Mrs. Lucy Tappan Phillips: Black Women’s Early Activism & the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in Memphis, Tennessee

by Earnestine Jenkins, P.D., Professor of Art History, Department of Art, University of Memphis


African American women, despite racism and sexism, were deeply involved in the social reform movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Progressive era, from the 1890s to the 1920s, was a period of widespread social activism and political reform across the United States.[1] The main goal of the Progressive movement was to address social ills that Americans believed were caused by urbanization, industrialization, immigration, and corruption in government.

White middle-class women assumed leadership of this cause when they organized as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874 (WCTU).[2] By 1892 the WCTU, which had broadened its social reform platform to encompass suffrage, was the largest women’s organization in the United States.[3] By then, thousands of women, white and black were involved in the temperance movement, whose core model of action was expressed in the slogans, “Agitate-Educate-Legislate.”

The symbol of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was a white ribbon. The WCTU first adopted the white ribbon bow as its symbol in 1877, along with the motto, “For God and Home and Every Land.” White symbolized purity, while the slogan expressed a vision of women uniting for prohibition and women’s rights around the world. WCTU members often referred to themselves as ‘White Ribboners,’ signifying political identity and the strength of collective action.[4]

African American involvement in the temperance movement pre-dates the founding of the WCTU, originating in black churches in the north during the 1830s. After the Civil War both churches and secular fraternal orders combined temperance with mutual aid society activities. By the 1880s black women were assuming leadership roles in social reform movements, as they asserted moral and social authority over their families and communities.

In 1896, black women’s organizations affiliated under the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Mary Church Terrell from Memphis, Tennessee, was the first president. Adopting the motto, “Lifting as We Climb,” the regional, state and city federations affiliated under the NACW blended social reform and racial uplift into a distinctive self-help model focused on the needs of African Americans in the local communities they served.

Black women’s historic involvement with temperance reform was thus a battle on two fronts, locally and nationally. First in the independent work performed in their communities, and secondly, in their conflicts with the mostly white and often racist WCTU. Black women attempted, and some did work with the WCTU from its beginnings. Racial segregation was imbedded in WCTU’s infrastructure, requiring the formation of separate black unions for African American women within the organization, as well as the administrative position of “Superintendent of Colored Work.”

WCTU policies and practices reflected the racial views of its president, Frances Willard, whom southern white women had convinced it would be impossible to organize there unless segregationist protocols were observed. Willard sympathized with the white southerners and pitied their condition in a land where “the colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt,” and “the grog shop is its center of power.”[5] Willard’s views on lynching were equally extreme, describing black men as rapists and a collective menace to the South.

Women in Tennessee began to formerly work with the organization during the 1870s. When Elizabeth Fisher Johnson attended a Woman’s Christian Temperance Union meeting in Cleveland Ohio in 1874, she returned home to Memphis and organized a local chapter in 1875.[6] Women organized a chapter in Nashville in 1881, then officially established the Tennessee WCTU in 1882, and named Johnson president.

The Memphis initiative continued to lead the way in organizing black women throughout Tennessee. Women’s rights activist, Lide Smith Meriweather (1829-1913), president of the Tennessee WCTU from 1884 to 1897, led the first efforts to organize black women chapters in 1886 in Memphis.[7] She recruited well educated young black women, (mostly teachers), interested in racial progress to participate in an interracial meeting with their white counterparts at the Nineteenth Century Club.

The first black WCTU was established, officers elected, and Mrs. Lucy Tappan Phillips, was named president. The four officers of the new union, who were also wives and mothers, had all been classmates at Fisk University. The next year in December, two black women attended the state WCTU convention in Nashville, representing fourteen black women WCTU unions across Tennessee, where the state was proclaimed a trailblazer in the organization of African American unions. Lucy was married to Rev. C. H. Phillips, pastor of Collins Chapel Church in Memphis, who was also a staunch supporter of temperance. Rev. Phillips became a very influential bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, then known as the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.

