Members of Dallas’s Pricilla Art Club, c. mid 1920s. Courtesy Dallas Historical Society. Used by permission.
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In the first half of the twentieth century, women’s voluntary organizations and their members in Texas and throughout the country were in the vanguard of promoting art appreciation, education, and collecting among the public. These groups provided venues for American artists to display and sell their work. There is very little scholarly literature that addresses this aspect of women’s club work, and what little has been written deals with the activities of white clubwomen. This article seeks to shed new light on a lively period of support for the visual arts by African American women’s clubs in Texas. These clubs, which extolled the virtues of respectable middle-class womanhood, produced many dynamic leaders for the African American community. The clubs provided intellectual stimulation and social outlets for their members as well as nurturing the skills needed to become the organizers of charitable and civic improvement initiatives that bettered the lives of black Texans. A number of clubs promoted art appreciation in the African American community and introduced black artists and their work to the public in segregated Texas. While many clubs across the state were active in promoting the arts, the black women’s clubs of Dallas were particularly successful in their efforts, bringing about an early, if limited, integration of the arts community.
Much of the impetus for the promotion of the arts by white clubwomen nationwide emanated from the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), established in 1890 and based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1897 and federated with the GFWC in 1899, the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs (TFWC) was the conduit by which the national organization’s initiatives were channeled to the local Texas clubs. White women’s clubs encouraged the establishment of art academies and other instructional programs, worked to introduce art and art appreciation classes to public schools, fostered activities that would bring the visual arts into individual homes across the state, and provided venues for Texas artists to exhibit their work to potential buyers. Art museums in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Abilene, El Paso, and elsewhere in the Lone Star State were founded in large part due to the work of white clubwomen who nurtured the creation of these civic institutions.
The GFWC, the TFWC, and the city federations for local clubs were all segregated organizations. The art activities white groups organized and promoted did not overtly encourage African Americans’ participation, even if they did not specifically bar them. With their community excluded from these activities by racial prejudice and themselves isolated from the white clubs by institutional segregation, Afro Texan clubwomen had to provide leadership in promoting black artists and their work not only to their own but also to the white community.
African American women began to organize in the 1890s in major eastern cities in order to increase their effectiveness. These organizations were an outgrowth of women’s participation in voluntary and benevolent organizations in the black community that began before the Civil War. These early organizations led to the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which was created in 1896 and grew rapidly. The Phyllis Wheatley Club of Fort Worth affiliated with the NACW around 1900, the first Texas club to do so. As the number of clubs grew, their leaders felt the need for a state organization to coordinate activities and disseminate information. The Texas Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (TFCWC), later the Texas Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (TACWC) and now the Texas Association of Women’s Clubs (TAWC), was organized in Gainesville in 1905 by Mrs. M. E. Y. Moore and a small group of like-minded clubwomen. It grew steadily; by 1911 there were 31 clubs in the TFCWC and it had 92 member clubs with about 1,500 members by 1928. City federations also formed in urban areas like Paris (1908), San Antonio (1913), and Fort Worth (1917). In 1937, the Texas federation hosted a meeting of the NACW in Fort Worth, the first such meeting to take place in the South...