|As this chapter makes clear, the audience
for their persuasive discourse was rarely white; although a dominant white society serves
as ground, black empowerment emerges as figure. In speeches to their black sisters during
this period, prominent women educators and religious leaders also responded by advancing
the agenda of racial uplift. While the term "uplift" carried with it the
assumption that those being lifted occupied inferior positions and that they needed to be
elevated to a more socially acceptable level, these speeches acknowledge inferiority only
as a direct consequence of slavery, not as an innate and indelible trait. To remove
this taint of an inferior and "downtrodden" race, black intellectuals argued for
improvement in the material conditions of black people.
In 1894, the Woman's Era Club of Boston chose as its slogan "Make the World Better." Representatives of the NACW organized and spoke under the motto "Lifting As We Climb." The Commitment to uplift was evident as well in informal discourse. Josephine Silone Yates, who later served as second president of the NACW, signed an August 1894 letter - "Yours for the race" - to the Woman's Era (9), echoing a similar closing used by Mary Ann Shadd Cary forty-five years earlier in a letter - "Yours for a better condition" - to Frederick Douglass (Cary, Letter 33). Both expressions were common letter closings, indicative of the prevailing commitment to the racial uplift work of improving conditions for black people in nineteenth-century America.
These prominent activists cast themselves as race women, privileging their reform activities over their wage-earning activities. Historian Sharon Harley, writing about black women workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, points out that they often took greater pride in their home and community work than in the work they performed for pay (47). Racial uplift was their real work, the work that held their passion. Victoria Matthews, a leading organizer of black women, issued a circular in 1896 called "Work Before Our Women," encouraging them to form local clubs. Matthews was concerned that the newly formed NACW become a "truly National Association, representing all conditions of our women" ("An Open Appeal" 2), a concern indicating the organizers' desire to be representative rather than elitist.