College Chappel
Collins Chapel Church

Lucy Tappan Phillips, (1859-1913), was born in Helena Arkansas[8]. She migrated to Nashville with her parents during the Civil War. Tappan graduated from Fisk University Normal Department in 1880, and married a young minister of the C.M.E. Church, Rev. Charles Henry Phillips originally from Milledgeville, Georgia, the same year. Mrs. Phillips taught school in Georgia, Tullahoma, TN., Lane Institute in Jackson, TN., and Union City, TN. It was in Union, Tennessee where Lucy Tappan Phillips first joined the WCTU. Lucy’s work in Tennessee was what brought her to the attention of Lide Merriweather, after the couple moved to Memphis when Rev. Phillips assumed the leadership of historic Collins Chapel Church in 1885.

Lucy Tappan Phillips held her position as the first African American President of the separate “colored” branch of the Tennessee State WCTU until the couple moved to Washington, D.C. in 1887. Continuing her activist work, Lucy was the first black women to serve in the position of Assistant District Organizer in D.C. for the WCTU. In 1889, Mrs. Phillips attended the National WCTU as a delegate. Wherever she found herself, Lucy Tappan Phillips labored an educator, first lady of the C.M.E. church, and avid supporter of women’s rights as a member of the WCTU.

Lucy Tappen PhillipsAs observed in the accompanying photograph, she was an African American ‘White Ribboner’, wearing the badge of temperance and suffrage with distinction. In 1925, the Colored Methodist Church in Phoenix, Arizona, established in 1909 due to the missionary work of Bishop Phillips, renamed their first church, constructed in 1911, The Lucy Phillips Memorial C.M.E. Church. The church has been listed on the Phoenix Historic Property Register since 2005.

Another story about black Tennessee women’s historic activism through affiliation with local segregated branches of the state WCTU involves a Mrs. Thurber from Bolivar, TN. Mrs. Thurber attended a meeting at the Art Institute of Chicago on October 22, 1893.[9] The story was reported in a Bolivar, Tennessee newspaper under the title, “The Colored Sister.” The white women were disturbed when Mrs. Thurber pointed out that no women of color were appointed as superintendents. “Mrs. Thurber, of Tennessee,” made an impassioned plea declaring that, “she did not ask for social equality for the colored woman, but she did want them given the same advantages as others in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.” As a result, the committee decided to create a subdivision to deal with “colored work,” to be supervised by an African American woman. Mrs. Thurber appears to have implemented strategies that succeeded in balancing white women’s fears against her efforts to make the case for black women’s participation in the WCTU.

Despite racism in the WCTU, as well as in the suffrage movement, black women fully embraced the “Do Everything’ motto advanced by these social reform movements. In their everyday lives women like Mrs. Lucy Tappan Phillips, Mrs. Thurber, and many others, were already applying the tactics adopted by an organization that tried to affect social change through practices of applied Christianity. The missionary work that connected the religious and the secular in black women’s lives, established the foundations of activism so distinctive of African American women’s experiences today.

Arizona Church
The Lucy Phillips Memorial C.M.E. Church in Phoenix, Arizona.

[1] See “Overview of the Progressive Era: Digital History, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/era.cfm?eraID=11&smtID=1

[2] See Patricia A. Schechter, “Temperance Work in the Nineteenth Century,” in Hine, Black Women in America, p.1154.

[3] Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice, 317.

[4] See “Wearing Your Politics of Your Sleeve: the Role of Political Colours in Social Movements,” Social Movement Studies, Vol.6, Iss.1, 2007, pp. 39-56.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Marian Sawer, “Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Cultur, online: http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entry.

[7] See Marsha Wedell, Elite Women and the Reform Impulse in Memphis, 1875-191 Knoxville, TN: University ot Tennessee Press, 1991), pp.68-69.

[8] The Nashville Globe, January 10, 1913: accessed at Chronicling America, Library of Congress

[9] The Bolivar Bulletin, October 22, 1893: accessed at Chronicling America, Library of Congress.

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