(1898) Margaret Murray Washington, “We Must Have a Cleaner Social Morality,”

Margaret Murray Washington
Public domain image

Margaret Murray Washington, the third wife of Booker T. Washington was a well-known educator and women’s activist in her own right before she married the founder of Tuskegee.  She continued that activism during their marriage.  The Washingtons gave twin lectures at Old Bethel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina on September 12, 1898.  Booker T. Washington addressed audiences in the morning and evening.  Margaret Washington spoke to African American women in the church that afternoon.  She used the occasion to describe the disproportionate infant mortality, the problem of unwanted pregnancy and the high death rate among African Americans.  She also called on the largely middle class women in her audience to engage in “moral uplift” and community service to address these problems.  Her speech appears below.

I want to say in the beginning that I do not come before you to criticize or find fault especially, but you know that a great deal of harm has been done us as a race by those who have told us of our strong points, of our wonderful advancement, and have neglected to tell us at the same time of our weak points, of our lack of taking hold of the opportunities about us. Praise a child always and he soon gets to the point where he thinks it impossible for him to make mistakes. If we wish to help each other let us not only praise ourselves, but also criticize.

Plain talk will not hurt us. It will lead each woman to study her own condition, that of her own family and so that of her neighbor’s family. If I can do anything to hasten this study, I shall feel repaid for any effort I may put forth. In consenting to come before you women to day I am influenced by this thought more than anything else: We need, as a race, a good, strong public sentiment in favor of a sounder, healthier body, and a cleaner and highertoned morality. There is no use arguing; we do not think enough of these two conditions; we are too indifferent; too ready to say: ‘O, well, I keep well, my girls and boys behave themselves, and I have nothing to do with the rest of the race!’

No nation or race has ever come up by entirely overlooking its members who are less fortunate, less ambitious, less sound in body and hence in soul, and we cannot do it. We must not do it. There are too many of us down. The condition of our race, brought about by slavery, the ignorance, poverty, intemperance, ought to make us women know that in half a century we cannot afford to lose sight of the large majority of the race who have not, as yet, thrown off the badge of the evils which I have just mentioned.

You are not, I know, surprised to hear me say that the women, young and older, among us, who most need to take caution in the matter of health and character, are the last to take any personal hold. It is no longer a compliment to a girl or woman to be of a frail and delicate mold. It is no longer an indication of refinement in woman to possess a weak and fastidious stomach. It was the great French Emperor who declared that the greatest need of France was mothers. And to day all who are willing to study facts with reference to our growth and strength in this country declare also that the most serious drawback to the race is its lack of a careful, moral and healthy motherhood. You have already noticed that I speak of health, then morals; morals, then health; my sisters, these two things go hand in hand, they are interdependent. They must go thus. They must be studied together at this time. They must be corrected at the same time.

To be a stronger race physically we have got to be a more moral one. We do not want to lose our tempers when we discuss these conditions either. Now that, as women, we may be able to make a move in the direction of improving the race, we have got to take certain facts regarding our health and morals. They are not all from the standpoint of the Southern white man, either, nor are they all from the Northern white man with a Southern soul. You know that we often feel that every white man and woman south of the Mason and Dixon line is a real devil. It is pretty bad down here, I will admit, but there are many very fine and noble Southern white people, women as well as men. It is a Southern man, an Alabama man, at that, who, in part at least, makes it possible for us to be here together to day to study our own shortcomings and to try to find a way out of them. I say it is not Southern whites alone who have felt that we should make a move upward, who feel that we are weak in these directions; nor is it the white man alone at all, but our own medical men, our own educators, who also feel and know that there is too great a laxity amongst us.

