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The Black Renaissance in Washington, DC, 1910-1937
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Carrie Williams Clifford
Writer, editor, women’s and civil rights activist

Carrie Williams Clifford was born in Chillicothe, Ohio. Little is known about her early years except that she attended high school in Columbus, Ohio and was known to be a brilliant student. Before leaving Ohio, she was married to William H. Clifford, a lawyer and outspoken Republican member of the Ohio State Legislature.

In addition to caring for her family, Clifford demonstrated her community concern in many ways. She founded the Minerva Reading Club. During the late nineteenth century, a literary club offered its members an opportunity for social improvement, leadership skill development and a forum for increased educational opportunity and awareness of racial issues. Poetry readings, musical performances and oratory contests were all a part of the literary club experience.

Clifford’s writing skills developed as she presented poetry and short stories to her group. This led to her involvement with the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Her hard work and considerable abilities benefited the Cleveland organization, and in 1901, when the need for a state organization was realized, she founded the Ohio Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (OFCWC), the first organization of its kind in the nation.

Carrie Williams CliffordServing as president of the OFCWC, Clifford used her exceptional organization and writing skills to focus on family, community, women’s rights and racial issues. She served as editor-in–chief of the women’s edition of the Cleveland Journal and was a contributor to publications, including Alexander’s Magazine. She was instrumental in the OFCWC’s promotion of women’s suffrage and she was among the groups of black and white women who participated in suffrage demonstrations.

Around 1910, the Cliffords moved with their two young sons to Washington, D.C. and her literary and humanitarian activities accelerated. With Howard University nearby, Clifford opened her home for literary salons, where black intellectuals gathered for literary and political discussions. Among her guests were Mary Church Terrell, W. E. B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Charles Chesnutt and others. According to author Rosemary Clifford Wilson, “the most vital figures of the day [who] were creating the cultural and political heritage for black Americans which preceded and gave impetus to the so-called ‘Harlem Renaissance’ of the 1930’s would gather at the Clifford home.”

When the NAACP was formed in 1910, Clifford was among the prominent women who held leadership roles, stemming from her work in the pioneering Niagara Movement. She contributed articles to the Crisis, the journal of this organization, that focused on various forms of discrimination. Her eloquent essay "Votes for Children" expressed her discontent that women were not allowed to vote.

She continued to write poetry, publishing two volumes: Race Rhymes (1911) and The Widening Light (1922). Topics for her poetry included issues of the day: discrimination, injustice, protest, slavery, democracy, and religion. Other topics included famous black individuals such as William S. Braithwaite, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frederick Douglass and Phyllis Wheatley; black institutions such as Howard University; and black Broadway actors.

In the "Preface" to The Widening Light, the author announced her purpose for writing poetry:

The author makes no claim to unusual poetic excellence or literary brilliance. She is seeking to call attention to a condition, which she, at least, considers serious. Knowing that this may often be done more impressively through rhyme that in an elegant prose, she has take this method to accomplish this end…The theme of the group here presented-the uplift of humanity-is the loftiest that can animate the heart and pen of man: the treatment, she trusts, is not wholly unworthy…she send these lines forth with the prayer that they may change some heart, or right some wrong.

Clifford also wrote short stories, articles and poems that appeared in Opportunity, the journal of the National Urban League. Clifford’s writings have been included in just a few of the anthologies focused on the black authors. Robert T. Kerlin, who included Clifford’s "An Easter Message" in his Negro Poets and Their Poems (1923) commented that Clifford’s sonnet contained "discord…of the kind that stab you." In the poem’s octave, Clifford crafted "majestic images of spring and renewal, while in the sestet, she painted a picture of black despair."

"The poem is reminiscent of the contrast and despair found in Frederick Douglass’ famous Fourth of July speech delivered in Rochester, New York, in 1852" according to Linda M. Carter in Notable Black American Women, Book II.

Literary scholars, beginning to recognize the contributions of other little known contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, now include Clifford in their assessment of the period. Lorraine Roses, in Black Women in America, acknowledged the significance of Clifford’s work when she described her as "a poet activist whose commentaries on injustice and sufferings specific to women of color (such as sexual harassment and abuse), foreshadowed late twentieth-century protests."

Many of the details of Clifford’s life are unknown. She died in 1934 having spent her life as a clubwoman, writer, women’s rights activist and civil rights activist. Rosemary Clifford Wilson may have best captured her as "a black woman who lived and spoke and wrote and worked ceaselessly for the rights of all black people."


Carter, Linda M. Notable Black American Women, Book II. Detroit: Gale Research Inc. 1996.

Clifford, Carrie W. The Widening Light. Introduction by Rosemary Clifford Wilson. Boston: Walter Reid Co., 1922.

Harlem’s Glory: Black Women Writing, 1900-1950. Edited by Lorraine Eleana Roses and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Kerlin, Robert. Negro Poets and Their Poems. Washington, D.C.: Associate Publishers. 1923.

Roses, Lorraine. Black Women in America.


Race Rhymes. Washington, D.C.: Printed by R. L. Pendleton, 1911.

The Widening Light. Boston: Walter Reid Co., 1922. New edition with an introduction by Rosemary Clifford Wilson. New York: Crowell, 1971.

"Brothers." Opportunity. 1925
"Lines to Garrison." Alexander’s Magazine 1 (1906-1907): 8-9.
"Love’s Way (A Christmas Story)." Alexander’s Magazine 1 (1906-1907): 55-58.
"Votes for Children." Crisis 10 (August 1915): 185.


Excerpt from "Marching to Conquest", published in Alexander’s Magazine, vol. 2

We are battling for the right with
purpose strong and true,
Tis a mighty struggle, but we’ve
pledged to dare and do;
Pledged to conquer evil, and we’ll see
the conflict thro’,
Marching and marching to conquest.
All the noble things of life we’ll teach
our girls and boys,
Warn them of its pitfalls, and reveal
its purest joys;
Counsel, guide and keep them from
the evil that destroys…
Ignorance and vice and hate at our
Approach shall flee.
As we go marching to conquest.

Diane L. Mohr
Assistant Coordinator of Adult Services
District of Columbia Public Library

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The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003