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Lifting the Curtain: Crystal Bird Fauset

As the European relief effort of the American Friends Service Committee concluded in 1924, questions were raised whether the Service Committee should continue to exist at all. In September of that year, a group of concerned Friends met to consider the future direction of the AFSC. It was decided that the Service Committee still had an important mission to carry out and, therefore, should continue to function. The important matters requiring attention, so far as this group of Friends were concerned, were reconciliation work in Europe, home service activities and better interracial relationships in the United States.

As an outcome of these discussions, an Interracial Section was formed in the AFSC in 1925. A young African-American woman, Crystal Bird, was offered a staff position in the section beginning in September 1927. She accepted it to pursue her chief interest which in her own words was: "in having people of other racial groups understand the humanness of the Negro wherever he is found."

By the time she appeared at Twenty South Twelfth Street, she used the following anecdote to more fully describe her plans: "I went to the Conference at Swarthmore, but as I reached there a little late, I sat behind a curtain waiting my turn to talk, realizing the whole white audience was on the other side of the curtain. When it was time for me to meet the group, I stepped out and lifted the curtain that had separated that group from me, and as I did so I knew in reality that what I am to do this year is to lift the curtain that separates the white people and the colored people, to lift the curtain of misunderstanding that is so dividing us."

The Service Committee helped her in this task by arranging speaking engagements before various, typically white, groups in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Washington, Baltimore, and Indiana. Between September 1927 and September 1928 she made 210 appearances before more than 40,000 people. The schedule left her totally exhausted.

After Crystal Bird completed her work, the Interracial Section sent a letter entitled, "An Experiment in Interracial Education," to Friends groups throughout the country. The following excerpt from the letter describes her service: "In the fall of 1927 Crystal Bird was introduced to Philadelphia audiences through the public and private schools, colleges, church groups, social agencies, and community meetings. The subject material of her talks was not of the propaganda type and controversial elements were not stressed. She presented the contributions of the Negro to American life and often included an analysis of the nature of prejudice. Underneath all that she said was the attempt to interpret the Negro, to make vivid the fact that he was human with the same aspirations, the same longings, the same failings of which the white person is possessed. Her talks drew aside the veil which we so constantly throw around the Negro and he stood before us appealing, convincingly demanding both our sympathy and our respect."

In an excerpt from her own summary of her year of service Crystal Bird added: "The types of questions asked [me] give clear evidence that white students, both high school and college, think of the American Negro as being not quite human, think of him as being more or less of an alien, associating him with an African rather than American background, and that whatever advantages and privileges he enjoys are due solely to the magnanimity of white people. They do not seem to realize that these advantages and privileges are due him as a native-born American citizen and as a normal human being - at least as normal as the attitude of the white world permits him to be."

After her year with the Service Committee, Crystal Bird married sociologist Arthur Huff Fauset, and worked on the Joint Committee on Race Relations of the Arch and Race Streets Yearly Meetings where she helped establish the famous Swarthmore College Institute of Race Relations. She also founded the Colored Women's Activities Club for the Democratic National Committee, and, in 1938 became the first African American woman to be elected as a state legislator, representing Philadelphia's 13th District, which was more than 66% white. Crystal Bird Fauset became Assistant Director for the Works Progress Administration in Pennsylvania and advised both Eleanor Roosevelt and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in her capacity as race relations advisor in the Office of Civilian Defense.

Her outstanding accomplishments earned her a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Marker, which stands outside of her home at 5402 Vine Street in Philadelphia, and reads: "The first Black woman elected to a state legislature in the U.S., Fauset, who lived here, won her seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, 1938. She later served as a Civil Defense race relations advisor under Franklin D. Roosevelt."

Crystal Bird Fauset died in 1965.

Compiled by Philip Clark