It is not an easy thing to secure accurate data with reference to the race in these particulars, for, in making up the statistics, especially in Southern localities, the health boards have entirely ignored us; of course many places in the South have had health boards only recently. However, we have evidence sufficient on each of these subjects to condemn us, to make us feel that something must be done; that some step, and that quick, must be made to stay the awful death rate and the alarmingly increasing illegitimate birth rate among our women and girls. This may not apply to a single woman under the sound of my voice, but it does apply to the race, and so far it comes home to you and to me. We cannot separate ourselves from our people, no matter how much we try; for one, I have no desire to do so.

I do not mean to tell you, or leave the impression, that all of the disease and immorality in the race are confined to what we are pleased to call our poorer classes or second class folks. There is too much in our higher classes, especially in the case of too many men who as fathers of the girls and boys who, in their turn, will be fathers and mothers of other girls and boys. And does hereditary influence count for nothing? Study your own family as far back as your great grandparents and you will agree with me when I say hereditary influence is a mighty power in the formation of character, physical, as well as moral.

I give you now these facts for five of our large Southern cities: these relate especially to the death rate of colored people in excess of white people: Rate per thousand in city No. 1, colored 36, white 19; city No. 2, colored 36, white 22; city No. 3, colored 37, white 22; city No. 4, colored 32, white 18; city No. 5, colored 35, white 17. This gives us a decrease in race by death rate in these five cities, in excess of the white people, who already so far outnumber us, respectively 100, of a fraction, 68 and over, 77 and over, and 106 per cent. In one of the large Western cities, and this is not Chicago, either, the death rate of colored people is more than twice that of the white people. Pneumonia and consumption are our most deadly foes. They are not standing still, but are on the increase in every city I have mentioned.  In one Northern city alone, in one year, out of ten thousand, there was an excess of deaths, caused by pneumonia and consumption, of 135 percent of colored people over whites; colored dying, 225, and whites, 126.

The death rate of our children is something to make us tremble. As long as it is so high we cannot hope for much. Numbers count for a great deal is this country. For five years, in one of our largest Southern cities alone, the excess in death rate among colored children under 5 years of age was 163 per cent, while that of the whites was only 32 per cent and a fraction over. In another large Southern city the death rate per cent in excess for colored children over whites is 883.4 per cent. The diseases which are undermining the life of our babies and robbing the race of its future men and women are, cholera infantum, convulsions and still born. There is an excess in this last disease, still born, of colored infants over white of 149 per cent per thousand.  What a terrible tribute to our womanhood and to our motherhood this is. In another Southern city, not a thousand miles from here, over half the colored children die before they are 12 months old.

We are very often inclined to treat this subject lightly by saying that we are a great reducing race, but I have no patience with this indifference, for it is simply impossible for any race to balance any such loss at this. And now, more than this, women, wee are not so productive as we used to be. I do not know why, I wish I did. I would count no sacrifice too great to bring about a change in this respect. My grandmother had thirteen sons and daughters, every one of whom lived to rear large families. My mother had ten, most of whom have lived long enough, but they have no children. In the whole ten of us, all grown, there are only two children, and they are the children of the youngest girl, who is now 27 years of age, and there has never been more than these, and what is worse, there never will be. Study this race question, this phase of it, and you will find what I say to be true.

We have got to change this state of things. Our educated women will not or do not become mothers and our less intelligent mothers let their little ones die, and thus our numbers are each year growing less and less. In every city in the country where you observe it you find that we are losing by death more than we are gaining by birth. Immorality, as well as poverty and ignorance, bears its share of the blame for this low state of vitality. It makes us susceptible to all forms of disease and death. We must have a cleaner ‘social morality.’ A man who has given thought to the moral life of the race claims that over 25 per cent of the colored children born in one city alone are admittedly illegitimate. In a certain locality, in a certain State, another man states that there were during one year 300 marriage licenses taken out by white men. According to the population 1,200 licenses should have been bought by colored men. How many do you suppose were in reality taken out? Twelve hundred should have been secured and only 3 per cent were taken out. Twelve hundred colored men and women, for whom there is no excuse, living immoral lives, handing down to their offspring disease and crime, and only three living in such a way as to advance the race. No spectacle can be more appalling.

