UMC Women’s History: Jessie Daniel Ames
Jessie Daniel Ames -- Image courtesy of the Austin History Center, a division of the Austin Public Library (Image: FPE4D91g.jp)
By: Sherri Gragg
From Problem Child to Activist
Jessie Daniel Ames was a problem child. Her unwillingness to conform to the strict Victorian societal expectations of her youth prompted her parents to frequently send her away from the dinner table for her poor manners. The fiery child spent many evenings taking her meals in the kitchen alongside the servants. It was there that she first heard about the lynching of a local man in nearby Tyler, Texas. The horrifying account lodged in the heart and mind of young Jessie where it knit together with her indomitable will to shape the course of a nation.
Ames was born in Palestine, Texas in 1883. She entered Southwestern University at the young age of 13 and graduated in 1902. She was widowed at the age of 31, and left to rear her three young children alone. Tragedy and single parenthood did little to get in the way of the once problem child. A life-long Methodist, she grew up to become a prominent leader in the suffragist movement. In 1919, she established the Texas League of Women Voters. However, unlike many of her fellow suffragists, she was also acutely aware of the injustices suffered by African Americans in the years before the Civil Rights Movement. In 1930, she rallied a group of like-minded women to form the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.
Ames passionately argued against a false “chivalry” that was often used as a defense for lynching. This “chivalry” duplicitously justified the lynching of African American men for suspected sexual crimes against white women. Ames vehemently argued that these rapes rarely occurred and that the true motivation for lynching was to maintain white power through intimidation and violence. She challenged other white Southern women to reject their role in the injustice.
Ames’ leadership in the suffragist and anti-lynching movement helped redefine white Southern womanhood, transforming the roles of helpless victims in need of protection, to that of activists, leaders, and social reformers.
"Lynching is an indefensible crime,” Ames said, “Women dare no longer allow themselves to be the cloak behind which those bent upon personal revenge and savagery commit acts of violence and lawlessness in the name of women. We repudiate this disgraceful claim for all time." (From the Southern Exposure Archives: Women and Lynching, Jacquelyn Hall, FacingSouth.org)
Through Ames’ efforts to rally women to reject their role in false chivalry, the number of lynchings in the South dramatically declined. In 1940, for the first time in recorded history, no lynchings were reported.
Ames stands as a powerful example of strong women leaders in the United Methodist Church. The strong-willed, problem child grew to be a driving force in not only the women’s movement, but the in the pursuit of racial equality and justice.
Sources: Southwestern University Feminist Studies, On Violence in the South: Jessie Daniel Ames, by: Becca Walton, From the Southern Exposure Archives: Women and Lynching, by Jacquelyn Hall