to mention desires to experience pleasure—resonated with many more.
Racial oppression and mob violence posed terrific threats to the
lives of black Americans once Reconstruction ended, but other perils threatened their survival as well. Black women’s fecundity appeared to slacken
after 1880, while it seemed as though black morbidity levels were skyrocketing due to tuberculosis, pellagra, venereal disease, and other serious ailments. Furthermore, the rate of infant mortality was higher for black children than for any other ethnic group in the United States during the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For certain observers—both white
and black—it appeared that Afro-Americans might die out as a distinct
One such observer was particularly influential: Frederick L. Hoffman,
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a German immigrant and statistician for Prudential Insurance hailed by
mainstream pundits as judicious regarding all things racial in the United
States. Given his professional standing and supposed impartiality, Hoffman’s ‘‘Vital Statistics of the Negro,’’ which was published in the Arena
during the spring of 1892, was at once influential and particularly damning. In this article, Hoffman was willing to grant—on general principle—
that statistics on births and deaths were likely to be unreliable, and he acknowledged that projections concerning population growth or the future
vitality of any given group could indeed be inaccurate. When it came to the
task of exploring whether African Americans were reproducing themselves
in a healthy fashion, though, Hoffman cast aside his professed willingness
to allow for discrepancies. Instead, he bluntly proclaimed that blacks in
the United States were cursed with ‘‘race deterioration’’ brought about by
‘‘gross immorality, early and excessive intercourse of the sexes, premature
maternity . . . general intemperance . . . [and] susceptibility to venereal
diseases.’’ For him, the fate of Afro-Americans was sealed by degenerate
‘‘colored females’’ whose high rates of illegitimacy and stillbirths ensured
that blacks in the United States would, in time, ‘‘vanish.’’ 14
Four years later, Hoffman’s Race Traits and Tendencies of the American
Negro drew upon U.S. history, socioeconomic data, material conditions,
and census reports in order to assert that black people were dying faster
than they were born. He also professed that an excess of deaths over births
was a greater problem for Afro-Americans than for any other ethnic group
in the nation. In spite of his belief that African American women ‘‘were
gifted with an abnormally high birth rate,’’ Hoffman still maintained constitutional infirmities among U.S. blacks revealed an incontrovertible fact:
‘‘in the struggle for race supremacy the black race is not holding its own.’’ 15
Hoffman’s notion that blacks were moribund emerged from social Darwinist tenets concerning the ‘‘survival of the fittest,’’ and the major thrust of his
work mirrored contemporary beliefs that blacks did not possess the wherewithal to survive outside of slavery.
Hoffman’s views were neither unusual nor extreme within majority discourse. For example, a white doctor from Mississippi, H. L. Sutherland,
referred to Hoffman as an ‘‘impartial observer’’ in a 1905 address before a
southern medical association. Sutherland’s speech on the ‘‘Destiny of the
American Negro’’ mimicked Hoffman’s work in its claim that ‘‘marriage is
the exception’’ among Afro-Americans; ‘‘their children are brought up in
shame . . . [and] not more than 2 per cent. of [N]egro girls preserve their
virginity to the age of 12.’’ 16 Here, it is important not to consider Suther82
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land’s writing as distinctly ‘‘southern’’: during the period between 1890 and
1910—again, an era of national reconciliation and reunion—mainstream attitudes about black sexuality tended to be similar whether the person holding those attitudes was from the South, West, North, Midwest, or East.
Moreover, defamatory notions about black sexuality were so pervasive that
a recent immigrant like Hoffman could easily publish such views in Race
Traits under the guise of ‘‘objectivity.’’
The racialist views of Hoffman and Sutherland would be supported in
print by at least one Afro-American. William Hannibal Thomas, a descendant of free people of color, penned an especially notorious screed about
black morality that was published on the cusp of the new century. His book,
The American Negro, alleged that ‘‘an imperious sexual impulse . . . [in]
negro character constitutes the main . . . degeneracy of the race, and is the
chief hindrance to [the race’s] social uplifting.’’ One of his more provocative examples was an allegation that poor black women routinely excited
their male relatives by sashaying about cramped cabins in scanty garments,
with ‘‘fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters, oblivious of decent social
restrictions, abandon[ing] themselves . . . to sexual gratification whenever
desire and opportunity arises.’’ The text further insisted it was impossible
for black manhood to ‘‘respect chaste womanhood.’’ 17
The American Negro had still more conclusions to offer on black sexuality. According to Thomas, extensive, excessive masturbation among children resulted in ‘‘actual carnal knowledge’’ for a majority before the age
of sixteen, and he also maintained widespread infidelity was spreading the
scourge of ‘‘sexual morbidity’’ throughout the race. From prostitution to
infanticide to abortion, The American Negro covered topic after topic as its
author—like Hoffman—argued black women were on the road to infertility and insinuated extinction was a real possibility facing Afro-American
people. Thomas’s writing exceeded tacit acceptance of mainstream notions
that lewdness was inscribed upon the innate character of ‘‘negroes’’ in that
his work firmly and unrelentingly situated the very history and eventual fate
of people of African descent within sexualized, racist canards.18
William Hannibal Thomas incensed more than a few of his contemporaries, who promptly censured him for impugning a struggling people, for
providing ammunition to detractors, for adding fuel to fire. Booker Washington implied Thomas was ‘‘a man without a race,’’ Howard University
professor Kelly Miller wrote him off as a pathetic ‘‘defamer,’’ and even William Hooper Councill—a conservative race man by almost any standard—
felt a fair amount of ‘‘disgust’’ over the publication of Thomas’s book. A
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lesser-known race man, Reverend S. Timothy Tice of Massachusetts, published a sizable pamphlet to rebut and reveal Thomas as ‘‘an unscrupulous
Negro author . . . appealing to the white race prejudices.’’ In order to substantiate his effort to discredit William Thomas, Tice shored up his text
with court records and affidavits that purportedly originated with reliable
sources.Two of these documents alleged that, as a student,Thomas impregnated a woman and only then saw fit to marry her; another contended that
the controversial author was ‘‘lecherous.’’ 19
Tice probably felt justified in his decision to slander Thomas, for whether
from within the race or from whites, charges that African Americans were
inherently lascivious and degenerate were anything but benign stereotype:
they rationalized lynching, justified rape, legitimated segregation, and restricted employment opportunities. Therefore, the act of challenging defamers or highlighting black morality by African American men and women
was often about more than controlling the race’s image—it was a means of
responding to attacks on their collective character and individual bodies.
Women were especially vocal and organized in this regard.
Chicago resident Fannie Barrier Williams chose an auspicious moment to
voice her discontent with popular concepts of black female sexuality. During
the Columbian Exposition of 1893, she addressed the World’s Congress of
Representative Women and complained that all too often race women were
forced to assume defensive positions in order to answer ‘‘meanly suggestive’’ commentary. Significant advances regarding the ‘‘moral regeneration
of a whole race of women’’ notwithstanding, Williams and other ‘‘representative’’ African American women found themselves ‘‘fervently impatient and
stirred by a sense of outrage under the vile imputations of a diseased public opinion.’’ A watershed event two years later reflected their frustration.
