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Black History Month and United Methodist Women:  Why We Celebrate

Kelly Martini
Executive secretary for communications
Women's Division
General Board of Global Ministries
The United Methodist Church

475 Riverside Drive, #1501
New York, NY 10115

UMW Black History Month Celebration

UMW Black History Month Celebration
Image by: Women's Division
Source: Women's Division
Black History Month and United Methodist Women:Ê Why We Celebrate

As part of its story, the history of United Methodist Women has the legacy of women – all calling for a just world for all of God's children -- who are willing to be risk-takers amid the social settings of criticism and prejudices. 

During Black History Month, we celebrate those women and understand that their dreams came from the Gospel teachings of Jesus Christ as he ministered to all of God's children.

One such story comes from the 1920s, when two women from the Women's Missionary Council were asked to investigate the living conditions and needs of Southern Blacks. Estelle Haskin and Carrie Johnson Parks, both white women, attended a meeting of the National Association for Colored Women (NACW) at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala. Expecting to be honored guests, they were taken aback when they were seated toward the rear of the auditorium. They were even more shocked as they observed hundreds of able, talented, professional African American women leading and running a quality organization.

Alice G. Knotts, in her book, Fellowship of Love: Methodist Women Changing American Racial Attitudes, says, "Their previous exposure to domestic servants and their own Southern middle class white stereotypes of the abilities of African Americans meant that they were unprepared for what they witnessed. They were shocked to discover a mature parallel culture in their midst."[1]

Afterwards, Carrie Johnson Parks and Estelle Haskin were invited to a meeting in the home of Margaret Washington, widow of Dr. Booker T. Washington, administrator of the Institute. The group of African American women and two white women opened the meeting  with prayer, because they believed that faith united where race divided.

At that meeting, Johnson and Haskin shared that they were unsure of how they could overcome their hosts' well-founded suspicion that their primary interest, as white women, was in finding reliable domestic servants. Gradually, the African-American women began to trust, and then share their concerns. The concerns expressed that day were pulled together in a position paper that dealt with domestic service, child welfare, travel, education, lynching, suffrage and the bias of the white press.[2]

United Methodist Women still deal with many of these issues today.

For Carrie Johnson Parks and Estelle Haskin, the statement created a dream. They wanted white Christian Southern women to broaden their views on race relations, a very delicate subject on which feelings ran high and on which all women did not agree.

In 1920, they convened an interracial conference in Memphis, with nearly one hundred white women assembling to discuss race relations.

What they did not expect -- and were not prepared for -- was the arrival of four women from the NACW, Margaret Washington, Elizabeth Haynes, Jennie Morton, and Charlotte Hawkins Brown.   They took a huge risk in the South's white racist society of that time -- they attended an event of all-white women. They shared with their white sisters what it was like to be African-American, female, and concerned about their race. They shared their dream of a true interracial dialogue even though it flew in the face of interracial taboos. The dialogue at that meeting became emotional, informative, and mind-changing. Those four African American women had a dream, and truly risked themselves to follow it and share it.

Their dream, joined with that of Parks and Haskin, inspired a new spiritual journey for the predecessor organizations of what eventually became United Methodist Women. It awakened women to the fact that social transformation, at its heart, is spiritual. "Speaking through the voices of gospel prophets, and crying with the pain of the brutalities and prejudices inflicted on African Americans, God called white Methodist women to a higher vision,"  according to Dr. Knotts.[3]

Together, and by learning from their African American sisters, the predecessor organizations of United Methodist Women concluded that an inequitable social system perpetuates lawlessness and genocide. The dreams of the foremothers, African American and white, of United Methodist Women led to many effective advocacies, including:

  • the establishment of anti-lynching leagues, led by women; 
  • a book, researched and published by Pauli Murray, which listed more segregation laws than anyone could imagine;  it was used as evidence in the Supreme Court's landmark decision on Brown v. Board of Education;
  • the Charter of Racial Justice Policies, adopted by the Women's Division and United Methodist Women in the 1950s, but not by the denomination until two decades later.
  • the desegregation of The United Methodist Church, led by United Methodist Women; they led the way in establishing the denomination's general agencies, Commission on Religion and Race, which originally monitored the denomination's progress on racial integration, and Commission on the Status and Role of Women, which advanced the church's integration of women of all colors into its life and work. These agencies continue comparable work in today's United Methodist Church.

There are hundreds more stories about the dreams of these African American and white foremothers who challenged racism in the 1920s – stories of how their dreams became realities in the past, and of how they continue to challenge all forms of racism today.

As we celebrate Black History Month, United Methodist Women are continuing the legacy begun by these sisters with work in inclusiveness, environmental justice, economic justice and all the links they have to racial injustice.

[1] Knotts, Alice G. Fellowship of Love: Methodist Women Changing American Racial Attitudes. Nashville, Tenn.:  Abingdon Press, 1996. pg. 52


[3] Knotts,  53.


See Also...

Topic: Children Justice Race Women Youth
Geographic Region: United StatesWorld
Source: WD Press Releases
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Date posted: Feb 09, 2006