Reaping for Others to Sow: Carrie Williams Clifford

Reaping for Others to Sow: Carrie Williams Clifford
By Madison Good

Like many black women involved in early activism, poet, civil rights activist and suffragist Carrie Williams Clifford has frequently been overlooked within the historical record, despite her major contributions to the fights for women’s suffrage and civil rights.

Born in Chillicothe, Ohio, 1862, Clifford’s childhood helped to prepare her for her later activism. While much of her early life is unknown, her grandparents were able to buy their freedom and move north, and her mother established a highly productive and respected hairdressing business. Through this business, Clifford’s mother was able to help other young black women gain employment and trade skills and served as a positive example for her daughter.

During Clifford’s youth, she moved to Columbus, Ohio, and attended an integrated high school where she was recognized as a brilliant student. After school, she briefly taught in West Virginia, but shortly went back to Columbus. In 1886, she married William H. Clifford, a young politician from Cleveland who would later serve twice as state representative of Cuyahoga County. Together, they moved back to Cleveland. “Knowing that Cleveland was a place where colored people had always enjoyed marked school privileges, she expected to find a strong literary society,” something she failed to find.[1] Instead, she and Harriet Price, a local teacher, started the Minerva Reading Club. Under her leadership, the Minerva Reading Club would become “the first Ohio club to join the NACW [National Association of Colored Women]” and launched Clifford’s career in club work.[2]

In 1901, “Clifford was the major force responsible for the founding…of the Ohio Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (OFCWC)…the first of at least sixteen such organizations in the United States.”[3] She was elected by members as club president for three consecutive terms, and “when the time for re-election came…the women in convention would consider no other candidate because they had learned to love and honor a worthy leader and could not easily be persuaded to try the uninitiated.”[4] With Clifford as president, the Federation promoted temperance, women’s suffrage and civil rights, working under the motto of “Deeds, not Words.” The latter two issues, she believed, were intimately tied together, stating in an interview that “the [suffrage] work of the NACW is the movement of the hour; and that if we are true to it and true to ourselves, it will prove one the greatest factors in the solution of the race problem and in wiping out race prejudice.” [5] Later, after moving to Washington, D.C., she would work intensively with the Niagara Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to further include women in black activism, and work to protect the rights of black families.

Both in Cleveland and Washington, D.C., the Clifford household became a staple in black society. Through her work with the Minerva Club, the OFCWC and the NACW, Clifford became familiar with prominent national leaders of the black intelligentsia, and “ensured that national black voices were heard in her city by arranging the Cleveland appearances of such luminaries as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.”[6] On Sunday nights in Washington, D.C., she would host what she called “’at homes’… with visitors who included ‘people prominent in educational, official, and religious and other circles in Washington.’”[7] By hosting these modern salons, Clifford placed herself in the midst of the growing black cultural and literary movement that sowed the ground for what became the Harlem Renaissance.

Along with her club work, Clifford was a prominent writer. During her time as president of the OFCWC, “she launched [a newspaper] ‘Queen’s Gardens’ and later compiled a magnificent little booklet entitled ‘Sowing for Others to Reap,’ containing some of the best thought of the Colored women of Ohio.”[8] She also wrote articles for Crisis, a publication by the NAACP, and Alexander’s Magazine, and “was selected by the publishers of the Cleveland Journal as editor-in-chief of the Women’s edition and achieved notable success of the enterprise.”[9] At the same time, she continued to publish her poetry, frequently using her work in promotional materials for the OFCWC. Her song, “Marching to Conquest” was published, along with much of her other poetic work, in Alexander’s Magazine, and detailed the organization’s mission:

We are battling for the right with
purpose strong and true,
‘Tis a mighty struggle, but we’ve
pledged to dare and do;
Pledged to conquer evil, and we’ll see
the conflict thro’,
Marching and marching to conquest.
All the noble things of life we’ll teach
our girls and boys,
Warn them of its pitfalls, and reveal
its purest joys;
Counsel, guide and keep them from
the evil that destroys,
Marching and marching to conquest.[10]

Later, she would publish two books of poetry which covered a variety of topics related to the black experience in America: Race Rhymes in 1911 and The Widening Light in 1922.

Race Rhymes frontispiece, archive.org

Like her early life, much of Clifford’s later life is still unknown. Following The Widening Light, she seems to have continued to be active with the NAACP, but the details are unclear. She died in 1934 and was buried in Cleveland. Clifford’s literary work didn’t receive much attention or acclaim in her lifetime, but it, along with her wider activism, has since seen a recent resurgence through the increased interest in the women involved in the early Civil Rights Movement.

***
Works Cited
Alexander, Charles. “Editorial: Mrs. Carrie W. Clifford.” Alexander’s Magazine, May 1905.
Cahill, Cathleen D., Recasting the Vote. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.
Carney Smith, Jesse. “Carrie Williams Clifford.” In Notable Black American Women, Book II, edited by Shirelle
Phelps, 105-108. Boston: Cengage Learning, 1995.
“Carrie Williams Clifford, A Sketch,” The Colored American (Washington, D.C.) Feb. 1, 1902.
Clifford, Carrie Williams. “Marching to Conquest.” Alexander’s Magazine, July 1906.

Works Consulted
“Mrs. Clifford Reelected,” The Colored American (Washington, D.C) Aug. 13, 1904
“The Ohio Federation of Women’s Clubs,” The Colored American (Washington, D.C) Aug. 22,
1903
[1] “Carrie Williams Clifford, A Sketch,” The Colored American (Washington, D.C.) Feb. 1, 1902.

[2] “Carrie Williams Clifford, A Sketch,” The Colored American (Washington, D.C.) Feb. 1, 1902.

[3] Jesse Carney Smith, “Carrie Williams Clifford” in Notable Black American Women, Book II, ed. Shirelle Phelps (Boston: Cengage Learning, 1995), 105-108.

[4] Charles Alexander, “Editorial: Mrs. Carrie W. Clifford,” Alexander’s Magazine, May 1905, 39.

[5] “Carrie Williams Clifford, A Sketch,” The Colored American (Washington, D.C.) Feb. 1, 1902.

[6] Jesse Carney Smith, “Carrie Williams Clifford” in Notable Black American Women, Book II, ed. Shirelle Phelps (Boston: Cengage Learning, 1995), 105-108.

[7] Cathleen D. Cahill, Recasting the Vote (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 67.

[8] Charles Alexander, “Editorial: Mrs. Carrie W. Clifford,” Alexander’s Magazine, May 1905, 39.

[9] Charles Alexander, “Editorial: Mrs. Carrie W. Clifford,” Alexander’s Magazine, May 1905, 39.

[10] Carrie Williams Clifford, “Marching to Conquest,” Alexander’s Magazine, July 1906, 60.

Posted January 24, 2022
Topics: African American History

eNewsletter Sign-Up