|Image courtesy of the Austin History Center, a division of the Austin Public Library (Image: FPE4D91g.jp)
Jessie Daniel Ames (Nov. 2, 1883-Feb. 21, 1972): antiracism reformer and suffragist. She was born Jessie Harriet Daniel in Palestine, Texas, the daughter of James Malcolm Daniel, a train dispatcher and telegraph operator, and Laura Maria Leonard, a teacher. James and Laura Daniel were pious parents who stressed the importance of education, but showed little affection for their children. They openly preferred their younger daughter, Lulu, and Jessie suffered deeply from a lack of self-confidence. When Jessie was four, the family moved to Georgetown, Texas, an impoverished and often violent community. There Jessie attended local schools and, later, Southwestern University.
Fearful of spinsterhood, Jessie married Roger Post Ames in 1905. Roger Ames, a friend of Jessie's father, was a U.S. Public Health Service physician. The marriage was not a happy one; the couple were sexually incompatible, and the Ames family felt Roger had married "beneath" him. Rather than face pressure from his family, Roger pursued medical research in South America, deserting his wife for most of their marriage. With the exception of several trips to South America, Jessie lived with her wealthy married sister in Tennessee. In 1914, Roger Ames died of blackwater fever, leaving Jessie with the care of their two children and with a third on the way.
At age 31, Jessie Daniel Ames began her public career to support herself and her children. She and her mother ran a local telephone company. As Ames grew more confident, she developed an interest in social justice issues and began to work for woman suffrage. She was elected treasurer of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association in 1918 and worked to secure suffrage for women in primary elections. In an effort to organize woman voters, Ames became founding president of the Texas League of Women Voters and served as a delegate to the national Democratic Party conventions from 1920 to 1928. By working in organizations such as the Federation of Women's Clubs and the American Association of University Women, Ames sought to further women's participation in the reform movement.
Through her participation in woman suffrage, Ames discovered the limitations of the reform movement. She grew increasingly sensitive to the contradictions of a movement that served a predominately white constituency in a South dominated by the Ku Klux Klan. To educate herself about racial issues, Ames enrolled in courses at the University of Chicago and began to address racial concerns. Her work against racial injustice began in 1922, when she became the director of women's work for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) in Atlanta, where she held various positions until the 1940s.
By 1930, Ames was alienated from suffragist colleagues and began to concentrate on anti-racism work. In that same year, she founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) as a volunteer organization within the CIC, although the ASWPL eventually outgrew its parent organization. The ASWPL was born from Ames's belief that lynching was the most visible symbol of black oppression within southern society. With the aim of exerting social control over blacks, whites used the threat of lynching as a form of coercion for enforcing labor contracts.
Ames believed that the fear of violence against white women by black men was used to justify lynching as a means of protecting white women. The goal of the ASWPL was the eradication of mob violence by whites against blacks within southern society, through educational efforts that attacked the justification for lynching and through encouraging women to refute the stereotype of themselves as vulnerable creatures in need of protection.
The cornerstone of Ames's educational campaign was the compilation of statistics from her own research into 204 lynchings over an eight-year period: only 29 percent of the victims were accused of crimes against white women.
Ames traveled extensively throughout the South as the chief organizer for the ASWPL and formed local chapters by working mainly through Protestant women's missionary societies. She also formed alliances with Jewish women's groups, the Young Women's Christian Association, and organizations such as the Parent-Teacher Association. The ASWPL gained support from both the white and the African-American press. "The daughters of the South are not content with hurling denunciations," wrote one newspaper. "They are militantly marching out to make war upon the barbarism that has flourished in their name" (Hall , p. 164).
To her contemporaries, Ames appeared "animated, positive, and full of determination" (Hall , p. 262). Her chief contributions were her dedication as a single-minded reformer and her genius as an organizational founder. Ultimately Ames's desire to preserve her autonomy within the ASWPL prevented the organization from working more effectively with other organizations on related causes.
Though outraged by racially motivated violence, Ames failed to collaborate with black reformers or to significantly include blacks within the ASWPL. Though quick to respond to persons less fortunate than herself, Ames was unresponsive to the issues raised by blacks themselves. Ames became increasingly alienated from the emergent liberalism of the late 1930s and early 1940s, and as the number of lynchings decreased, the ASWPL itself dissolved in 1942. Ames's attempts to reinvigorate the organization failed, and she was forced to retire from the reform movement.
In retirement, Ames moved to Tryon, N.C., and from 1944 to 1968, devoted her energies to local Democratic politics. Having always been busy, she found that the loss of her life's work took its toll, and her old feelings of insecurity returned. In addition to the rigors of her public career, Ames faced personal trials most of her life. Her youngest daughter contracted polio in 1920. Money was always a problem, and the situation worsened when her mother's resources were wiped out in the Great Depression. Influenced by her own experience, Ames ensured that all her children were educated and were financially independent. Severe arthritis eventually forced her to return to Texas to be near her daughter. Jessie Daniel Ames died in Austin, Texas.