Exhibit written and curated by Natalya Jean

Introduction

Struggling against traditional gender conventions and harsh racial stereotyping, educated black women in Boston established literary organizations in an attempt to foster knowledge and social mobility. They often introduced revolutionary political and social ideologies into local black neighborhoods– though societal norms strictly limited the majority of women’s activism to the domestic sphere.  Established in 1832, the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society held its first meeting at the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, thirty-odd black women congregating to promote literacy in the streets of Boston. Though ostensibly a literary society, this black women’s club expanded its philanthropic spirit by primarily “function[ing] as a mutual aid society” (McHenry 332). The Afric-American Female Intelligence Society provided educational materials and opportunities, participated in local charity work, and hosted a variety of scholarly lectures within their neighborhood. Above all else, this organization devoted itself to the preservation and cultivation of its community.

Afric-American Female Intelligence Society of Boston

The upper middle-class black women who made up the Society’s membership took great pride in community engagement. Often working alongside the Church, its members involved themselves in this mild, yet altruistic form of social activism by organizing soup kitchens, collecting clothes and other material goods, and volunteering at local shelters and education centers. A large portion of the Society’s more devout membership directly joined religious structures, entering their ranks to further their charitable endeavours. Certainly, the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society “embraced the spirit of union and mutual aid that Stewart advocated”– though this group has faced criticism from both Maria Stewart, a prominent black speaker, and Elizabeth McHenry, a renowned scholar of earlier African American literary culture, for its lack of concrete progress (McHenry 72).

As an all-female literary organization in the nineteenth century, the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society challenged cultural norms by virtue of its very existence. These women affected gradual social change through their many social outreach efforts and exposed the community to foreign and innovative ideas through their lecture series. Perhaps most famously, the Society invited Maria Stewart to speak before a mixed audience of men and women, both black and white– making history as the night of Stewart’s first speaking debut and the first instance in which such an audience had come together. This anecdote often dominates most discussion of black literary community and political activism in Boston during this period. However, Stewart met with little success and, in a few cases, direct opposition when she expounded upon her feminist idea of progress for black women as a distinct social group and her subsequent call to action.

Space

In part, these aforementioned religious ties account for Maria Stewart’s lukewarm reception within the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society. Or more accurately, the strong tradition of moral policing within the black community in Boston, relating back to the Church, explains the deep-set values and beliefs which so flagrantly conflicted with Stewart’s that night. Though tight-knit black neighborhoods benefited from this sense of community in terms of charity, culture, and connection, the religious mores which governed this society had little tolerance for those who deviated from social norms. Their principles preached morality, fidelity, and faith– but left little room to challenge less egalitarian areas of mainstream society. As such, literary organizations founded by black upper middle-class women struggled to effectively confront strict gender roles during the nineteenth century.

The Afric-American Female Intelligence Society met monthly at the African Meeting House, a truly multi-purposed space available to the black community– which, interestingly enough, additionally functioned as a Baptist Church. This alternate use of the communal building proved integral to shaping the Society– most importantly, in that this literary organization convened in the same physical space that the community united in pursuit of their faith. Much like a religious institution, the Society considered unity a founding principle of their organization. Moreover, the layout of the physical space encouraged conversation amongst the members of the Society and the community. Its design, open floor and organized around a podium, made for an ideal venue for lectures, sermons, and community meetings alike.

Regardless, few spaces valued women’s voices equally in these conversations. Feminine propriety was presented as a core value within the black community, stemming from deep-set religious beliefs concerning a woman’s domestic role and restricting the scope of all-female societies such as the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society. Instead, these literary organizations primarily served as “school[s] for the encouragement and promotion of polite literature” (Hull 163). Most education offered through these societies fed into the unequal balance between gender roles in the nineteenth century. Such outdated themes simply reinforced the sexist expectations of mainstream society, emphasizing the submissive place of women, specifically black women, in regards to both education and vocation.

African Meeting House – 46 Joy St, Boston MA     Sourced from the National Park Service Archive

 

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African Meeting House – 46 Joy St, Boston MA

 

Constitution (1832)

Published in the Liberator (1831-1865); January 7, 1832
Sourced from the Liberator Files

Preamble

 

Whereas the subscribers, women of color of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, actuated by a natural feeling for the welfare of our friends, have thought fit to associate for the diffusion of knowledge, the suppression of vice and immorality, and for cherishing such virtues as will render us happy and useful to society, sensible of the gross ignorance under which we have too long labored, but trusting by the blessing of God, we shall be able to accomplish the object of our union—we have therefore associated ourselves under the name of the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society and have adopted the following Constitution.

Art. 1st. The officers of this Society shall be a President, Vice President, Treasurer, Secretary, and a Board of Directors of five—all of whom shall be annually elected.

Art 2nd. Regular meetings of the Society shall be held on the first Thursday of every month, at which each member shall pay twenty-five cents, and pay twelve and a half cents at every monthly meeting thenceforth.

Art. 3d. The money thus collected shall be appropriate for the purchasing of books, the hiring of a room and other contingencies.

Art. 4th. The books and other articles purchased by this Society, shall be considered as the Society’s property; and should the Society cease to exist, said property shall be disposed of by auction, and each member receive her proportional part of the proceeds accruing from such sale.

