Jesse Daniel Ames
1883 – 1972 A.D.
By Anne Adams
There is a stereotype of the “Southern Belle” being a helpless young woman, yet southerner Jessie Daniel Ames was certainly not helpless but a feisty crusader against the tragedy of lynching.
Born in Palestine, Texas in November 1883, Jessie Harriet Daniel was the daughter of a train dispatcher and a teacher. Her parents were pious, with an avid interest in education but who also displayed a preference for Jessie’s sister – a factor that played havoc with Jessie’s self-confidence. The family moved in 1887 to Georgetown, Texas where Jessie attended local schools and later the Methodist sponsored Southwestern University.
Jessie married Roger Post Ames in 1905, possibly because, according to one author, she was “fearful of spinsterhood.” A friend of her father’s and a physician with the U.S. Public Health Service, Ames apparently considered his wife’s family was beneath him so the marriage was not happy. Ames spent most of his married years in South American doing medical research but when he died of a fever in 1914 he left a pregnant Jessie with two children.
Returning to Georgetown, Jessie joined her mother operating a local telephone company. Then as she settled into her new life, Jessie developed an interest in social issues, especially the cause of women’s suffrage. In 1918 she was elected to an office in the Texas Equal Suffrage Association, began to organize female voters then became founding president of the Texas League of Women Voters.
Jessie and her fellow reformers for women’s suffrage were, of course, dedicated to their cause. “We were idealists,” Jessie later related, “We thought that when we got the vote the whole pattern of politics would be greatly improved and would be dominated by women.” Still, eventually she did seem content with what she and her fellow suffragists had accomplished.
However, Jessie then developed a new cause. Over time she became concerned that her fellow reformers often neglected issues involving African Americans, not unusual in a culture sometimes dominated by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1922 Jessie channeled her new interest in racial issues into affiliation with the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) in Atlanta, a group that worked for racial harmony. She served in several positions in the group into the 1940s.
By 1930 as Jessie began to totally concentrate on these interracial issues, and that same year she founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL).
Lynching was a tragic practice in the south where occasionally a black man would be suddenly kidnapped by a mob of angry white men then strung up, Of course, this was prevalent after the Civil War and into the 20th century and was an unfortunate part of the period. Today, we try to live in a society where the races are considered equal but back then often, by law or at least custom, whites and African Americans had separate schools, community resources and churches. Race was even an issue in newspapers since whenever a black person made the news even for commendable reasons, he or she was always listed as “colored” or “a Negro.” Even when their race made no difference in the content of the story.
Lynching occurred ostensibly because a black man had attacked a white woman but Jessie’s research showed that was rarely true. In fact one research effort showed that of the 204 lynchings in one eight year period only 29% of the victims had been accused of “crimes against white women.” Actually lynching was mainly done to intimidate African Americans who sought their civil and social rights – to “keep them in their place” in a definitely racist society. Also, Jessie and her fellow reformers believed the excuse about women being attacked implied that southern women were helpless and so the ASWPL set out to persuade white women they had a responsibility to reject that role. Also, Jessie and her group attempted to change minds and she was determined with her efforts in this area. “We pledge ourselves to create a new public opinion in the South which will not condone for any reason whatever acts of mobs or lynchers,” She said.
Jessie traveled throughout the south organizing local units by often working through the women’s missionary societies of local Protestant churches. She also sought assistance through Jewish women’s groups, the YWCA and parent teacher organizations. White, as well as black newspapers, supported Jessie and her organization.
Ames’ contemporaries found her to be determined and affirmative, dedicated and single-minded to her causes and a genius as an organizer. Yet, while she was angered by racial violence against African Americans, she also did not see fit to work with black reformers or include blacks in the ASWPL organization. The reasoning in rejecting black participation was that only white southern women could persuade other women.
As the ASWPL established local units over several states, it provided ways for individual members who pledged themselves to end lynching. With investigations into specific incidents, press releases, publicity material the organization headquarters informed members how to secure anti-lynching pledges from local and state officials. Also, they concentrated in the states where lynching was most common – Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana and Florida.
Finally by 1942 the number of lynchings had declined and Mrs. Ames believed the ASWPL had served its purpose and she dissolved the organization.
During the 1930s and 1940s she failed to respond to other issues of black concern and over time in the process became alienated from other reformers and their causes. Even though she tried to revitalize the ASWPL her efforts failed and she retired as a social reformer.
Jessie settled in North Carolina and from 1944 to 1968 became active in Democratic Party concerns. However, her desires for reform had taken its toll on her personally, including the re-emergence of the old feelings of insecurity. Over time, despite her daughter’s polio and financial difficulties, she made sure her children were educated and on their own.
Finally she moved to Texas to be near family and died in Austin in February, 1972.