The Fight For Respectability and Freedom: American Life During The Second Great Awakening, Activism, and Women Run Tea Rooms in the 1830s.

Apr 4, 2024 | Art Insights

Seeking no favors because of our color nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice and ask for an equal chance.” –Mary Church Terrell 

Written By: Chiara Atoyebi

Photo of Mary Church Terrell and her daughter, Public Domain.

In 1860, approximately 500,000 free people of African descent lived in America. Not to be confused with freed people, those who were emancipated after the Civil War, these free African Americans, comprised 2 percent of the United States population and 9 percent of the Black population as a whole. It was not uncommon for African Americans to meet in private spaces to strategize for their liberation, worship, or simply commune as a family. Yet with the whispers of freedom being a possibility, African Americans began to convene at what would come to be known as Colored Conventions, to galvanize their political power. The inaugural Colored Convention in 1830 was held in response to Ohio’s exclusionary laws and anti-Black mob violence that had forced thousands of Black residents to flee the state. Shortly thereafter, a movement began. 

Photo In the Public Domain 

Between the years of 1830 and 1890, over 200 Colored Conventions convened offering a way for African Americans to gather and air their grievances. The conventions were attended by prominent Black leaders, writers, educators, and entrepreneurs, as well as tens of thousands of others who went unnamed. Although these conventions were largely attended by males where traditional values were prevalent, Black women frequently participated through their newspaper work, entrepreneurial activism, political commitments, and presence. 

The 1830s: Ushering In The Second Great Awakening, Activism, and Tea Rooms 

An Advertisement for Mrs. Gardiner’s Boarding House, Public Domain.

The 1830s not only marked a boom in the industry involving the locomotive, but it was also a time of religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening was an “organizing process” that established a religious and educational infrastructure across the western frontier. This revivalist movement depended on the religious fervor of its participants, and meetings aimed at conversion in addition to reformation encouraged through institutions. This awakening was a significant movement that not only impacted America, but also inspired reformists in different parts of the world. They aimed to promote a purer form of Christianity that emphasized personal religious experience over hierarchical and ritualistic form of worship.

The rise in religious reform also sparked societal altruism and spawned social activism efforts and influenced abolition groups and supporters of the Temperance movement. Additionally, these reformists began efforts to overhaul prisons and care for the handicapped and mentally ill. The nineteenth century was a time where Americans began to believe in the perfectibility of people and were highly moralistic in their endeavors. This was probably due to the cries for equality and the reckoning of free Africans ultimately integrating into society, and what that would look like. Black women and girls who had been left motherless due, or weren’t taught how to be ladies, due to the institution of slavery needed a roadmap and blueprint to womanhood and societal integration. 

By African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition – Library of Congress Catalog Public Domain 

The leaders of the African American women’s club movement, like Mary Church Terrell and Margaret Murray Washington, had experiences with culture, education and access that many of their enslaved counterparts did not have. Many members of the Black elite were born to free parents, or came from mixed heritage, and were freed by their White fathers, who might have also provided them with financial inheritances. 

Margaret Murray Washington, the wife of Booker T. Washington, spoke of the triad of activism, home, and faith, thirty years after the ending of slavery in her speech Individual Work for Moral Elevation. Washington states:

“Let us not suppose that although more than thirty years have gone by, there is a very great change in the condition of the masses of the women of whom I speak. Turned loose with no knowledge of these things, she has groped the way but slowly. In the country dialects of the Southern states in which slaves were held, a condition of affairs exists to-day that souled ought the heart of any woman. Look for a moment into a log cabin in Alabama. There is only one room, 12 x 10, with a little hole in the side for a window, which in wintertime is kept tightly closed. In this hut live the father and mother, and in here their eight or ten children are born and reared and die. I draw the curtain. I could show you other pictures more pathetic in their hopelessness, but refrain. Lessons in making home neat and attractive; lessons in making family life stronger, sweeter, and purer by personal efforts of the woman; lessons in tidiness of appearance among women; lessons of clean and pure habits of everyday life in the home, and thus bringing to the women self-respect and getting for them the respect of others; how to keep the girls near the mother, and many other kindred subjects, need to be given to this class of women to-day.

The ongoing quest for Black women’s and respectability and a willful contribution to their household and racial uplift they often turned to entrepreneurship. During this time, African American women started running boarding houses to gather and serve their communities while their White counterparts cleared out abandoned buildings, barns, and empty spaces in their homes to erect tea rooms. Both classes of women desired spaces where they could let their hair down and not be confined to the strict social rules of the time. Considering the fact that tea rooms operated much like an extension of women’s home environment, it was viewed as a respectable pathway into the work force and means of making money. These spaces also served as political and spiritual powerbases for them as well. 

According to historian Jan Whitaker in her book Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America tea rooms provided women with unfettered access to dine and gather in public and unaccompanied by a man–something we take for granted today.

 “The restaurant business was closely associated in many people’s minds with catering to appetites of all kinds, including sexual appetites. For a woman to enter this business at the turn of the century, even as an unescorted patron, was a risk to her reputation…Women’s exclusion from many public dining rooms in the 1900s and 1910s was undoubtedly a factor in their attraction to female-friendly tea rooms. Most women were reluctant to challenge the widespread rule in hotels and fine dining rooms that unescorted women would not be served,” Whitaker writes. 

The Better ‘Ole Tea Porch, Brookhaven, New York

Domesticity and Homelike Design in Tea Rooms In the Early 1900s

Due to the close proximity and oftentimes the extension of home, tea rooms were decorated with a home like feel. The tea rooms found their niche. Tea rooms were mainly frequented by the middle class, especially women, who often supported prohibition and sought a light, straightforward meal served with tea or other non-alcoholic drinks. Salads and sandwiches were typical fare on tearoom menus. These establishments thrived in the absence left by the closure of other venues. Yet, they eventually became obsolete by the mid-20th century due to the emergence of fast-food restaurants, which offered speedy service and meals for the informal diner or the traveler on the go. Mrs. Amie Long’s offered up light fare for convention goers, here is a sample of her menu.

Photo of Menu Courtesy of the Colored Conventions website,

Evelyn Nesbit standing beside 2 women holding cups at table in her tea room, 235 West 52 Street just off Broadway, New York. , 1921. Photograph

If you’d like to learn more about Women and Tea Rooms you can check out the Library of Congress’ site here: