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On July 29, 1895, more than 40 African-American women, representing organizations from 14 different states, came together to hold the First National Conference of the Colored Women of America in Boston, Mass. The three-day conference was organized by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, a civil rights leader and suffragist and was sparked by the vision of Ida B. Wells to bring women together to solve some of the issues confronting women, particularly women of color in America. It was the first event of its kind to be held in the United States.
Prior to organizing the First National Conference of the Colored Women of America, St. Pierre Ruffin started the Women’s New Era Club. With the help of her daughter, Florida Ruffin Ridley, and Maria Louise Baldwin, Ruffin established the club and became its founding president. The Women’s New Era Club consisted of prominent black women from Boston and the surrounding vicinity. The club performed educational work and was divided into various committees such as domestic science, philanthropy, temperance, current events and moral reform. Club members also spent time advocating for women’s suffrage and issues related to race, specifically anti-lynching reform.
The idea of a national conference came about as a result of communication established between the Women’s New Era Club and various regional correspondents.
When the Women’s Era Club polled the readers of its publication to see if there was a need for a national organization of black women, the response was positive. However, in 1895, after journalist John Jacks sent a letter criticizing the anti-lynching work of Ida B. Wells, Ruffin soon began organizing the national conference in Boston and asked clubs to send delegates.
“We are not here for long speeches,” said Ruffin as she called the convention to order. “We feel that a gathering of this sort, the first of the kind ever held in this country, is of great importance.”
Speakers included Margaret Murray Washington (the wife of Booker T. Washington), author and formerly enslaved Victoria Earle Matthews, scholar Anna J. Cooper, civil rights leader T. Thomas Fortune, social reformers Henry B. Blackwell and William Lloyd Garrison, and Ida B. Wells.
Wells led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States during the 1890s. She went on to establish and become an integral part of women’s groups that were striving for African-American justice.
The National Federation of Afro-American Women became the National Association of Colored Women the following year and was organized during the national conference.