Clara Ione Cox: Quaker Minister and Political Activist

In his eulogy written for Clara Ione Cox upon her death in 1940, Joseph H. Peele states, “her last official message was an earnest request that Interracial Sunday, which comes on the eleventh of this month, be properly observed” (Clara Cox Vertical File, Friends Historical Collection). A Quaker minister of the Springfield Quaker Meeting in High Point, North Carolina for twenty-one years, Clara Cox led a life in service of her community, committed to addressing local and national racial injustices. Though the obituary written about Clara mentions her leadership in the Interracial Relations Committee of the North Carolina Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends, it does not discuss her social and political activism, which constituted a large part of Clara’s lifelong work. In fact, after reading the only existing secondary literature written on Clara, I have found that her life and work as a Quaker minister remained separate from her work as a social and political leader and activist in her community. As a minister, Clara advocated for "Interracial Sundays," an effort to celebrate inclusion within local churches, yet her political activism appears to have largely remained separate from her role as minister. Indeed, Allan Austin's recent work on the interracial activism of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization founded in 1917 to assist civilian victims of World War I, confirms the relative paucity of Quaker political activists, especially those in the South. A 1928 interracial conference was held in Greensboro, NC in which sixteen Quakers from Philadelphia attended but very few Southern Quakers attended or even showed interest in the event (28-30).

Chairman of the North Carolina Council of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, Clara maintained a nearly ten-year long correspondence with Jessie Daniel Ames, founder of the association and director of the women’s committee of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. The Friends Historical Collection at Guilford College maintains the Clara Cox Papers (four boxes in total), most of which contain personal and professional correspondences between Clara and local social and political leaders. The only daughter of Bertha Snow and Jonathan Elwood Cox, Clara was born on December 18, 1879 in Guilford, North Carolina. Born after the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877), Clara grew up in a well-to-do family in a “big frame home” in High Point, NC. A short five-page spread in The Southern Friend on Clara, written in 1994 by Brenda G. Haworth, a local High Point resident and prominent member of the Springfield Meeting, is the only biographical record of her life. Through interviews with locals who knew Clara as well as archival research in the Friends Historical Collection, Haworth paints a picture of a person utterly dedicated to serving others. Never married nor partnered, Clara was suspected by community members to have been born a hermaphrodite. Raised a girl, Clara was cared for by her cousin, Effie Cox, who ensured Clara dressed appropriately since she could not be bothered by material concerns (Haworth 13-20).  

Though Haworth mentions briefly Clara’s positions in the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, she does not discuss the extent to which Clara became entrenched in local and regional legal and political affairs regarding race relations. Such involvement in these arenas is clearly evident through Clara’s correspondence with Ames, the letters she wrote and delivered to local Sheriffs commending them for not allowing mobs to take and lynch prisoners and entreating them to read the pamphlets and literature disseminated by the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, and her correspondence with local African American community leaders such as C.C. Spaulding, President of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham, NC, America’s largest black-owned business.   


Clara commends the Sheriffs of North Carolina for preventing the lynching of three individuals in 1932. 

While Clara maintained correspondence with many leaders, both locally and regionally, she seemed to have the most frequent correspondence with Jessie Daniel Ames. In response to Jessie’s letters urging local leaders to disseminate anti-lynching literature to local sheriffs, Clara sent letters addressed “To the Sheriffs of North Carolina” on March 7, 1933, of which ten copies remain in the collection (Clara Cox Papers, Friends Historical Collection). In this letter, Clara uses direct language that congratulates and empathizes with the Sheriffs stating that “not a single lynching has been charged” during the year of 1932.  The letter itself is typed though a correction in pen is made due to the misspelling of “gentlemen.” In the typed copy, the word is spelled “gentelmen” and a blue pen has changed the “el” to “le.” Though likely insignificant to the larger message communicated within the letter, this mistake could have two important functions. First, in the letter itself, Clara portrays the sheriffs as already sympathetic to her cause, suggesting that they act in the highest accordance with their values. As such, one could read the initial misspelling as a gesture toward the word “genteel” (polite, refined, respectable), supporting the letter’s characterization of these men. On the contrary, the gentle/genteel distinction highlighted by the misspelling calls attention to the letter’s rhetoric which interrogates a conflation of these words (ie: to be “genteel” would require one to uphold firmly the law—not “gentle” indeed). Nevertheless, it remains curious that Clara did not retype this letter to avoid a seemingly careless error given the significance of strengthening the relation between sheriffs and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.