The formation of an umbrella organization for club women, the National
Association of Colored Women, emerged, in part, out of indignation over a
scandalous letter ‘‘written by a southern editor . . . reflecting upon the moral
character of all colored women.’’ 20 When black women—and men—countered oppressive sexual stereotypes or responded to physical assaults, they
employed various tactics. One of the most frequently employed strategies
was an emphasis on ‘‘respectability.’’ 21
Afro-American claims of respectability typically combined ‘‘concern[s]
for sexual purity, child rearing, habits of cleanliness and . . . self-improvement.’’ This combination enabled club women and race men to promote
certain modes of behavior and instruct their brothers and sisters on how to
attain a range of ideals. In addition to being a form of protest for many aspir84
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ing, middling, and elite people, respectability was part of a larger intraracial
pedagogy on earning civil rights and gaining self-respect through proper
conduct. Along these lines, discussions of respectability advanced specific
concepts of acceptable sexuality in that black reformers frequently promoted ‘‘respectable reproductive sexuality within the safe confines of marriage’’ as a viable means of uplifting the masses and working toward black
Yet the political etiquette of respectability was ‘‘progressive’’ in more
ways than one. Uplift work placed black reform activists squarely within
the Progressive Era, but it also indicated the progression of class stratification within black communities after emancipation. During the last thirty-five
years of the nineteenth century, sexual mores increasingly indicated attainment of, or aspiration to, position and status for blacks in the United States
in ways that eclipsed antebellum standards for the expected sexual behavior
of any given social class. As W. E. B. Du Bois observed in a 1908 Atlanta
University study, abolition occasioned a distinct ‘‘emergence . . . of successive classes with higher and higher sexual morals.’’ 23 Class stratification
among black Americans was thus a major development of postemancipation
society; subsequently, sexuality assumed deeply classed meanings.24
In turn, this process of class formation after emancipation simultaneously
revealed and exacerbated tensions surrounding sexual propriety within the
race. Aspiring-class views about sexuality—specifically women’s sexuality
—could be condescending if not oppressive. For example, as black reformers pushed for intraracial sex reforms in urban settings, many came to view
recent migrants as ‘‘degenerate.’’ When it came to establishing agencies that
both aided and controlled migrant women, ‘‘the emergent black bourgeoisie . . . secure[d] . . . personal autonomy in the process of circumscribing
[working-class] rights.’’ 25
The relationship of class, reform, and sexuality was still more complicated. During the first decades of the twentieth century, poor folk often
‘‘tolerated’’ intrusive reform initiatives because at times it benefited them to
do so. The pragmatic aspects of reform—namely access to information on
sexuality and the potential of intraracial initiatives to improve black health
within a segregated society—‘‘were not [necessarily] antagonistic to the
interests of the poor.’’ Concepts of respectability could also be integral to
‘‘a pre-existing working-class culture’’ rather than being mere bequests or
unwelcome impositions handed down from one class to another. This is
not to say that a number of women and men were not angered, insulted,
and irked by the sanctimonious tone of moral crusades, nor is it to imply
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sex reform was a universally embraced, uncontested form of communitarian
politics. Attitudes and behaviors between socioeconomic groups definitely
clashed—still, that collision did not prohibit black reform efforts from appealing to people from different class backgrounds, nor did it curtail a range
of ‘‘respectable’’ African Americans from participating in uplift work.26
If the prickly issue of black sexuality deeply informed the intertwined
politics of uplift and respectability, during the early twentieth century aspiring and elite activists would increasingly turn to popular scientific concepts
to analyze sexuality and reproduction. For this particular cohort, eugenic
ideas about achieving ‘‘race betterment’’ through production of well-born
children would be especially influential. Eugenic thought attracted considerably more Anglo-Americans than Afro-Americans, and it entered the
American mainstream with a vengeance as the nineteenth century closed
and the twentieth opened: institutions of higher learning legitimized eugenic concepts by offering coursework on the subject; local eugenics groups
proliferated across the nation. Beginning with Indiana in 1907, eugenic sterilization and restrictive marriage laws spread to more than ten states within
ten years. Moreover, between 1877 and 1920, more than a dozen ‘‘family
studies’’ publicized reproductive histories of so-called ‘‘unfit,’’ ‘‘mongrelized,’’ and ‘‘degenerate’’ families. Popular hereditarian and eugenic theories
were built, in no small part, upon theories of race and class that implied
that the poor were more likely to be vicious, that degeneracy plagued certain ethnic groups, and that African Americans lacked positive heritable
qualities such as intelligence.27 Not surprisingly, both strains of thought buttressed rationales behind immigration quotas and antimiscegenation legislation. With conscious manipulation, however, racialist theories could be
co-opted in the name of black uplift.
A number of prominent Afro-Americans therefore used arguments regarding how heredity bolstered group vitality; they advocated eugenic solutions and sex regulation as a viable means of lowering black morbidity. Black
interest in well-born children—especially among women—stretched back
into the late nineteenth century: Dr. Rebecca Crumpler contrasted the illeffects of excessive ‘‘physicking’’ with the benefits of mating ‘‘well’’ as early
as 1883; Frances Ellen Harper explored ‘‘the laws of heredity and environment’’ as each pertained to ‘‘enlightened motherhood’’ nine years later;
Selena Sloan Butler, who organized black parent-teacher associations, extolled the hereditarian virtues of domestic environments in 1897. A major
journal for club women, the Woman’s Era, explored questions of ‘‘nature
or environment’’ in creating fit people, while one club, the Lucy Thurman
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Union, installed Washington D.C.’s Dr. Carrie Thomas as their ‘‘Superintendent of . . . Heredity and Hygiene.’’ 28 Slowly and surely, this interest in
popular eugenics would spread to a wider range of Afro-Americans over the
next two decades.
One-time Tuskegee instructor Adella Hunt Logan was among those
vexed by the notion that too many members of the race thought of sex merely
as ‘‘the gratification of passion.’’ She dealt with this concern by underscoring
the dangers of giving into ‘‘unholy feelings’’ at an Atlanta University conference in 1897, and, in the process, Logan implored race women and men
of ‘‘all classes’’ to pay attention to ‘‘the claims of prenatal and hereditary
influences.’’ 29 Baptist laywoman Sylvia Bryant aired her concerns in public as well. When she addressed the same 1902 Youth Congress where Ariel
Bowen gave her paper, Bryant described how disorderly homes, immorality,
and careless breeding prevented the production of ‘‘a strong healthy race.’’