Art. 5th. It shall be the duty of the President to preserve order at the meetings of said society, and to call special meetings when occasion may require.

Art. 6th. In the absence of the President, the Vice President shall preside; and in the absence of both, the Secretary shall preside.

Art. 7th. It shall be the duty of the Treasurer to pay all orders drawn on her by the Secretary, and signed by the President.  The Treasurer shall give bonds to the Society for the faithful discharge of the duties of her office.

Art. 8th. The Secretary shall keep an account of the receipts and expenditures of the Society.

Art. 9th. All applications shall be to the Society at the monthly meetings or to the Board of Directors, who shall report it at the next meeting.

Themes

This document, clearly denoting the values and regulations of the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society, sets forth strong support for women, democracy, duty, political hierarchy, and religion. It’s also interesting to note the social aspect of the organization addressed within its constitution– a community forms in between the lines. Concern for the manners and general health of its members is written into formal legislature, along with a rather amusing stipulation that “any member becoming obnoxious may be removed.”

The image of this emerging society presented in its constitution reflects the socioeconomic standing of its membership. The emphasis placed on fines and dues, all paying for educational materials, sick leave, and general expenses, suggests the financial capabilities of the upper middle-class black women in the nineteenth century. In this regard, the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society is somewhat elitist– though plainly caring for its members and the community, a certain level of wealth is required in order to be involved with this upstanding society.

Perhaps the most fascinating detail about the constitution relates to its actual format. The official introduction of the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society to the black community occurred by way of the Liberator, a newspaper embedded in and dominated by black culture. This radical newspaper would later publish abolitionist pieces by famous public speakers and political activists, spearheading the anti-slavery movement. The implications of this constitution being circulated by such a revolutionary publication, one which itself was originally funded heavily by a committee of black women, are endless. In later years, not losing this somewhat political association, members of the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society would “switch from reading European classics to discussing the Liberator and anti-slavery pamphlets, and inviting male speakers to expound upon the evils of slavery” (Washington).

Speakers: Maria Stewart

Maria Stewart’s story has earned her a legendary status amongst the numerous renowned black idols of Boston– the first African American woman to make public speeches, let alone to mixed crowds, she remains a revolutionary idol in black history. Stewart (1803 – 1879) distinguished herself from her many male counterparts through her “focus on [the] oppressions– especially racism, sexism, and class oppression– that affected Black women” (Harrell 314). In this regard, she incorporated jeremiadic rhetoric into her lectures, lofting a feminist ideology and publicly addressing systemic issues of racism. Stewart relied upon religious themes within her work to bridge the divide between the varied demographics she addressed in her speeches– the first of which took place before the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society in 1832.

Unfortunately, Stewart’s landmark speech was greeted with an“unenthusiastic welcome” from her audience (McHenry 68). Stewart arrived at Franklin Hall already on the defensive; before beginning her lecture, a friend within the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society warned her of a potentially dismal reaction. Consequently, Stewart delivered her speech with a somewhat oppositional tone, explaining the motivation behind her uncommon advocacy and critiquing the “passivity” in the Society’s efforts (McHenry 69). Other factors, such as the fact that this would be Stewart’s first public engagement and that she was to speak before a crowd of varying races and genders, may have played a role in this outcome, but placed in context of her political opinions, Stewart’s overall disappointment makes sense.

 Primarily, “Stewart lamented that the problem the African-American community faced was that many blacks adhered to the racist philosophy of their inferiority; thus, she sought to insist that they attune their interest toward knowledge and development of the race” (Harrell 314). In her eyes, the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society strove towards the same goals as Stewart herself, yet fell short in execution. How is it that an individual, rather than an organization, was better equipped to express radical views about racism and sexism in society?

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Maria Stewart's Beacon Hill Residence – 8 Joy St, Boston MA

 

Conclusion

 Though the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society did not fight for feminism as outrightly as Maria Stewart, this all-female literary organization contradicted prominent, derogatory images of black women in the nineteenth century. By placing a firm emphasis on “Female Intelligence,” these members of this society drew attention to the intellectual and charitable capabilities of black women– if chiefly those of upper middle class black women. Unfortunately, the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society found it difficult to contradict fundamental gender inequality in society, existing within a conservative physical and ideological scene. However, this notable society created an important space within the black community, exposing different classes to radical politics and ideals, and paving the way for future monumental campaigns– such as the anti-slavery and women's rights movements.


Works Cited

"Constitution of the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society of Boston (1832)." Black Past. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.

Harrell, Willie J., Jr. "A Call to Political and Social Activism: The Jeremiadic Discourse of Maria Miller Stewart, 1831-1833." Journal of International Women's Studies 9.3 (2008) Web.

Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex & Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Print.

McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. Print.

"Rachel Weeping for Her Children": Black Women and the Abolition of Slavery." The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.

"The Liberator 1832-01-07." The Liberator Files. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

United States. National Park Service. "Boston African American National Historic Site -- Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures Explore Their Stories in the National Park System: A Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.

Yellin, Jean Fagan., and Van Horne John C. The Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women's Political Culture in Antebellum America. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994. Print.