Skip Navigation

“Lifting as We Climb”

Charleston Woman’s Improvement League

By Ancella Bickley

“It was known in our community as a fine organization, and I was elated to be invited to join it,” reminisces Mrs. Thelma McDaniel, a member of the black women’s club, the Charleston Woman’s Improvement League, for more than 50 years.

Still housed in their own clubhouse, a former residence on the corner of Jacobs and East Washington streets located between downtown and the Capitol Complex on Charleston’s East End, the League owes its existence to nine black women, who came together more than 100 years ago to begin a club. The roll call of that gathering reads as a testimony to prominent black females of Charleston in the late-19th century: Mattie V. Lee, Fannie Cobb Carter, Blanche Jefferies Tyler, Nan Lou Stephenson, Mary Kimbrough, Mary L. Clark, Ammie Hopkins, Sarah Bullard, and Rebecca Bullard.

Members of the Charleston Woman’s Improvement League in 1928
Members of the Charleston Woman’s Improvement League in 1928. From the left, they are, seated, Mary Clark, Rebecca Bullard, Flora Webster Brooks, Ruth S. Norman, Jane Spaulding, Karolyn Franklin, Florence Gordan, Leota Claire, Nancy Carper, and Ethel Davis; standing in the second row are, from the left, Mary Kimbrough, Cornella Wright, Lucenda Sanders, Hattie Clark, Vera Ford Powell, Carrie James Crichlow, E.A. McGhee, Lizzie Hopkins, Maude Wanzer, Inez Hall, Josephine Moore, Mary Carper Gray, and Ida Page; standing in the back row, from the left, are Flora Gardner, Nan Lou Stephenson, Sarah Bullard, Nina C. Gamble, Amy Hopkins, and Maude Clark Peters. Photograph courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives.

The singular term “woman’s” was used in the early naming of the organization for a reason. It is believed that, through this usage, members sought to emphasize not just group involvement, but the individual obligation that each woman had to personal and civic improvement.

The Charleston organization adopted the motto “Lifting as We Climb,” as did other black women’s clubs that were taking root in various parts of the country at that time. This motto came from their federation, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Established in 1896, the NACW was the first organization to unite black people on a national level. The motto encapsulated the concept that members’ responsibilities as black club women extended beyond themselves; it suggested that as they advanced, they should help other black people to do likewise.

Although members of the black women’s clubs were generally drawn from a skilled professional population, the all-female organizations provided opportunities for leadership that were not always available in the larger community. Within the Charleston Woman’s Improvement League, the women themselves presided, decided upon their membership, and planned their programming and their civic and social involvements.

From its beginning in 1898, the Charleston Woman’s Improvement League built an impressive record as a social outlet for its members and as a valued community service organization.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.