Club woman Addie Hunton—yet another participant of the congress—believed every child had ‘‘a right to the inheritance of the very best of body
and soul its parents can bestow.’’ Hunton also echoed Bryant’s sentiments
when she contended that black women needed to ‘‘concentrate their efforts
. . . [and] diminish the number of poorly born, poorly bred and deformed
children’’ within the race.30
Around the turn of the century, reformists that shared the preoccupations and presumptions of Logan, Hunton, and Bryant ensured that AfroAmericans would have greater access to knowledge about sex and healthy
racial reproduction by producing ‘‘home manuals.’’ Billed as ‘‘educational
emancipators’’ for ‘‘the future development of the ambitious colored American,’’ books such as Life Lines of Success, The College of Life, and Golden
Thoughts on Chastity and Procreation included detailed advice about sex.
These books were aimed at mature readers—or at least those a few years past
puberty—and each one devoted considerable space to allaying the worries
of young people pondering the duties of marriage for the first time.31
Golden Thoughts was notable in terms of its modern and frank approach.
Despite the sunny, innocent title, its chapters on adolescence, marriage, and
health contained relatively frank advice on everything from masturbation to
venereal disease to whether married couples should sleep in the same bed.
A black physician from Atlanta, Henry Rutherford Butler, wrote the introduction and urged black women and men to obtain a copy, pore over its
contents, and learn about topics ‘‘of vital importance to the human family.’’
Butler’s endorsement for Golden Thoughts went beyond enthusiasm as he
vaunted the book as a tool for racial redemption: ‘‘This book [comes] . . .
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at this most critical period in the existence of the colored American. It
brings to my people the golden thoughts on how to perfect themselves in all
things social, economical, physical, political and financial. . . . Some good
thing can come out of Ethiopia.’’ 32 The text was replete with examples of
which sexual proclivities led to destruction: ‘‘self abuse’’ vitiated the young,
cross-generational sex produced unfit offspring, excessive intercourse withered genital organs. To animate the text, illustrations and photographs of
Afro-Americans in Golden Thoughts contrasted desirable and undesirable
behavior. There were renderings of pure, innocent youths, sketches of mismatched couples with puny offspring, and series of portraits that contrasted
the glowing progeny of the ‘‘fit’’ with the slightly darker-skinned toddlers
of the allegedly ‘‘unfit.’’ These illustrations—along with an image on the
frontispiece of a wholesome family enjoying each other’s company in a wellappointed parlor—promoted ‘‘bourgeois decorum as an important [part
of ] emancipatory cultural discourse.’’ 33
As it identified sexual ‘‘intelligence [as] the main hope for the redemption
of a stricken race,’’ it seems safe to assume that Golden Thoughts was produced solely with the descendants of slaves in mind.34 But Golden Thoughts
also appeared under the slightly less euphemistic title of Social Purity. This
other edition, however, was apparently produced for white Americans. Page
by page, line by line, the text in both books was identical; the only appreciable difference was that Social Purity had illustrations with white subjects,
and its opening pages did not include the introductory comments of Henry
Butler.35 Even further, the married authors ofGolden Thoughts/Social Purity
were apparently not African American.36 What this implies, in a general
sense, is that while contemporary information about sex was marketable to
both blacks and whites, the actual information was packaged in oddly segregated forms. Furthermore, it demonstrates that the notion of racial betterment through sexuality held currency for a range of Americans.
However, the phenomenon of Golden Thoughts/Social Purity suggests
something a little more complex, for both editions contained passages
clearly written for a majority audience. Witness the following observation
about venereal disease from Social Purity: ‘‘Its destructiveness has been observed in the past, and there is reason to believe that it is even now threatening the enormous vitality which has given supremacy to the Anglo-Saxon
people.’’ The same line appeared verbatim in Golden Thoughts. Granted,
such a statement can be read as commentary on the perceived station of
Euro-Americans or as a means of provoking both races into divergent forms
of intragroup action. Given that each edition went on to liken women in
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‘‘Children of the Poor and Uneducated,’’ from Golden Thoughts on Chastity and
Procreation (ca. 1903). In contrast to its presentation of cherubic, bright-eyed, sepiahued children as the product of ‘‘pure and intelligent parents,’’ Golden Thoughts
associated childhood deprivation and degeneracy with lank looks, anxious faces,
and—unintentionally, perhaps—darker complexions. Courtesy of General Research
and Reference Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York
Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
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the United States to their fair, rosy-cheeked ‘‘English cousins,’’ however, it
seems more plausible that much of the text—if not all of it—was initially
written with one group of Americans in mind.37
Whereas Life Lines of Success and The College of Life were similarly
strange amalgams which fused representations of black progress with writings by white ‘‘experts’’ on reproductive health and sexual protocol, they too
represented attempts to bring that information to a black audience. When
Life Lines proclaimed that sex was the ‘‘strongest, most intimate . . . hope
of the race,’’ that proclamation happened to be lifted from an ostensibly
‘‘white’’ source. In a society where African Americans did not have easy access to resources, such an insight was most likely appropriated in the name
of equal opportunity. As Henry Butler conceded a few years before he endorsed Golden Thoughts, ‘‘[whites] have the public libraries where they can
get and read books on hygiene . . . [whereas] we have no such privileges.’’
For both black reformers and compilers of home manuals, appropriation of
mainstream texts was a ready means through which a mass audience of black
women and men might be persuaded that sex was not merely for pleasure.38
By including text originally aimed at convincing native white couples to
produce ‘‘well-born’’ children, moreover, the compilers of Afro-American
home manuals clearly believed black people throughout the United States
could well benefit from knowledge intended for native white Americans.39
With higher reported rates of adult morbidity and infant mortality for African Americans, many black reformers were convinced that the race needed
the information all the more. Manuals also popularized both contemporary
medical language and sex advice among women and men of color. These
books were part of an explosion of print media aimed at black Americans
around the turn of the century, and they constituted a special niche within
the genre of race pride literature. Black women and men seemed to welcome
such information, for these books went into multiple editions and were sold
by subscription in black newspapers aimed at general audiences.40 And,
as sex information was packaged for African Americans, a range of issues
touching upon sexuality increasingly informed activists’ discussions of race
and destiny.
