One of the most contentious questions surrounding Margaret Sanger is whether or not she was racist, and it sometimes seems that people only know who she is because of claims that she was a racist/Nazi/eugenicist. It is a question that we here at the Sanger Papers have addressed repeatedly on this blog (that’s three separate links, and here’s a few more, including an analysis of a recent scholarly article also explaining that Margaret Sanger was not a Nazi racist).
Sanger’s first foray into the South provides another perspective on her views of race, particularly as a counterpoint to the speech that she gave to a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Silver Lake, New Jersey. That speech, which Sanger herself called “one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing,” not least because “I was sure that if I uttered one word, such as abortion, outside the usual vocabulary of these women they would go off into hysteria,” is frequently pointed to by those who would continue to insist that Sanger was a racist who advocated sterilization for African American women. Unfortunately, no transcript for the speech survives.
Elizabeth City, North Carolina, was a shipping center that also manufactured lumber and cotton. In 1919, African Americans made up approximately 37% of the city’s population. William Oscar Saunders, the editor of the Elizabeth City Independent, was responsible for organizing the first speech, the only one that Sanger expected to give, was noted for his opposition to both racism and antisemitism, as well as his support for birth control. It seems unlikely that he would have invited Sanger to speak on birth control had he felt that she was a racist.
For the speech that Sanger gave on November 2, 1919, a much better record survives in the form of an article written by Sanger — and it is both telling and fascinating. The planned lecture, entitled “Woman’s Place in the Twentieth Century,” was given to about eight hundred people. The Elizabeth City Independent reported that it was “the first public meeting for the discussion of birth control ever held in the south.” Considering this, Sanger was necessarily nervous about how she and her message would be received:
I had the feeling that it would be hard to break the ice for the birth control movement in a city in which not even a suffragist had delivered a public lecture.
Fortunately, Sanger was pleasantly surprised; the experience
was in every way a gratifying surprise to me… To my delight…I found that people, both white and black, in Elizabeth City, N.C., were so eager to know about birth control that every possible moment of my time was given to speaking.
This single scheduled lecture proved such a success that a whole series of unplanned talks followed. First, immediately following the lecture, Sanger addressed a group of women only, “of all classes and conditions,” followed by a question-and-answer session of elderly women who were so appreciative that the birth control movement would prevent their daughters from suffering what they had suffered in having such large families.
That evening, Sanger gave “a public address for negroes in a negro church [Corner Stone Baptist Church]…followed the next day by a short talk on ‘Education’ at the negro normal school, and in the afternoon a lecture for negro women only on methods of birth control.” As a result of all of these lectures, a group formed a committee to begin the process of establishing a birth control clinic for the mill workers. All this happened, as Sanger recalled, “between noon on Sunday and three o’clock Monday afternoon.”
For a city that had not even had anyone give a public talk about voting rights for women, it is amazing that Sanger was able to speak to so many people, from all different walks of life. She noted that
Never have I met with more sympathy, more serious attention, more complete understanding than in my addresses to the white and black people of this Southern mill town. Each element in the audience seemed to look at the question from its own standpoint. All in all, these audiences were a striking demonstration of birth control’s universal message of freedom and betterment… If Elizabeth City is an index of the South, it is ready, waiting, crying for the message of birth control.