Women of Color Suffrage

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The Work Must Be Done

Women of Color and the Right to Vote

Colored Women’s Liberty Loan Committee, October 21, 1917, RG012, State Archives, Connecticut State Library  |  From left to right, Elizabeth R. Morris, Mary A. Johnson, and Rosa J. Fisher

Inspired by the words of notable African American reformer and political activist, Mary Townsend Seymour, “The work must be done,” the Connecticut Museum of Culture and History presents exciting new research about the women of color who worked for women’s suffrage. As the nation, and Connecticut, celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment which legalized women’s right to vote, attention is growing about the critical need to identify and raise up the stories of the women of color who participated in the fight for suffrage and those who, like their white counterparts, were against the enfranchisement of women.  Historically, research about the fight to win the right to vote has focused on the white women who were both for and against this act. Due to the internalized racism of many of the national and state-wide suffrage organizations, women of color, and particularly African American women, were denied agency within these activist organizations. This does not mean that women of color were not involved in the fight for and against suffrage. They absolutely were. Women of color were active leaders who developed their own associations, both nationwide and state-based, to achieve social and political reforms, including working for woman suffrage.


Listen to this podcast episode of “Grating the Nutmeg,” in which our own Natalie Belanger talks to historians Brittney Yancy and Karen Li Miller about their ongoing research on women of color and their role in the suffrage movement.

Biographies

Susan “Susie” I. Amos

(abt 1863-1935)

Susie Amos was born in Connecticut around 1863. She had northeastern roots as her mother was born in Connecticut, and her father in New Jersey. She married William Amos, who hailed from West Virginia, and in 1891, the couple had a daughter named Mary. The family lived in New Haven. For at least 30 years, Amos worked as a piano instructor, teaching students in her home.An elected officer of the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, Amos held the positions of Assistant Secretary (1909) and then Recording Secretary. The Federation advocated for anti-lynching laws and racial justice. During their meeting in Stamford in 1925, when Amos served as Recording Secretary, the Federation protested Klan activities in public spaces and sent their resolution to the president and other political leaders. The Federation did not name the organization specifically but identified it as “a crime in execution against the Constitution of our United States.” Their resolution stated: “We deplore the permission granted this organization to parade and thus spread its propaganda in face of the fact that the organization is unconstitutional and unAmerican.”In addition to her political activism, Amos supported her community as a member of the Twentieth Century Club in New Haven. As of 1906, she served as Secretary for the club which saved and maintained the Hannah Gray Home, a charitable residence for elderly women of color. Today, the Hannah Gray Home “serves low-income elderly in need of residential care without regard to race or gender.”

Minnie L. Bradley

(1882 – ?)

Minnie L. Bradley was born in Connecticut in 1882 and lived mostly in New Haven. Her mother, Serena, was from Maryland, and her father, John, from Florida. Minnie was the youngest of their four children. She worked as a nurse and a bookkeeper before running her own printing company in New Haven.Bradley was a major leader and supporter of African American women locally and nationally. She served as the first president of the Connecticut branch of the National Association of Colored Women, which formed in 1920 with 540 members. Re-elected several times as president, Bradley led the organization as it was renamed the Nutmeg State Federation of Women’s Clubs.She also campaigned to enact labor reforms for domestic service workers. Bradley collaborated with the renowned African American educators and activists Nannie Helen Burroughs and Mary McLeod Bethune to create the National Association of Wage Earners. The association sought to protect the three million African American women who were employed in domestic and personal service. Bradley and her co-activists fought for fair wages, better living conditions, and respect for these workers.

Rhoda L. Brooks

(abt 1888 – 1960)

Rhoda Brooks devoted her life to advancing the political and social rights of the African American community in Hartford. She moved from Virginia to Hartford with her family sometime before 1900. Brooks graduated from college. In 1912 she married Grant Diggs who was born in Connecticut. Her early jobs included working as a teacher in a public school and, after she was widowed in 1917, as a servant for a family. In 1924 she married Samuel L. Brooks and was widowed again in 1929.Active in Republican politics, she participated in organizing a Republican rally for the Colored Voters’ League, the Colored Women’s Republican Club, and the Colored Women’s (Independent) Voters’ League rally in 1926.In 1931 she was selected for a City of Hartford job, and The Hartford Courant announced: “Mrs. Brooks Named Charity Investigator.” She was appointed as an investigator for the Charity Department of the Public Welfare Commission, and “her work to be concerned principally in the investigation of cases involving Negro residents of Hartford.”Brooks served as a political, community, and church leader. A member of the Women’s League for over 20 years, she was elected for multiple offices, including that of treasurer and secretary. Brooks was also an officer for the Union Baptist Church, the Director of Religious Education for the Connecticut Baptist Missionary Union, and a member of the Shiloh Baptist Church.During World War II, Brooks volunteered to work on the Hartford Negro Citizens Council which was involved in training North End residents to become air raid wardens.