Placing Afro-American sex literature within historical context
and understanding why allied grassroots movements emerged when they
did entails a turn to changing demographic trends—especially fertility rates
—of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Birthrates of nativeborn white and black women in the United States declined with each de90
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cade as the nineteenth century ended and continued to do so as the new
century progressed. The diminution hardly went unnoticed. Most notably,
perhaps, declining birthrates stoked fears about ‘‘race suicide,’’ a contemporary expression that encapsulated anxieties about immigration and concerns about women’s mobility, increased access to higher education, use of
birth control, and reevaluation of motherhood. The race suicide panic ‘‘was
a backlash, a response to actual changes in birth rate, family structure, and
sexual practice.’’ Reactionary as it might have been, the term ‘‘race suicide’’
enjoyed fairly broad circulation, with men such as sociologist Edward Ross
and Theodore Roosevelt using it to bemoan the fact that increasing numbers
of elite and middle-class native white women embraced ‘‘voluntary motherhood’’ by controlling their own fertility. Most white women bore an average
of three babies by 1920 as opposed to five sixty years before; those with a
college education tended to have even fewer.41
Whereas African American women remained likely to bear more children than native white women, their fecundity experienced an especially
sharp drop beginning with the end of Reconstruction and lasting until at
least 1930. Black women averaged about seven children on a nationwide
basis during the 1870s, whereas three or four children were more typical
five decades later. Put another way, the ratio of children under five years
old per one thousand African American women between the ages of fifteen
and forty-four fell at least 33 percent between 1880 and 1910 alone.42 Significantly, however, the number of live births varied across class, occupation,
and region. Among married women having children around the turn of the
century, for example, those in the agricultural South bore up to eight babies,
while service workers in the same region might have four. Service workers
and middle-class women living in the North and West, in contrast, were
likely to bear three children.43
Any number of factors contributed to the drop in black women’s fecundity, with migration, urbanization, and high levels of participation in the
labor force being particularly decisive in the reduction: all three militated
against frequent births. Although the majority of the race remained below
the Mason-Dixon line, and southern black women’s fecundity outstripped
that of other African American women, when women migrated out of the
South they typically left behind desires for large families. Given that migratory patterns of women and men were generally different, the very process
of migration momentarily separated partners and curtailed opportunities
for routine sex, thus reducing opportunities for impregnation.44 Relocation
was not the only movement at work, however, since increasing numbers of
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black women took matters into their own hands by making conscious decisions to limit their pregnancies or delay marriage. Some black women were
simply leery of successive childbearing, while others harbored reservations
about bringing children into a racially oppressive society. One doctor reported that a few of his ‘‘intelligent and upright’’ patients admitted ‘‘they
would rather die than . . . bring children into the world to suffer what they
had suffered.’’ 45
By choice or by chance, African American women in the labor force—excluding farm workers—also contributed to fertility reduction, since women
who worked outside the home generally had fewer children. Socioeconomic
conditions in northern cities probably played a small part in determining
the low birthrates of working black women in the urban North, too. As African Americans became urbanized, large families became increasingly impractical due to high costs of living, limited housing stock open to the race,
and reduced economic contributions of children to households.46 Even further, a few financially strapped workers likely engaged in ‘‘prenatal infanticide’’ rather than support yet another child.47 What one observer dubbed a
‘‘mad frenzy to prevent reproduction’’ on the part of black women included
contraceptives, folk medicines, douching, abortifacients, and abstinence.
Factors beyond women’s control potentially ‘‘prevent[ed] reproduction’’ as
well: poverty, hardship, physical stresses endured in a hostile racial climate.
Along these lines, pregnant workers engaged in heavy labor might have been
especially prone to stillbirths.48
Although in-depth reportage on birth control, stillbirths, abortion, and
sexual habits was not the stock-in-trade of the Census Bureau, the bureau
certainly reported demographic trends and transitions among African
American people. The percentage of black people within the national population went from 14.1 percent in 1860 to 9.9 percent in 1920. In terms of
rough figures, the 1860 census counted approximately 4,441,000 people of
African descent, with a slight increase to 4,880,000 ten years later. By 1880,
the black population was at least 6,580,000, while the 1890 enumeration reported about 7,490,000 African Americans. Over 8,833,000 black people
lived in the United States at the turn of the century according to official
estimates. Yet, those estimates were not necessarily accurate, and three successive decennial counts were sufficiently controversial as to set off racial
alarms. An undercount of African Americans in 1870 fueled discussion that
blacks were undergoing slow but certain extermination. Oddly enough, a
more accurate 1880 census led alarmists to veer toward the opposite extreme
and declare that the United States was becoming ‘‘Africanized.’’ In 1890,
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however, another undercount resuscitated extinction theories. If the 1890
census was partially responsible for the last decade of the nineteenth century
witnessing ‘‘an unparalleled outburst of racist speculation on the impending disappearance of the American Negro,’’ that speculation continued into
first decades of the next century.49
Afro-Americans both acknowledged and analyzed racial forecasting, with
black publications providing a vital forum for dissecting the politics of the
census. In 1891, a major race paper of the day published a cogent, opinionated letter from a reader in Searcy, Arkansas:
One of your contributors is very much perplexed over the decreasing per
cent of the Negro population of this country. . . . The question is not
so unfathomable. . . . People are populating this country by immigration
from Europe . . . [and] in the Southern States. . . . they don’t care to give
a correct census . . . for general political reasons. . . . I do not say . . . that
there is no cause for alarm, for in our cities the per cent of the death rate
among us is much greater. This is owing to the unaccountable passion
of our [young] men . . . for low pursuits. . . . They are fast vitiating the
Negro blood . . . while our women . . . have not learned the proper care of
themselves. . . . As much against us as things seem to be, we are gradually
developing into a great race.
In his landmark study, The Philadelphia Negro, W. E. B. Du Bois offered
the more biting observation that any ‘‘census which gives a slight indication
of the utter disappearance of the American Negro from the earth is greeted
with ill-concealed delight.’’ 50
Not everyone was as blithe as Du Bois in dismissing theories of black extinction. A Baltimore newspaper ran an article with the ominous heading
‘‘Necrology of the Negro Race,’’ in which race minister J. Andrew Patterson offered a rather foreboding prognostication: ‘‘It has been said by scientists and statisticians that the Negro is dying faster than he is being born.
It has also been stated that because of disobedience on the part of parents
to prenatal and postnatal laws the majority of the younger generations . . .
are and will be inherently weaker than their parents. The foregoing statements being true, it is evident that a race that is dying faster than it is being
born, with a majority of the coming generations being poorly born, cannot survive.’’ 51 Patterson’s comments—like those of the correspondent from
Searcy—sounded a tocsin of impending crisis as they expressed anxiety
over sexuality, reproduction, and racial vitality. Whereas their views were
dissimilar, neither person discounted the possibility that the race just might
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be suffering, whether due to lust for ‘‘low pursuits’’ or from disregard of
‘‘prenatal and postnatal laws.’’ Even further, black morbidity worried both
Patterson and the Arkansan; each writer implied that the race’s future was
inexorably bound up in altering questionable behaviors and improving compromised bodies.
