Clarence Lang’s ‘Gateway’ & St. Louis’s Black Women’s Clubs

According to this bio-line found in back spine of his book, “Grassroots At The Gateway: Class Politics & Black Freedom Struggle In St. Louis, 1936-75”, he is an assistant professor in African American Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This would implore me to qualify him as historian. His book of history details relationships between various class factors in St. Louis, Missouri as it relates to protest, uprisings, and strikes in and around my nativity.


Often enough, race in these United States is presented in such a way that it “flattens” our social strata. Race is discussed as if class does not exist, or as if class does not influence race like a pack of Kool Aid poured into a pitcher of water influences how we would perceive that water. Class not only “colors” race, it redefines our parameters. Lang does a fabulous job unearthing historic social collisions that shaped my hometown’s socio-political texture.


In his first chapter, “”, he discusses various local cliques, groups, and organizations whose members helped carve that texture into St. Louis’s social landscape. One group that he discusses that piqued my interest was what is referred to as those Black Women’s Clubs. Now, St. Louis was not that only city to have a preponderance of actively organized Black Women, in fact, US Black Women’s Clubs was a national trend during those times. However, St. Louis did have its own specific history that might helps to understand not only St. Louis’s brand of US Black Women’s Clubs, but also those existing nationally.


On that topic, he writes:


Black clubwomen, many of whom were modestly paid teachers or wage workers, measured their status by “ladyhood,” as demonstrated in personal appearance, comportment, and “moral virtue,” and conspicuous adherence to patriarchal family norms. Ironically, behind many “successful” black businessmen, doctors, or attorneys were the wage-earning wives who actually supported them. Yet, cleaving to prevalent ideals of bourgeois respectability, black women might completely obscure their waged identities, identifying themselves instead by civic associations, the physical maintenance of their households, or some combination thereof. The Elleardsville Social Settlement Club, which sponsored public lectures on hygiene and child-rearing, asserted a place ofr “the better sort” of women in domestic management. Homeownership was a trait that particularly distinguished the Ville’s symbolic elite from the laboring majority who rented housing in the ramshackle Central Corridor. The one- and two-story homes in the Ville were often small brick cottages nestled among unpaved, tree-lined streets. Still, residents took active pride in these single-family dwellings, with the Elleardsville Civic League awarding prizes for the best-kept yard.

“Grassroots At The Gateway”, Clarence Lang, pg 21


He also discusses another group of US Black Women from St. Louis whose class designations and political associations might bar them from membership in those same US Black Women’s Club. He writes:


The emphasis on industrial strongmen in Communist iconography not only implicitly devalued black women’s particular issues around work and living conditions, but it also ignored their involvement in the presumabl masculine arena of street battles–as in the case of the black women whose charge at the doors of City Hall had ignited the July skirmish. It also ignored their pivotal role in the imagined male preserve of union organizing. Drawn to the council’s neighborhood-level mobilizations, where they came into contact with radical labor organizers, black women became especially active in renewed unionization drives. Indeed, the most significant black Communist-oriented labor insurgency in St. Louis was “manned” not by thick muscled, square-jawed heroes idealized in proletarian art and literature, but rather by black women employed in the marginal sweatshops of the city’s food-processing industry.

“Grassroots At The Gateway”, Clarence Lang, pg 29


Lang continues further in his book to describe how these US Black Women laboring in R. E. Funsten Company owned food shops came to embrace those labor supporting politics and action-driven postures.