Charleston Woman's Improvement League
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In 1898, black women in Charleston, West Virginia, organized a self-help civic organization called the Charleston Woman’s Improvement League. The League sponsored cultural events, supported education, and promoted a variety of causes that were important to members of the city's African American community. The women were particularly active in mentoring young women, creating two auxiliary organizations: Polly Pigtails for children and the League Teens for young women.
Backstory and Context
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The Charleston Woman’s Improvement League was founded by nine prominent local women: Mattie V. Lee, Fannie Cobb Carter, Blanche Jefferies Tyler, Nan Lou Stephenson, Mary Kimbrough, Mary L. Clark, Ammie Hopkins, Sarah Bullard, and Rebecca Bullard. The organization was established as a self-help civic organization that was open to any African American woman who was willing to work for a civic cause.
The organization provided opportunities for black women that they may not have found elsewhere in the community. The members had leadership roles and were highly involved in the decisions made on behalf of the organization. There was a purpose behind naming the group “Woman’s” instead of “Women’s." By using the singular form, emphasis was placed not only on the group, but also the individual’s obligation to improve themselves and the public. The club took their motto, “Lifting as We Climb,” from the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) to encourage members to work to improve others’ lives as well as their own.
Early on, the organization met in local churches. Under the leadership of President Spaulding, the group purchased a building on East Washington Street. The group hosted their meetings and activities in this building and rented it out to other community members for events.
The organization was involved in numerous community service project such as providing supplies to black schools and hospitals, sponsoring scholarships, and compiling a resource guide for the local black community. Wanting to expand opportunities for the next generation, the Charleston Woman’s Improvement League established programs for young girls. First established was the Polly Pigtail Club, followed by the League Teens.
In 1998, the organization celebrated their 100th anniversary and is still operating today.
Bickley, Ancella. "'Lifting as We Climb' Charleston Woman’s Improvement League." West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Web. 11 May 2015. http://www.wvculture.org/goldenseal/winter04/womens.html.
Bickley, Ancella R. “Lifting as We Climb.” Goldenseal 30 no. 4 (2004): 54-58.
Schwarz, Bob. "'Lifting as We Climb' Black Women's Group Celebrates 90th Anniversary." The Charleston Gazette 8 May 1988. Print. Marshall University Special Collections.