TheColored American Magazine joined the fray over Afro-American vitality and attempted to explore the question from several angles. The journal’s
print symposium—aptly entitled ‘‘Is the Negro Dying Out?’’—took on a
certain authoritative formality as eleven medical race men offered their expert opinions. With one slight exception, no doctor who appeared in the
pages of the Colored American concurred with overheated claims of impending black extinction. John Kenney, Booker T. Washington’s personal
physician, argued it was ‘‘granting a great deal’’ to assume statistics on black
Americans were accurate in the first place. Dr. George Cannon pointed out
that birthrates during slavery were ‘‘abnormal,’’ thus postemancipation rates
only seemed low in comparison. U. G. Mason contended births were widely
underreported due to so many black women relying on a ‘‘‘Grannie’ who
does not know and cares less about the importance of birth reports.’’ Another physician, New York City’s Peter Johnson, believed African American
population growth was proceeding apace with ‘‘undiminished virility’’: according to Johnson, ‘‘race suicide’’ was a looming issue for white Americans,
while black people were actually increasing their ranks through hygiene,
sanitation, and improved infant care.52
Daniel Hale Williams took yet a different approach. The noted surgeon
and founder of Chicago’s Provident Hospital plainly stated the race was ‘‘not
dying out . . . [but] bleaching out’’ and then offered his additional theory
that substantial migration and emigration ‘‘subtract[ed] from the census
figures’’ of Afro-Americans. Compared to Williams, E. P. Roberts of New
York City stood even further apart from other doctors in the symposium.
While Roberts conceded that black migration precluded accurate population enumeration, he also argued that ‘‘unless the doctrine of healthy living
is preached and practiced to a greater extent . . . the race will experience
physical deterioration and at least . . . approach . . . extinction.’’ For Roberts,
the high percentage of ‘‘premature marriages’’ and working women engaged
in strenuous labor only exacerbated race deterioration by increasing the likelihood of infant death.53
Overall, then, the Colored American forum concluded that contemporary
analyses of racial reproduction and vitality were highly subjective; eight of
the eleven physicians challenged the veracity of statistics and census reports
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in one way or another. There was indeed ample reason for them to doubt the
accuracy of black birth and death figures, since communities throughout
the country simply failed to collect such statistics on a systematic basis.54
Yet, while the overall gist of the symposium was that the race was proliferating rather than waning, many of the participating physicians did feel there
was ample room for improvement in terms of reducing morbidity. As E. P.
Roberts suggested, perhaps the most important intervention black reform
could effect was lowering infant mortality. U. G. Mason was alone among
Colored American contributors in charging that midwifery was inefficient in
terms of reportage of the race’s vital statistics. Still, other black health activists who believed infant mortality had to be reduced also fingered ‘‘ignorant
grannies and meddling old women’’ as being a major cause of baby death.
A few years after Mason blamed midwives for being responsible for compromising the statistical representation of African Americans by failing to
report births, one Dr. C. C. Middleton referred to midwives as ‘‘high priestess[es] of inefficiency’’ who delivered babies in filthy conditions, fed them
vile concoctions, and caused a host of postnatal physical defects.55
As aspiring Afro-Americans and black reformers explored racial vitality,
birthrates, and the problem of infant death, some encouraged women to do
their duty by having their fair share of healthy babies. Even the hefty and
frequently reprinted volume Progress of a Race included a section on the
birthrate that featured Fisk University professor Eugene Harris’s observation that too many black families were having but two or three children.
African American women’s fecundity was not only ‘‘considerably less than
it ought to be,’’ Harris decried, but abortion—or ‘‘the crime of mothers’’—
was being practiced with greater frequency in his opinion. On another occasion, he bluntly concluded that ‘‘[the] race, like the women of whom Paul
once wrote to Timothy, must be ‘saved through child-bearing.’’’ 56 Whether
the topic was racial extinction or fecundity, Progress of a Race and other
black publications contributed to ‘‘contemporary analyses of changes in
black fertility [that] were . . . concerned with the implications [of these
changes] for ‘racial survival.’’’ 57
If doctors, ministers, educators, club women, and reformist writers participated in allied discussions about the number and quality of black children being born, the phenomenon of ‘‘better babies’’ contests at state fairs
and in other venues provides suggestive—if not compelling—evidence of
the cross-class appeal of well-born children. ‘‘Better babies’’ contests did not
originate with African Americans but rather with the Children’s Bureau that
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moted contests and specially designated baby welfare weeks as a means of
reaching mothers across the country—regardless of ethnicity, class, region,
or race—and encouraging them to learn about hygiene, diet, and infant
care. Slides, films, pamphlets, and traveling shows were employed by the
bureau as means of educating the largest possible audience; contests at state
fairs gave the cause additional exposure. The overall effort became medicalized around 1915 when clinical examinations became a routine component
of many competitions. Contests were further institutionalized as the bureau
forged local networks consisting of ‘‘club women, extension . . . agents, doctors, ministers, and businessmen’’ to carry out the work of improving the
nation’s children.58 The concept of ‘‘better babies’’ might not have been an
African American creation, but African American activists carried out the
movement with zeal in black communities, often with the assistance of local
white officials or state boards of health.
To some extent, concepts regarding infant welfare had already made
substantial headway into certain quarters of the black populace before the
‘‘better babies’’ ferment of the 1910s. Dr. Rebecca Crumpler became a pioneer of sorts when she wrote an entire tome devoted to race mothers and
their children during the 1880s. Crumpler’s Book of Medical Discourse in
Two Parts was a ‘‘common sense’’ approach to infant care filled with advice
on nursing, feeding, and healing babies. She intended it to be both ‘‘a primary reader in the hands of every woman’’ and an agent that would ward off
infant death. It is difficult, however, to gauge the success of this early mission; Crumpler apparently sought names of potential buyers then sold and
distributed a number of the books herself.59
Perhaps more influential precursors to baby welfare activism among African Americans were ‘‘mothers’ meetings.’’ These local clubs provided
women with opportunities to exchange ideas about baby health and attend
talks on heredity or morality; they became common institutions among aspiring and middle-class black women during the 1890s. One such convert
to the movement, Atlanta University graduate Georgia Swift King, believed
frequent infant deaths and persistent reports of declining Afro-American
birthrates justified mothers’ meetings among as many black women as possible. In 1897, King contended that such meetings were critical sites where
‘‘all classes of women . . . even the illiterate’’ could learn sanitary methods
of handling and feeding infants, thus securing ‘‘the destiny of the Negro
race.’’ 60
Other club women shared King’s convictions. For example, declarations
regarding the need for mothers’ meetings were integrated into major na96
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tional platforms, with one such platform ‘‘encouraging . . . individual clubs
to give time and attention to questions affecting heredity and environments
of the children of the race.’’ Members of the Harper Women’s Christian
Temperance Union in Jefferson City, Missouri, heeded the call and organized their own mothers’ meetings; on one occasion before the turn of the
century, those in attendance heard a lecture on ‘‘child culture.’’ The impetus would only grow over the next decades. Before and after ‘‘better
babies’’ competitions were ubiquitous, black women’s organizations such
as the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in Chicago and the Woman’s
Convention of the National Baptist Convention sponsored contests, had
their own ‘‘child welfare departments,’’ or included baby columns in organizational literature. Black women were therefore instrumental in providing
grassroots support for improving the health of children and the quality of
their lives.61
After 1910, the Afro-American press provided additional publicity for
baby welfare events open to black infants. One newspaper in Virginia, the
Norfolk Journal and Guide, encouraged area readers to ‘‘visit the school,’’
‘‘see the plays,’’ view ‘‘the stereoptic[o]n,’’ and participate in baby week.
