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Commission on Interracial Cooperation
Southern Women and Race Coöperation. A Story of the Memphis Conference, October Sixth and Seventh, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty
S. l.: The Commission, 1921.


The Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) functioned as the major race reform organization in the South during the period between the world wars, and North Carolina had one of the CIC's most active branches. Many white southerners felt that World War I had disrupted prolonged racial inequities because African Americans had served in the war and had been treated more fairly abroad than in the South. Many tried to interdict any black agitation, and some resorted to race riots and lynching to convince black southerners to "stay in their place." A minority of progressive white men and women hoped to use the changes wrought by the war to foster interracial communication and to gradually address black grievances.

In 1919, a small group of men met in Atlanta to form the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, selecting Will Winton Alexander as their first director. North Carolina launched a state division in 1921, chaired by Greensboro banker Edward P. Wharton. The North Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation (NCCIC) received an official charter from Governor Cameron Morrison, and each successive governor served as honorary chair of the NCCIC. Eventually the CIC had branches in all of the former Confederate states plus several others. North Carolina had one of the most active branches, with over 2,500 members.

Despite its mission, the CIC was not a black civil rights organization. White male ministers, academics, and businessmen dominated the CIC throughout its existence. William L. Poteat and Howard W. Odum, both leading educators, followed Wharton as chairs of the NCCIC. Although African Americans were not excluded from joining the CIC, only a small number of black men and women, including leading educators, ministers, and businessmen, participated at first. Many kept their distance because of skepticism concerning the goodwill and true desires of their white counterparts. White women, including Fannie Yarborough Bickett, wife of then governor Thomas W. Bickett, were an important part of the CIC and NCCIC membership, though their activism was segregated into Women's Divisions and Committees on Woman's Work. Like its parent organization, the NCCIC focused its efforts on increased communication between leading black and white men and women and on educating the general public about various aspects of the "race problem." The CIC never openly challenged segregation or advocated racial equality, but it did strive for an end to racial violence and for better treatment for all classes of black men and women. In 1944 the Southern Regional Council replaced the CIC. The NCCIC officially dissolved in 1951.

"Southern Women and Race Cooperation, A Story of the Memphis Conference" is an important document from the early history of the CIC. At the suggestion of several white female reform leaders, Will Alexander and the CIC organized the Memphis Conference in an attempt to bridge the gap between the separate reform efforts that had been pursued by black and white women through segregated YWCAs, branches of the National Colored Women's Clubs, and other groups since before World War I. Almost one hundred white women came together in Memphis in October 1920. They discussed important issues, passed resolutions, and heard speeches from leading black women. The report's roster of CIC members in 1920 reveals the extent to which white male professionals dominated the group in its first year. The resolutions passed by the convention are steeped in the ideals of Christian womanhood, referencing a "deep sense of responsibility" not to African Americans in general, but specifically "to the womanhood and childhood of the Negro race" (p. 6). The women's first order of business was to foster more communication between black and white women of the "better classes." They also provided a long list of suggestions for ending racial violence, improving the lot of black women who toiled as domestic servants, and providing more equal, if still separate, public education.

Works Consulted: Ann E. Earnhardt, "Critical Years: The North Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation 1942-1949" (M.A. Thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1971); and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and The Women's Campaign Against Lynching (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 62-65, 89-95. See also George Tindall, The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967), pp, 177-183, 718-721. There is no published organizational history of the CIC. In addition to Hall's work on Jessie Daniel Ames, there are, however, a number of good studies of at least the white CIC leaders. Researchers may also wish to consult the papers and oral histories of individual CIC members and well as the NCCIC records. All of these manuscript sources are available at the Southern Historical Collection.

Michael Sistrom

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