SURPLUS NEGRO WOMEN

Kelly Miller

A notable article entitled " The Duty of Surplus women," by Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, excites a deep and abiding interest, The original and unique suggestion that judicious migration from regions of less to regions of greater masculine density might form a panacea for matrimonial helplessness, will doubtless delight the heart of spinsterdom. The practical wisdom of the suggestion has the sanction of historical precedent and high social prestige. Did not the forlorn maidens of old England brave the dangers of the deep in response to the matrimonial demand of a thriving colony? The thrifty farmer, restive under enforced bachelorhood, eagerly resorted to the market place, and gladly exchanged his precious pounds of tobacco for the priceless boon of a bride.

But Mrs. Gilman's article seems to contemplate only that fraction of the female world implied in the somewhat doleful soliloquy: " Here I am, free, white and twenty-one (or over?) " What of the lot of those surplus women who are not white, and not so very free? Is the ennobling sisterhood of woman to be limited to the color line? The struggle of the colored woman towards purity and refinement involves as deep and as dark a tragedy as any that marks the history of human strivings. If any would gain a true knowledge of the inner soul of black folks, let him contemplate the position of their women, whose pathetic situation must fill the soul with infinite pity.

The enormous preponderance of colored females over males, especially in our large cities, is a persistent and aggravating factor which has almost wholly escaped the attention of our sociological philosophers. The census of 1900 gives 4,417,568 Negro females against 4,393,221 Negro males, leaving an excess of 54,347 of the gentler sex in the United States. This gives a residue of thirteen left-over women to each thousand of the male population. But this is utterly insignificant when compared with the excesses revealed by the statistics of the large cities The predominance of the female element is perllays the most striking phenomenon of the urban Negro population.

These cities with an aggregate Negro populatiol of 699,588 show a female excess of 59,091. Chicago is the only city where the females are not in the majority, which is doubtless due to the fact that a new city is always first settled by the men, who pave the way for a subsequent female influx. If every Negro male in these cities should be assigned a helpmeet there would still remain eighteen left-over females fo every one hundred couples. In Atlanta this unfortunate residue reaches the startling proportion of 49 out of a hundred. Washington and Baltimore hay. respectively 10,006 and 9,132 hopeless females, for whom there are neither present nor prospective husbands. No such astounding disproportion prevails anywhere among the white race. The surplus women who give Mrs. Gilman such anxious solicitude scarcely esceed one in a hundred even in such man-forsaken cities as New York and Boston. If then the evil be a threatening one among the white race with such an insignificant surplus, what must be said of its multiplied enormity when we turn to the situation of the black race, where the excess is more than one-sixth of the male sex? Preponderance of one sex over the other forbodes nothing but evil to society. The maladjustment of economic and social conditions upsets the scale where nature intended a balance. The argument of Mrs. Gilman is as correct as it is courageous. "Where women preponderate in large numbers," she says, "there is a proportionate increase in immorality, because women are cheap; where men preponderate in large numbers there is also immorality because women are dear."

This argument is perfectly general in its scope, and has special application to the Negro only because aggravated conditions add a graver emphasis. These left-over, or to-be-left-over, Negro women, falling as they do in large part in the lower stratum of society, miss the inhibitive restraint of culture and social pride, and, especially if they be comely of appearance, become the easy prey of the evil designs of both races. The question is a painfully delicate one. It is a disordered nature that delights in stirring up filth for the sake of its stench. The only justification for holding up such a dark and forbidden picture to the gaze of the world is that a clear knowledge of the enormity of the evil may lead to the consideration of constructive measures of relief.

The problem is for the most an economic one, and the treatment must partake of the nature of the disease. It is easier to account for this unfortunate condition than it is to propose a remedy. Negro women rush to the city in disproportionate numbers, because in the country there is little demand for such services as they can render. They cannot remain at the hard, bone-breaking labor of the farm. The compensation of rural workers is so meagre that the man alone cannot earn a reasonable livelihood for the whole family. The girls, when they are of age and become conscious of their great deprivations, are enticed away by the glare and glitter of city life They would escape the ills they have by fleeing to those they know not of. The situation is anomalous The Negro man has no fixed industrial status in the cities. He loiters around the ragged edge of industry, and is confined to the more onerous and less attractive modes of toil. He who gives up the freedom and independence of rural life to drive an ash cart or dig in a city sewer surely is not wise. On the other hand, the Negro woman finds an unlimited field of employment in the domestic and household industries. These surplus women can hardly be expected to migrate back to the country in quest of marriage. They have just fled from the material poverty and social dearth of rural environment, and it is not likely that they will give up the flesh pots of the city for the dreary drudgery from which the have just escaped.

