Reviewed by Harold G. Fleming
Vol. 11, No. 5, 1989, pp. 18-19
Lugenia Burns Hope: Black Southern Reformer by Jacqueline Anne Rouse (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1989. 192 pp. $25.)
If a truly definitive history of the South is ever written, some of its best pages will be devoted to those unsung women of the region who led the way in the battle for social justice. Aside from a few who achieved national recognition, like Mary McLeod Bethune and Lillian Smith, their names and deeds are not to be found in the standard historical records.
This admirably succinct and understated biography is a valuable addition to the meager body of writing that seeks to cure that neglect.
Lugenia Burns Hope (1871-1947) was a prominent member of a network of Southern black women who banded together in such organizations as the National Association of Colored Women, the Southeastern Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and Atlanta’s Neighborhood Union to find remedies for the wretched conditions in which most blacks were obliged to live. As was the case with most of her collaborators, Hope was animated by a spirit of nobolesse oblige. She was an educated woman of proud family background and the wife of a prominent educator–John Hope I, the first black president of Atlanta University and himself a leading reformer, or “race man.” Conventionally, a woman of her status was expected to serve mainly as an adjunct and adornment of her prestigious husband, a devoted mother, gracious hostess, and bellwether of the social elite.
Lugenia Hope’s advantaged position, however, drove her to give first place to a duty of another kind–to fight for the dignity and well-being of the less fortunate, especially the children of the black slums. Her intense commitment to this cause took precedence over all other concerns, even her own health and comfort and the many claims of family life. (Her husband’s illustrious career imposed its own heavy demands of work and travel leading to long periods of physical separation and presumably loneliness.) She was a rarity on yet another count: Her independent spirit and assertive manner made it all but impossible for her to play the accommodationist role adopted as a pragmatic strategy by most of her black contemporaries. While her forthrightness won admiration in some quarters, it often subjected her to painful criticism.
Rouse has given us not only an account of an inspiring life. but also an insightful view of black community life in the South, dating back to the beginning of the century. The racial customs of those years would seem quaint if they were not so egregiously inhumane. The protracted struggle required of Hope and her allies, first to get a “black” branch of the YWCA established, and then to wrest control of it from condescending white Southern women, is one of the milder examples.
There is a certain quaintness, too, in the
Victorian values that Hope and her network brought to the reformist crusade. The Neighborhood Union prided itself on ridding black neighborhoods of immoral elements that threatened to corrupt the youth of those areas. The records of the organization include the following:
February 1911: “Mrs. Barnett succeeded in getting two families out of her district who indulged in doing things that were immoral such as breaking the Sabbath and gambling.”
August 1912: “The Mildred Street Case has been satisfactorily disposed of. The Holy Rollers were made to move on the grounds of disorderly conduct.”
Victorian principles and all, our society today could do with some brave and dedicated reformers like Lugenia Burns Hope.
HAROLD FLEMING was on the staff of the Council continuously from 1947-61. From 1957-61 he was executive director. Since then, he has led the Potomac Institute, in Washington, and in countless other ways served civil rights and the enlargement of American justice.