Ohio History Journal

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Contested Terrain: The Struggle Over

Gender Norms for Black Working-Class

Women in Cleveland's Phillis Wheatley

Association, 1920-1950




When Adrien Jean Smith came to live at the Phillis Wheatley Association

(PWA) of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1947, the young unemployed black woman

was hired as a domestic servant by the home for black working women.

Although her work satisfied her employers for a time, Smith's off-hours be-

havior constantly irritated and concerned the black professional staff of the

PWA. In particular, as Assistant Executive Secretary Ethel Storey reported to

Smith's mother in June of that year, "she goes out regularly and visits tav-

erns and has come in many times intoxicated." Not only was "her constant

drinking" unacceptable behavior to the black middle-class women who oper-

ated the PWA, but since she had "stayed out of the building all night" on

more than one occasion, she clearly had rejected the moral authority of the

middle-class women who forbade drinking and set curfews for the working-

class black women who lived at the PWA.1

Adrien Smith's experience with the Phillis Wheatley Association reflected

the process through which black and white middle-class and black working-

class women contested gender norms for the black working-class women as-

sociated with the PWA. The Phillis Wheatley Association operated in place

of a black YWCA as Cleveland's primary social service agency for black

women during the first half of the twentieth century. Working-class black

women struggled with the white and black middle-class members of the PWA



Virginia R. Boynton is a Ph.D. candidate at The Ohio State University. She

would like to thank Cindy Wilkey for her helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper, and

is especially grateful to Dr. Leila J. Rupp for her invaluable advice and encouragement

throughout the research, writing, and revising stages of this project.



1. Quotations from Ethel S. Storey to Dr. Jessie Annette Alexander, 2 June 1947, container

15, folder 1, The Phillis Wheatley Association Records, 1914-1960, Western Reserve

Historical Society, Cleveland [hereafter PWA Records, WRHS]. See also Storey to

Alexander, 4 February 1947, container 14, folder 5; Storey to Alexander, 25 March 1947,

container 14, folder 5; Alexander to Storey, 15 May 1947, container 15, folder 1; Alexander to

Storey, 4 June 1947, container 15, folder 1; Alexander to Storey, 16 October 1947, container

15, folder 2; all in PWA Records, WRHS.