The same paper similarly praised organizers in Tarboro, North Carolina,
for ‘‘cut[ting] out all ideas of a Baby Show’’ by staging a campaign replete
with doctor’s examinations, washing and dressing demonstrations, and nutritional instructions. In Tarboro, ‘‘lectures and lantern slide talks’’ by a
county official even supplemented exhibits with ‘‘placards [about] death
rates and eugenics.’’ 62 Efforts such as these—many of which were apparently quite popular—suggest that eugenic notions of racial betterment were
introduced to a broad cross-section of the Afro-American populace, as does
the emergence of better baby contests at segregated black state fairs in the
rural South.
Fairs enticed small landowners and tenant farmers, townspeople and
rural dwellers, those who raised livestock and those who bet on horses. Baby
contests undoubtedly attracted parents who simply wanted to brag or hoped
to win prize money, but they also enabled the promotion of popular eugenics among black Americans. ‘‘Better babies’’ competitions were, moreover, a
practical means of reducing infant mortality, a festive way to showcase black
development, and an ingenious means of encouraging racial improvement.
In 1914, the Journal and Guide described the events at a North Carolina
fair and proudly reported, ‘‘There will be several new features this year, one
of which is a ‘Better Babies Contest’ each day. This unique innovation is
supported by the State Board of Health. . . . Hundreds of mothers have in[ hope of the race ]
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dicated their purpose of entering their babies in the contest.’’ After various
medical staff inspected and scored the infants, Lenora Slade was declared
‘‘State Champion Colored baby’’ and was awarded a gold medal along with
twenty-five dollars. The contest itself was so successful, in fact, that organizers decided to ‘‘undertake further and more advanced work along this line’’
in subsequent years so that black mothers could continue to ‘‘go home and
remedy . . . what might have been deformities for life’’ in their children.63
Some ‘‘deformities’’ could be corrected, but others were ostensibly the
sad legacy of disorderly sexual activity. An appreciable number of black reformers believed ‘‘disease and mortality were hereditary liabilities passed
down to offspring by sexually licentious parents.’’ 64 ‘‘Better babies’’ were
presumably the product of sexual order among parents, thus it is likely that
at least some contest organizers encouraged black parents to reevaluate their
sexual practices. One baby event in Kansas was held in conjunction with
‘‘‘fittest family’ ’’ competitions that involved screening parents for venereal
diseases. Whether or not a majority of black parents who entered their children were themselves tested for sexually transmitted diseases, it is probable
that some contests for black babies in the South paid attention to reproductive health given prevailing notions that African American adults were more
likely to be stricken with syphilis and gonorrhea.65
Black parents also entered their children in competitions throughout the
North, Midwest, and West, some of which were integrated.66 The New
York Age sponsored an especially large undertaking when it launched a
nationwide competition for Afro-American children in 1915. In addition to
the New York metropolitan area, entries came from an impressive range
of states: Florida, Wisconsin, Missouri, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Oregon,
New Mexico, Nebraska. Well over three hundred contenders emerged; as
the Age published their photographs on the front page, the paper proudly
proclaimed their attempt to ‘‘arous[e] interest of mothers’’ successful. Mothers and fathers alike sent letters to New York expressing their satisfaction
that the paper’s effort was a superior ‘‘means of inspiring our people to take
better care of the babies.’’ 67
Alongside one week’s photographs, the Age reprinted a speech about eugenics given by Dr. John Kenney at Tuskegee Institute. The speech was
an assault on moral decay, and it opened with analysis of sexual missteps
that would ensue from suggestive dancing. ‘‘All too long leaders, educators,
preachers, physicians, college presidents, and teachers have winked at this
subject,’’ warned Kenney, ‘‘while boys and girls are growing up in vicious
ignorance and . . . future young mothers are tangoing away the possibili98
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Portrait of Gladys Odile Walton, entered in the 1915 New York Age ‘‘Better Babies
Contest.’’ The Age contest relied heavily on photographs, many of which were studio
portraits that suggested material wealth through clothing, toys, furniture, and
backdrops. Gladys Walton was one of Gladys Moore Walton and Lester Aglar Walton’s
two daughters. Her father, a journalist who wrote for the Age and other newspapers,
served as United States ambassador to Liberia during the 1930s and 1940s. Courtesy
of Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black
Culture, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
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ties of coming generations amidst unwholesome influences.’’ Kenney was
horrified over the possibility that ‘‘promiscuous dance’’ facilitated seductive
encounters in which innocent young girls came into contact with ‘‘rake[s]
and libertine[s]’’ who were, in all likelihood, infected with sundry social diseases. When it came to persuading prospective parents—especially potential mothers—that moral fortitude was in their own best interest, Kenney
believed frank discussion of sexuality and race suicide was nothing less than
essential. Accordingly, he upbraided young women who practiced contraception, had abortions, or otherwise went against ‘‘nature’s decree.’’ John
Kenney plainly declared, ‘‘we can only perpetuate the race through a healthy
childhood’’ produced by women fit and willing to ‘‘perform the duties
of wife and mother.’’ The doctor was similarly forthright in his opinion
that Afro-American parents should associate eugenic approaches regarding ‘‘correct parentage’’ free from sexually transmitted diseases with sturdy
children, reduced infant mortality, and ample racial reproduction. For him,
proper social behavior was about more than respectability—it was literally
a question of future generations.68
For all of the graveness of an item such as the Age’s reprint of John
Kenney’s speech, slightly bizarre and humorous stories about contests occasionally appeared in the black press as well. When a ‘‘colored baby’’ from
Newark, New Jersey, was awarded a gold medal over seven hundred other
tots during an integrated contest in 1914, for instance, the Age chuckled
that several white mothers were sufficiently mortified that the contest’s promoters scrambled to locate a white child who could ‘‘make a better showing.’’ One tongue-in-cheek item in the Chicago Defender about a ‘‘perfect
baby drive’’ featured six black siblings from California whose father named
ice cream as the ‘‘source of [their] physical perfection.’’ But as the rather involved, protracted contest sponsored by the Age suggests, Afro-American
publications could be serious, supportive boosters of the overall endeavor.
When the Competitor published its own slate of baby and toddler pictures
during the summer to 1920, one caption boasted that a tyke named ‘‘‘Little
Jack’ ’’ could ‘‘capture all the prizes at a Better Baby Show . . . for his
bright eyes, plump, well proportioned body, and liking for milk, bread, and
eggs.’’ 69
Even the relatively bourgeois, high-toned Half-Century Magazine celebrated ‘‘perfection in babyhood ’’ by publishing national samplings of baby
pictures in 1919 and 1920. Infants were more than ‘‘representative American
citizens of tomorrow’’ in the eyes of Half-Century editors—crawling, toddling girls and boys would grow up to ‘‘guid[e] the destiny of the nation.’’