In a certain Northern city only 2 per cent of the people are colored, yet we furnish 16 per cent of male prisoners and 34 per cent [of] female criminals. In another Northern or Northwestern city we make up 1 1/3 per cent of the whole city, and yet 10 per cent of the arrests fall on us. Immorality is directly responsible for these crimes, and hence punishment. Immorality is also directly responsible for physical inability to resist crime.

Go North or South, East or West, and the numbers of the dens of abandoned women, of profligate men is too large. These are the breeders of disease and the millstone of the race. You say there are causes for all these, causes for which we are not responsible. I admit this much, but there are also causes for which we are responsible. And the fact that there are causes ought to make us hopeful, because we have it in our power to remove these causes. It will take time, however, and it will take wise and consecrated women to effect a change along these lines. Not only are poverty, ignorance and intemperance the cause of all this misery, but downright negligence, too, plays a large part in these matters. Colored men drive, cut wood, unload ships, etc., all day in the pouring rain, at night they throw themselves onto a bed and sleep without removing their wet clothes. Our women are little or no better. What is a better feeder for pneumonia and all forms of tuberculosis? The men clean streets, sweep and dust great buildings, with no effort to keep the throat clear of dust and dirt.

The majority of cases of consumption are not inherent, but are contracted through lack of thought and interest in one’s own self. How many of our women during their pregnancy make nothing of lifting from one bench to another heavy tubs of clothes, drawing buckets of water, lift great sticks of wood, run up and down stairs, and a dozen other similar things entirely against them. They do not know the laws of health, and they will not learn them. No, I do not say do not work during the months of unborn motherhood; work, even hard work, is good for one, but the manner in which labor is performed is what I criticize. As women can we not do something to correct our condition physically and morally? I think we can.

The average colored person dislikes water, and he won’t keep himself clean. He bathes, if at all, once a week Saturday night and changes his clothes in the same indifferent way. He seldom uses a tooth brush. He often even neglects to comb his hair, except on Sunday. There is no excuse for this. Bathe at least twice a week, and change the clothes as often, and be sure to clean the teeth at least once a day, and do not forget to comb the hair each day.

We eat too little or too poor food. We are ready to buy showy clothing, but we stint our stomachs too often. They call us great eaters. Let us eat more and better food. There is very little vitality in grits and gravy. Get fresh women, but to their offspring. Keep regular hours. Do not stay in church till 12 and 1 o’clock at night. Go to bed at 10, especially if you labor through the day. When you get up in the mornings air the bedding, open up things for a while and let the sunshine in. When the little child comes do not have an ignorant granny, secure a good physician in addition to at least a clean nurse. Apply your lessons of bathing, feeding, sleeping to these little ones, remembering, of course, their age. Teach the boys as well as the girls respect for the marriage tie and home.

Be companions for your sons and daughters if you would stop the tide of immorality. A young girl has no business out to a party or church or picnic without some older member of her family or woman friend. Teach the boys to come home at night. Teach them the sin of ruining some man’s daughter. These lessons can be taught around the fireside at night, from the pulpit, in the school room, in mothers’ meetings; and there should be a mothers’ meeting in every community. They can be instilled in many ways. Help secure a minister and teacher who will take an interest in the physical and moral improvement of our families, and together with what we women can do and our ministers and teachers, we shall be able to make some progress in the coming ten or fifteen years which will prove to our enemies that our condition physically and morally is nothing inherent or peculiar to race, but rather the outcome of circumstances over which we can and will become masters. In this way and only in this way will [we] satisfy the men and women, both North and South, who still have faith in us. Let us teach our boys and girls some useful occupations, let us insist upon an intelligent and moral ministry, let us employ teachers only who are above reproach, and above all let those of us who have had an opportunity, who have educational advantages, modify our cause lines stoop down now and then and lift up others.