In order to forestall mischievous misinterpretation it seems necessary to say that which should need no saying; namely, that the upward ambition and aspiration of colored women is the most encouraging indication of Negro life. The women of any race are the conservators of its moral stamina, which in turn lies back of all social progress. Any one who gains intimate knowledge of the better side of Negro life must be deeply impressed with the evident superiority of the progressive colored women over the average man of like opportunity. This superiority is manifested not only in cultivation and character, but in their fearless and aggressive attitude towards race rights and privileges. In many instances they are forced to a life of perpetual spinsterhood because of a dearth of men of the requisite ambition and progressive spirit. But we should not allow our appreciation of the advancement of the upper ten to render us oblivious of the needs and necessities of the lower ninety.

The great bulk of colored women in our cities, being shut out from higher avenues of work, must seek employment in domestic sevice. A study of the occupation of colored women in the city of Washington, where the attainments of the upper ten have been widely exploited, will throw much light on this subject.

It is interesting to note that nearly one-half of the females are engaged in gainful occupations, a circumstance which tells its own story. There are ten thousand surplus women of color at the National Capital; this fact, together with the low economic status of the men, renders it imperative that a large proportion of the women should enter the great bread- winning contest. Seven-eighths of them are engaged in domestic and personal service. The 519 assigned to professional service are mainly engaged in teaching. These figures show us plainly the field m which these women must labor for all time that we have the data to foresee. If we take the country at large it will be found that the Negro woman is confined almost exclusively to agricultural and domestic pursuits as means of gaining a livelihood.

Thus it will be seen that for the entire country domestic service absorbs fifty- two per cent. of this class of wage earners. In the cities it constitutes almost the exclusive avenue of remunerative work.

If we take the Negro race as a whole, male and female, it will be found that out of 8,998,963 engaged in all occupations, 2,143,176 are agricultural workers and 1,324,160 are found in domestic and personal service; these two fields of effort furnished a livelihood for 86 per cent. of the entire race. It is a hard, but nevertheless a painful, concrete fact, that an intolerant spirit effectually shuts out the Negro from manufacturing industries and from trade and transportation. The two great industrial problems before the Negro are (1) to gain greater efficiency in the two available lines of industry, and (2) to press upon the borders of the higher mechanical and industrial pursuits in quest of larger opportunity.

But when we restrict attention to the status of the colored women in the large cities we find that they are shut in to a single line of remunerative activity Here is a field of labor which is large, wide open, and undisputed. There is little danger that the Negro domestic will be banished from the household by white competition, unless on the score of superior efficiency. The ultra-fashionable may indulge in the fad of English servants, but in the long run the Negro will be found to return to favor. The colored woman possesses sacrificial virtues and altruistic devotion in the highest degree. In her ignorant and degraded condition she was able to take the children of her refined mistress, and by the wealth of her natural affection, foster for herself a fondness and an endearment sometimes beyond that they bore their own mothers. She still possesses that sacrificial quality which gives her the preference, even though she falls short in point of competency, in close personal and subordinate relations. The immediate pressing problem growing out of the situation is how to make these women more competent and efficient in this broad field of labor.

There should be in every 'city with a large Negro population a school of domestic service whose scheme of training should be of such simple and easy character as to be available to every eirl of moderate intelligence and ambition. This would indeed be industrial education that counts. It is preparing laborers for a field that is already white unto harvest. There can be no dispute as to the advantage and even the necessity of such training. There is no adequate agency at present devoted to this task. Hampton and Tuskegee do not aim to accomplish it any more than do Fisk and Howard. In the very nature of the case the problem is a local one and must be worked out by local agencies. Here is a wide field for practical philanthropy based upon sound economy. A project looking forward to the higher efficiency of domestic service in our large cities must command the good will and hearty cooperation of all elements, white and black, whatever their school of belief or social opinion. There should be more strenuous and vigilant activity to guard these girls against the dangers of sordid city association, and to surround them with wholesome morel and religious environment. There is no problem of our city life to-day that appeals more imperatively to the religious and charitable agencies that are devoted to civic righteousness and social purity. But after all has been said and done the treatment can only be temporary and palliative. Society cannot contemplate with satisfaction the permanence of any considerable body of unmarried women, whose existence is indeed without " excuse or explanation," in either social or divine economy. It is to be hoped that either city conditions will so improve that men will be attracted in sufficient numbers to claim the surplus city spinsters, or that country conditions will so improve that they will gladly avail themselves of rural matrimonial opportunities.