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The magazine further declared that ‘‘better babies are a sign of progress.
The future of the race . . . in numerical strength and its physical fitness depends wholly on today’s babies. A crop of puny, under-nourished infants
could hardly be expected to develop into a race of robust men and women.
To give these little folks the proper care . . . and to provide them with sanitary homes . . . may mean years of great sacrifice on the part of . . . the
parents of our race.’’ Ignorance had long left black mothers and babies at a
disadvantage, the Half-Century continued. While race families were larger
a mere thirty years before, an abundance of sickly babes born into poverty
might have increased infant mortality rates among Afro-Americans: fewer
children, the magazine suggested, translated into better babies for all parents regardless of class. The editors quietly implied that ‘‘giving every baby
a chance’’ meant, at bare minimum, educating each and every mother about
‘‘the proper care of herself and her child.’’ 70
Such promotion of racial fitness struck a responsive chord due to the
spread of grassroots public health movements in many black communities
in the World War I era.71 The Chicago Defender—one of the most widely
read black weeklies both North and South—responded to the surging interest in health by employing physician A. Wilberforce Williams to write a
column about ‘‘keep[ing] healthy.’’ 72 Williams, who worked his way from
humble beginnings in Monroe, Louisiana, to medical school at Northwestern University, had been a resident at Chicago’s black-run Provident Hospital and specialized in treating tuberculosis. Once he started writing for
the Defender, Williams reliably dispensed information about tuberculosis,
influenza, and other ailments each week.73 In addition to warning tubercular individuals not to marry until well and advising parents to circumcise
their sons as a means to ‘‘preven[t] masturbation,’’ Williams also devoted a
considerable amount of attention to ‘‘sexual plagues.’’ 74
For week upon week in 1913 and in numerous columns over subsequent
years, Dr. Williams detailed how sexually transmitted diseases turned
healthy young men and women into ‘‘damaged goods.’’ Whether this ample
coverage was due to high reader demand—as Williams claimed—or simply
because he felt there was a crying need, the doctor tackled venereal disease
in a direct and sometimes tactless fashion. For example, when pleading with
parents of prospective brides and grooms to realize the long-range effects
of gonorrhea and syphilis, he wrote: ‘‘You would not think of bringing a
hog infected with cholera among other healthy hogs. . . . Then, why not
for the good of your dear son or daughter, for the good of the unborn—
for the good of the race—inquire into the physical condition of those who
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would enter into the matrimonial alliance, instead of . . . whether the offspring will be beautiful or not, whether . . . the hair [will be] long or short,
straight or kinky[?]’’ Venereal disease was ‘‘responsible for race suicide . . .
and sterility,’’ the doctor reasoned. Young men and women needed to be
examined, then, with mating and reproduction being reserved for those receiving ‘‘clean bill[s] of health.’’ On this rather delicate subject,Williams was
more than willing to offend some readers’ sense of propriety. He castigated
indiscriminate young men, told women to withhold sex from promiscuous
partners, urged the afflicted to forego marriage, and counseled young brides
who contracted sexually transmitted diseases from their husbands.75
Several columns exposed dubious patent medicines that failed to cure
venereal disease—let alone much else—and Williams also featured bleak
cautionary tales of death and affliction resulting from lack of proper treatment. Along these lines, the doctor adroitly used his indignation over parents who infected their children to expand his analysis of the ramifications
of sexual infirmities. If children were affected, the future of the race was
affected. Once the health of too many children was compromised before
adolescence there was little hope that black Americans could continue to
reproduce in a healthy fashion.76
Williams also classed masturbation with venereal disease since he felt
both destroyed black youths and vitiated the collective racial body. According to the doctor, masturbation was a major cause of sterility and impotence
for males as well as females; Williams believed any masturbator who retained
reproductive capacity was bound to produce ‘‘idiots, epileptics . . . imbeciles . . . [and] the hopelessly insane.’’ Once again, he implored mothers
and fathers to realize their duty to the race by providing their children with
the sort of wholesome sex education that would actively discourage ‘‘selfabuse.’’ He also ventured a little further. Wilberforce Williams openly suggested that in order to curtail chronic self-abusers, syphilitics, and other
supposed defectives from reproducing, every state in the country should
‘‘introduce and enforce the Indiana movement and also the Wisconsin and
Oklahoma laws in regard to those who should marry.’’ Saying nothing about
how such legislation might adversely affect his African American audience,
Williams seemed to believe that saving ‘‘the flowers of the race’’ from reproductive perils required every effort—even if that meant adopting eugenic
Williams’s preoccupation with venereal disease was hardly personal eccentricity—when his column featured a ‘‘Venereal Drive,’’ it reflected contemporary claims regarding v.d. and race.78 Not only did most social hy102
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gienists believe African Americans had unusually high rates of syphilis and
gonorrhea, most doctors, public health officials, and self-designated authorities singled out venereal disease as the primary cause of black women’s
decreased fecundity.79 The surgeon general reported during World War I,
furthermore, that black soldiers were twice as likely to have sexually transmitted diseases than their white counterparts.80 Both black soldiers and
civilians were exposed to increasing propaganda about the prevention of
sexually transmitted diseases during and after the war. The American Social Hygiene Association (asha) was one major agency that acted upon assumptions that African American people required special outreach. In conjunction with the U.S. Public Health Service, the asha adapted generic
public service announcements for the benefit of ‘‘colored boys, girls, men,
and women’’; the exhibit’s posters featured pictures of ‘‘fit’’ Afro-Americans
with pithy captions about venereal perils.81
Outreach efforts did not stop there, nor were black Americans uninvolved. Wilberforce Williams and other Afro-American physicians, for example, were enlisted to launch public education programs for black soldiers.82 Physician Charles Victor Roman was exceptional in this regard.