Although Clara was committed to supporting the welfare of African Americans and helped to support a black women’s reform school in Efland, donating to its cause, she uses solely legal justification for the sheriffs’ actions, stating that her committee approves of their “fidelity to the humane and enlightened sentiment which seeks to prevent destruction of the orderly processes of the courts.” The practice of lynching was often challenged as an “extralegal” operation outside the realm of the legal and judicial so that no arguments for its breach of ethical and moral values would have to be made. Though Clara ostensibly writes her letter from this position, she nevertheless commends the sheriffs for their “humane and enlightened sentiment,” suggesting her belief that their actions also align with a moral commitment to upholding human dignity. Assuming their support, Clara writes that “in three separate instances a lynching has been prevented by the sheriff in charge of the accused.” 


Jessie Daniel Ames entreats Clara to organize another meeting in 1937 for the North Carolina Council of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of lynching to discuss strategies for the upcoming year. 

One of these attempted lynchings is referred to in a letter to Clara from Jessie Daniel Ames, dated September 8, 1932 (Clara Cox Papers, Friends Historical Collection). In this letter, Ames describes the case in which Charlie Rose, a black boy of seventeen years, “shot and fatally wounded a deputy sheriff who attempted to arrest him on charge of affronting a white girl.” Sheriff J.A. Lowe, responsible for holding Rose, refused to let a mob take the boy declaring he “could maintain order.” Urging Clara to write the Sheriff directly to commend him for his actions, Ames demonstrates how the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching took advantage of personal correspondence as a means toward greater legal and political sanctions for their cause.

In fact, in one such letter to Clara, Ames urges her to “use her own stationary” rather than stationary head from the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in writing letters to North Carolina Senators regarding the proposed Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill. Although the Costigan-Wagner bill allowed states to retain much of their power in responding to and preventing mob violence, it was still opposed by many Southerners, particularly Josiah W. Bailey, North Carolina Senator (Newkirk 121). According to Ames, the Association voted not to interfere with Federal legislation on three separate occasions, seeing itself as an entity that supports local and regional anti-lynching movements. Perhaps Ames recognized the reach of the Association’s power and did not want to further provoke the senators, many of whom had already declared their intent to use the argument of “protecting Southern womanhood” to challenge the bill (Clara Cox Papers, Friends Historical Collection). Regardless the reason, Ames’s urging Clara to write from a personal rather than political position suggests her awareness of the Association’s precarious position within many Southern circles.

Ames clearly sees Clara as the main leader of the North Carolina Council (of which she was both symbolically and actually), and a letter addressed in 1937 to Clara addresses her role in gaining sympathy for the Association’s cause. Written January 18, 1937 (reproduced here in the exhibit gallery), Ames writes to Clara regarding her particular concern about lynchings in North Carolina, or, rather, their relative absence: “I have been somewhat concerned about the state, not because North Carolina lynches but largely because North Carolina does not lynch, except occasionally” (Clara Cox Papers, Friends Historical Collection). According to Vann R. Newkirk’s research on lynchings in North Carolina between 1865 and 1941, three lynchings occurred in the ten-year period between 1930 and 1940 (170). The unpredictability and aberrant nature of lynchings in the state disturbs Ames, suggesting that their irregularity makes it more difficult to prevent them. In her letter, Ames sympathizes with Clara’s other duties as a Quaker minister but clearly expresses her viewpoint that Clara could be doing more as the Chairman for the North Carolina Council. Indeed, a 1937 letter from Ames which reveals the number of new signatures to join the council by state demonstrates that only seven new signatures were gained in North Carolina between Dec. 31, 1936 and September 1, 1937, the fourth lowest increase of the fifteen Southern states known to have anti-lynching councils (Clara Cox Papers, Friends Historical Collection).

Though Clara inevitably divided her time between her role as a Quaker minister and her work in the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, she, nevertheless was an integral member of her local community—“in the know” about many local affairs. One such correspondence that reveals Clara’s knowledge regarding local affairs is a letter from C.C. Spaulding, written August 3rd, 1933. In this letter, Spaulding asks Clara if she knows anything about the “six or eight Negroes” in the jail in Greensboro for “alleged rioting in connection with the demonstration of the unemployed.” Spaulding says that a “Mr. Streator of Greensboro” wrote him asking for his help to bail these men out of jail but he would like Clara’s opinion as to whether or not the men “deserve any consideration” (Clara Cox Papers, Friends Historical Collection). That a prominent black man in Durham would write to Clara Cox, a white woman, asking for her opinion on the character of the “six or eight negroes” in jail suggests a surprising notion that Clara was well-regarded and trusted in black and white circles as a result of her activism. 

Clara Ione Cox: Quaker Minister and Political Activist