During the Progressive Era, clubwomen were important forces for change. Even though educated middle-class women were expected to tend to the home, it was socially acceptable for them to be politically active in progressive causes such as the temperance movement or settlement house work in the inner cities.
Although they navigated through a society that was strictly segregated and unapologetically discriminatory, educated African-American women also engaged in these activities. Two of them—Lillian Thomas Fox and Beulah Wright Porter—were remarkable women not just for their own time, but for any era.
The founder of the Indianapolis Women’s Improvement Club, Lillian J.B. Thomas, was the Indiana representative to the executive committee of the National Afro-American Council, as well as an organizing member of the Indianapolis Anti-Lynching League. She was a highly acclaimed public speaker at both the state and national levels, and, in 1891, she was the first black person from Indianapolis to take the state civil service examination for clerkship. In 1893, she married a Jamaican immigrant tailor, James E. Fox. A well-known writer, Lillian Thomas Fox went to work for the Indianapolis News in 1900, writing the first column in a white Indianapolis newspaper devoted entirely to the activities of black Hoosiers.
Another founder of the Women’s Improvement Club was Beulah Wright Porter, who started out as a schoolteacher but gave up that career in 1893 to study medicine. In 1897 she was the first black female physician to open practice in Indianapolis. Her medical career was frequently interrupted by returns to teaching, and by 1901 it appears that she gave up her medical practice entirely—possibly due to the reluctance of people to seek treatment from a woman doctor. By 1905 she was the principal of Public School 40.
The personal merged with the professional in these two women’s lives—Lillian Thomas Fox lost both her mother and her brother in 1893 to tuberculosis, and Beulah Wright Porter was a medical expert. When they founded the W.I.C. in Indianapolis, Fox and Porter helped the club to become a forceful advocate for African Americans suffering with TB at a time when health care was separate and unequal.
Although the term “clubwomen” brings to mind a group of well-dressed ladies drinking tea, in many cases they were anything but that. Fox, Porter, and the W.I.C. were responsible for saving countless lives a century ago, during a time when tuberculosis was a fearsome presence in the state of Indiana.
A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.
Source article: Earline Rae Ferguson, “The Woman’s Improvement Club of Indianapolis: Black Women Pioneers in Tuberculosis Work, 1903-1938.” Indiana Magazine of History 84, no. 3 (Sept. 1984): 237-261.