Selected by the War Department to carry out grassroots education, he canvassed the South during the spring of 1919 and spoke extensively on the ravages of syphilis and gonorrhea. Roman handed out pamphlets and showed
topical films to the reported sum of over 22,000 southern blacks during one
tour alone. Whereas his willingness to tour demonstrated a certain commitment to black public health on his part, Roman freely admitted that prevailing medical arguments about blacks and venereal disease were ‘‘undoubtedly tinged with prejudice.’’ Roman did not go as far as another race doctor,
Julian Lewis, who proclaimed immediately after the war that ‘‘venereal diseases are a white man’s disease’’; still, Roman felt compelled to challenge
mainstream medical assumptions regarding sexually transmitted diseases
and the rate of infection among African Americans.83
Regardless of how he felt about the white medical establishment, Roman—like Wilberforce Williams—worked hard to ensure that sexuality did
not compromise black health. In doing so, he was like countless other African Americans who were sex crusaders in service to the race. All told, campaigns for sexual fitness, reproductive health, and child welfare reached unprecedented numbers of black Americans during and immediately after the
World War I era. Organizations held sessions where such topics could be
discussed; public meeting houses hosted films and lectures. Club women
identified venereal disease as a ‘‘‘pressing problem’ ’’ facing the race; they
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formed a national ‘‘Department of Eugenics’’ in order to ‘‘spread the gospel
of clean manhood and womanhood.’’ Black reformers additionally joined
forces with mainstream movements as race papers publicized occasions
such as the National Child Welfare Association’s distribution of ‘‘educational panels . . . showing healthy, happy and beautiful Negro children.’’ 84
Silent films on sex hygiene were also available. Black women and men with
access to movie theaters could view any number of contemporary films on
venereal disease, birth control, and eugenics. In Chicago alone, Southside
theaters screened sensational photoplays such as Why I Would Not Marry,
Where Are My Children?, Her Unborn Child, End of the Road, and the film
Wilberforce Williams frequently recommended to his readers, Damaged
Admission prices were fairly cheap at nickelodeons but, all the same, class
and outlook helped determine who was willing to go to the movies or pay
good money for any given film. If tony race folk in urban centers found ‘‘picture houses’’ to be sites of ‘‘boisterous recreation’’ for the working class, it is
just as likely that class had something to do with which people were inclined
to see something along the lines of Damaged Goods. Damaged Goods and
other films of its ilk were probably considered lurid and tawdry by many
‘‘respectable’’ race folk. Still, aspiring and middling people most likely to
be receptive to these films’ moralizing, reform-oriented aspects might not
have minded being titillated in the process of receiving packaged information about sexual perils.86
Other forms of reformist popular culture with decidedly less circulation than motion pictures were consumed by certain black women and men
as opposed to others. For instance, Angelina Grimké’s short story ‘‘The
Closing Door’’ and Mary Burrill’s play ‘‘They That Sit in Darkness’’ both
attempted to address themes familiar to many black Americans: Grimké addressed the traumatic impact of racial violence on women’s mental and reproductive health, while Burrill tackled the physical burdens endured by
working mothers. But, given that ‘‘The Closing Door’’ and ‘‘They That Sit
in Darkness’’ were both written expressly for the Birth Control Review, each
piece was really aimed at convincing aspiring women and men that contraception could make significant contributions to racial uplift.87
Not only were urban leisure and various forms of popular culture classed
phenomena, ideas about uplift sex reform that were promoted through mass
media aimed at or produced by black people were deeply classed. The
people primed to accept reform-oriented media were typically middling,
elite, or aspiring folk. Admittedly, most popular culture consumed by Afro104
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Americans during the first decades of the twentieth century was not consumed for its reform matter. When black people enjoyed songs, film, stage
acts, and literature with sexualized content during their leisure hours, they
were not necessarily looking to appear or become morally upright. Moreover, popular culture—especially blues music and burlesque—actually expanded the public presentation of sexuality in ways that black reformers
and uplift activists surely found distasteful. As far as the relationship between sexuality, uplift, and racial reproduction went, however, popular culture was nonetheless one of many means reform-minded women and men
deployed in their attempts to convince others that the collective destiny
of Afro-Americans indeed depended upon particular sexual behavior and
Between 1890 and 1920, black thought writ large was dominated
by debates about racial destiny, and it was during these years—especially
around World War I—when sexual behavior and mores underwent profound change in the United States.88 As white Americans paid more and
more attention to issues surrounding sexuality, African Americans did too.
This is not to imply that their reasons for doing so were the same: from respectability and uplift to terrorism and miscegenation, sexuality was part
and parcel of black ruminations on how to improve the present as well as
the future because racial oppression loomed so large and posed very real
threats to black lives. If the race was going to have any future at all, African American people would have to direct considerable attention to reproduction, sexuality, and health. Again, terrorism, demographic shifts, and
disease provided ample reason for black Americans to worry about their
collective vitality and chances for survival.
From Ariel Bowen to Charles Roman, black American women and men
interested in racial uplift fought to marshal sexuality so that it contributed
to the struggle for self-determination. Whether such action took the form
of public speaking, publication of sex manuals, or working toward the production of ‘‘better babies,’’ African American attempts to reform sexuality
responded to contemporary perceptions about black morbidity and disease
levels. As a range of black women and men understood activism to include
and even prioritize the literal reproduction of ‘‘race,’’ sexuality and health
informed Afro-American efforts to secure their future as a distinct and vital
The reasons why Afro-American women and men turned to sex in public discourse were varied, but in the end, many of those discussions resulted
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from worries about whether the race was slowly dying out. Once again,
these concerns were partially fueled from racist assumptions, but they also
emerged from social phenomena ranging from high infant mortality levels,
declining birthrates, disease, and fertility control by black women. African
Americans’ assessments of sexuality not only emerged when their very survival was under scrutiny, they occurred within the context of massive demographic shifts as well.
And, in addition to black reform efforts and sex literature, public health
activism appeared in black communities to help address crisis, upheaval,
and change. During the thirty-year span between 1890 and 1920, sex literature, ‘‘better babies’’ contests, and public health activism suggested that
the race needed to work on improving itself. ‘‘Improvement’’ meant black
women and men should not view sex simply as a means of satisfying carnal urges: having multiple partners was fraught with moral complications,
but promiscuity was seen as additionally damnable because it could result
in venereal disease. More often than not, preferred behavior was associated
with middle-class and aspiring-class values in that it firmly placed sexuality within the realm of marriage and family; and, as more and more black
women decided to limit their pregnancies, they were encouraged to bear a
healthy number of ‘‘well-born’’ babies by a particular and vocal cohort of
racial uplift activists. Combined, all of these phenomena were part of a pronatalist, eugenic trend in African American culture that would culminate
in Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association during the
Efforts to improve racial stock were undertaken largely by black elites,
and these efforts arose from class-based assumptions about sex and vice
among the majority of the race. Nonetheless, the appeal of racial betterment through various degrees of sex activism crossed class lines with popular literature, public events, and the press enabling the crossover to occur.
Furthermore, a variety of black women and men were receptive to sex reform—especially when such reform was presented as a sign of progress the
race had made since slavery. Of course, there was an equally vital alternative
discourse about sexuality in music and other forms of popular culture. Black
popular culture was indeed a critical site where sex was discussed in terms
of skill and endurance, desire and rapture: jokes, songs, and stories touched
upon topics ranging from prostitution to incest, infidelity to homosexuality.89 Yet when sexuality was marshaled in the name of racial betterment,
that message had its own special attraction—an attraction that became a pre106
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occupation for reformist women and men. In fact, Afro-American reformists’ production of texts dealing with sexuality and conduct coincided with
sex reform initiatives; these men and women created a vibrant discourse in
the process, one riven by assumptions about class, anxieties over comportment, and significant gendered tensions.
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