A Political and Social Harvest

By Emma McCallie

Pigtails, two bows, and a small frame: this photograph of Bernice Wright is an evocative image of a black girl.[1] But what does the picture of one girl communicate about black girlhood? About Bernice Wright herself? And what about the tomatoes? As LaKisha Michelle Simmons writes in her work Crescent City Girls, “There are many silences in this story.”[2] Without further archival history of Bernice Wright, we must work to understand silences in this photograph through her likely experience as a homemaker’s club member. The photographer of this picture, Jackson Davis, dedicated his life to African-American education in the South. Davis was an amateur photographer, and as a field agent he took nearly 6,000 pictures of African-American schools, teachers and students throughout the Southeast with a specific purpose in mind: to demonstrate the wretched conditions of African-American schools in the South and how they could be improved.[3] Davis’ photo “Bernice Wright, Member Home Makers Club with a dish of tomatoes grown in her garden” provides a physical representation of the homemakers clubs’ cultural significance as they imparted political and social consciousness to girls. The unfair conditions of African-American education left young, black girls dependent on the provisions of older clubwomen. Bernice Wright exemplifies a politicized and socialized product of older African-American community women as they ushered black girls into a polished construction of homemaker culture.

Among many non-formal community facilities that women’s clubs founded and sustained were homes for working girls, youth clubs, settlements, and summer camps for children. [4] Historian Mary Jane Smith classifies women’s club interests primarily as maintaining decency and order in the streets and schools.[5] However, this is too severe a simplification of clubwomen’s position. As Davis’ photo portrays, clubwomen’s establishments – like homemakers clubs – took sweeping social responsibility to greatly influence the political world by raising and instructing young, black girls.

African American women intentionally connected political goals to the immediate community needs and greater political context. In her history of women’s clubs, Anne Meis Knupfer writes, “Although their activism was often limited to social and child welfare issues, club women connected these issues to political ones, especially women’s suffrage and political representation.”[6] Club members were not exclusively involved in schooling and mothering, but also anti-lynching laws, suffrage efforts, political debates, philosophy, healthcare, and political representation.[7] Though the rhetoric of clubwomen was traditional, dwelling on issues of home life and motherhood, the political aims and visions of African American women were far from conservative.

One political push African American clubwomen made through social efforts was the redefinition of womanhood beyond stereotypes of enslaved laborer. African American clubwomen’s demonstration of motherhood, home, and family had specific roots in the “historical denial of their womanhood during slavery.”[8] Clubwomen saw their roles beyond teachers and mothers, as models of respectable home life, childcare, and social codes for younger African American women.[9] Modeling their own versions of true womanhood, African American clubwomen “reinscribed the primacy of motherhood and home life” beyond “submissiveness and passivity, conditions they associated with slavery.”[10] These lessons were imparted to young girls in youth homes, orphanages and living rooms. African-American girls were expected to grow into future homemakers.

As part of this broader project, they planted gardens of vegetables and fruits for winter use, like the tomatoes featured in Davis’ photograph. Club members in these homemaker groups also received instruction in sewing, canning and cooking. They frequently exhibited their goods at local schools and public facilities. Clubwomen emphasized the construction of a home life. This was the foundation, they saw, for all progress and reform. For instance, The Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs adopted the motto “Loyalty to Women and Justice to Children,” reflecting their concern for the defense of black womanhood and gender discrimination.[11] Clubwomen’s programs were simultaneously social and political efforts aimed to reinscribe definitions of black womanhood for those bearing the double burden of sexism and racism.

Bernice Wright provides specific evidence of the early socialization – and by extent politicization – of young, black girls in homemakers clubs. By voluntary participation or not, Bernice Wright was incorporated into homemaker culture and Davis’ political commentary. Bernice Wright’s facial expressions deserve close attention. She is not smiling. She is not frowning. One eyebrow is knotted. One corner of her mouth is turned slightly up. Her head is tilted to the side. Though it is impossible to know the subject’s emotions in this moment, I believe she did not ask to take this photo, and she was unsure of how best to act in front of the photographer. Stiffly, she presents her proper tomato harvest. Bernice Wright is holding a pensive, quizzical stare directly into the camera. This gives rise to the question, what was the prompt for this photograph? The positioning of the dish, almost to the level of covering her face, gives meaning to the obvious objective of this picture: displaying the tomatoes. [12]

Bernice Wright, literally growing this harvest and symbolically reaping the benefits of the clubwomen’s efforts, demonstrates the significance of a black girl’s position in the political and social movement for black women. An institution like a homemakers club was likely her sole option for an education. Wright’s look is expressionless. Her blank, undetermined facial appearance is emblematic of her impressionability. Without a choice in her education or to take this photo, Bernice Wright’s expression demonstrates the lack of autonomy and self-determination young black girls experienced in homemakers clubs. By this, older African-American women advanced political and social goals in girls’ education as a vehicle for a larger movement.

[1] Jackson Davis, Bernice Wright, Member Home Makers Club with dish of tomatoes grown in her garden, September 1915, The Jackson Davis Collection of African American Photographs, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

[2] Lakisha Simmons, Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 7.

[3] Edward Gaynor, Jackson Davis and the Lost World of Jim Crow Education (Charlottesville: Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library, 2000), 7.

[4] Anne Meis Knupfer, Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood: African American Women’s Clubs In Turn-of-the-century Chicago (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 11.

[5] Mary Jane Smith, “The Fight To Protect Race And Regional Identity Within The General Federation Of Women’s Clubs, 1895-1902,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 94, 4 (2010): 4.

[6] Knupfer, Toward a Tenderer Humanity, 28.

[7] Knupfer, Toward a Tenderer Humanity, 1.

[8] Anne Meis Knupfer, Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood: African American Women’s Clubs In Turn-of-the-century Chicago (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 15.

[9] Knupfer, Toward a Tenderer Humanity, 12.

[10] Knupfer, Toward a Tenderer Humanity, 13.

[11] Wanda A. Hendricks, Gender, Race, and Politics In the Midwest: Black Club Women in Illinois (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 26.

[12] Davis, Bernice Wright.