The large and remunerative field of domestic service has not received adequate attention on the part of the leaders of the colored race. The contemptuous attitude of the more favored of this race towards this department of labor has had much to do with the low estimate in which such service and servants are held. This feeling is but a survival or reaction of the influence of slavery, which taught the Negro to despise all those with whom work was a necessity. He saw all dignity and honor and glory attach to those who neither toiled nor spun. Even to-day it is hard for the average Negro to have much respect for a white man who works with his hands, or to think of him as other than "po' white trash." Slavery inculcated the , drudgery, but not the gospel of work. This servile estimate of labor is still potent and persistent. That all labor is honorable is a formal phrase rather than a serious feeling with the average Southerner, white or black. The few Negroes whom circumstances enabled to rise swiftly above the level of menial labor, not unnaturally, brought forward the traditional attitude of contempt for those left below. Menial service served and serves as a reminder of the old relationship of master and slave. A sharp line of cleavage suddenly developed between the favored few and the less fortunate many. There was an absence of that sympathetic relationship and mutuality of good-will that prevails in a well-established order where different ranks and social grades are recognized and understood.

Some negroes still hesitate to advocate preparation for domestic service for fear of being accused of proposing menial service for the whole race. The whites who persist in limiting the Negro's function in society to the servile sphere impel them to this hesitant attitude. But the plain demands of the situation require the application of sanity and common sense. Class differentiation is becoming a recognized phenomenon of Negro development. No one formula of treatment can be applied to these nine million people with such varied aptitudes and opportunities. The mutual dependence of the more fortunate and the less favored-of the upper ten and the lower ninety- is gaining a wide and deeper appreciation. More than half of the Negro women who are forced to earn a living are employed in the domestic industries. The bull; of the following of the great Catholic Church in America falls among those who are engaged in the humbler spheres of service, but many of them are rapidly gaining wealth, and power, and fame. The wise and far-seeing leadership of this great organization discourages estrangement between the high and low, learned and ignorant, rich and poor, who are of the same household of faith. Nor are the humble workmen led to despise their lowly calling, but rather to dignify their office by diligence and fidelity to duty. A more enlightened leadership among the Negroes will assume a similar attitude towards the toiling masses who look for wise guidance and direction. Those who have been benefited must become enlarged so as to appreciate the obligation that opportunity confers; while those who are left in the humbler places must he encouraged to become workmen "that maketh not ashamed."

Advocacy of adequate preparation for immediate and available service on the part of those who can secure no other is in no sense inconsistent with the higher needs and aspirations of the race. Every American boy and girl who is made of the true metal will make for the highest place within the reach of his faculties or the range of his opportunities. President Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington, alike, will endeavor to procure for their children the highest form of service they are capable of performing. The humblest citizen will, and ought, to do the same. What right can be more sacred than the right to better one's condition? The old- fashioned, homely Negro mother who washed and ironed till her fingers bled and burned, in order that her children might improve their status, exhibited a spirit that should elicit the highest admiration. The Negro woman is handicapped by such an unfavorable environment that it seems almost inhuman to make her the butt of witticism and ridicule as is sometimes done, because from the depth of her lowliness she dares aspire to the highest and best things in life. It is a cheap philosophy and a false leadership that would belittle or ridicule the higher aspirations of the least of these. The Negro women of our large cities, especially the surplus fifth, need all the stimulus of high ideals to sustain them under the heavy burdens which unfortunate social conditions compel them to bear.

These surplus women present a pressing social problem which calls for immediate and special treatment. The remedy suggested is not proposed as a solution of the vexed race problem, but merely as the means of simplifying one of its most serious and aggravating factors.


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Infidelity and Abandonment


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