Clara Burr

(1844-1933)

Clara Burr descended from two leading activist families, and she continued their legacies. Born Clarissa “Clara” Ann Beman on January 27, 1844, in Middletown, she was one of the six children of Leverett C. and Maria Campbell Beman. Clara’s mother and grandmother established a chapter the Colored Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1834. Only two such organizations existed in the country, and the Society was one the first anti-slavery societies in Connecticut. Clara’s father was a member of the Bemans of Middletown, a family of leading reformers, and he developed a residential community in town for Black homeowners. Clara’s uncle was the well-known abolitionist Amos Beman.Burr became a distinguished leader in her own right. She was a charter member and longtime president of the Rose of New England Women's League (RNE). The League was established in 1897 to uplift the well-being and education of Black women and children in Norwich. She also served as a vice president for the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and held membership with the National Association of Women’s Clubs.Burr was deeply involved in the McKinley Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church, also known as the Evans Memorial A.M.E. Church in Norwich, a site of activism from its founding. She served on several committees and as secretary and treasurer of the Board of Stewardesses. Through her religious and political activities, Burr organized rallies, festivals, and lectures that raised money for churches as well as encouraged education and active participation in her community.Upon her death in 1933, she was fondly remembered as a woman “keenly interested in the activities of her church and community and [left] a host of friends to mourn her loss.” Burr is buried in Yantic Cemetery in Norwich, sharing a headstone with her sister and two of their nieces, including Hattie Wood, with whom she was active in the Northeastern Federation and RNE.Burr had three children with her first husband, Richard Johnson. In 1886 she married her second husband, Walter Burr, a prominent Norwich barber. Clara worked as a nurse.

Callie Mathes Coleman

(abt 1877 – 1960)

Callie Coleman was a force of nature. In 1910, Callie Howard, a widow, worked as a farm laborer in Sumter, Georgia. She was raising seven children, ages four to seventeen. Within seven years, she moved her entire family to Connecticut. In 1920 she was a housewife, married to Alonzo Coleman.Coleman became involved in politics soon after her arrival in Hartford. She served on the Republican committee for the Third Ward, precinct 31, and she was a member of the Colored Voters’ Republican League.Coleman’s community activism may have inspired the work of her daughter, Lila Howard Montgomery (abt 1898 – 1954). Lila was one of the first African American nurses in Hartford. She received her training in Georgia and then returned to Connecticut. Lila’s service during the influenza epidemic of WWI earned a letter of commendation from Connecticut Governor Everett J. Lake (in office 1921-1923).

Daisy Trotter Daniels

(abt 1885 – 1958)

Born in Americus, Georgia, Daniels moved to Hartford with her husband, John Daniels, in 1917. She worked in domestic service for private homes.Daniels’ name appears in early to mid-twentieth century Hartford political reports. Daniels served on the committee for precinct 31 of Ward 3 in Hartford, eventually becoming the precinct’s delegate. She was also a member of the Colored Republican Voters League.Daniels combined her political and social activism which can be seen in her work with the New England Colored Welfare League. In 1945, The Hartford Courant noted that Daniels was among the first African American women to vote in Hartford.Upon her arrival in Hartford, she became involved in church community activities and was a lifelong member of Mt. Olive Baptist Church.

Annie (Scott) Drury

(1872-1940)

In 1872, Annie was born to Moses and Eliza Scott in Jewett City and she lived most of her life in Norwich. Annie married Theodore Drury, and they had a daughter, Priscilla, who died in infancy. By 1920, Annie was widowed and shared a home with her sister, Idella Scott. For many years, Annie worked in domestic service.Although 1920 seemed like the end of a long, protracted fight to achieve women’s suffrage, the work for women of color continued. They used their vote to effect change and raise awareness for political issues that were important to their communities. For instance, Black women focused on criminalizing lynching, which was still a violent threat in many areas of the U.S. The Anti-Lynching Crusaders organized nationally in 1922. The Norwich branch of the Anti-Lynching Crusaders organized officially in September 1922. Named as director, Drury led the local reformers. The Anti-Lynching Crusaders supported the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill and campaigned for its passage in the U.S. Congress. The bill was never passed by both branches of the federal government.Drury was also very active in Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. She served as the clerk for the church and as a delegate to the New England Baptist Missionary Convention for at least two years in a row. She participated in the church choir along with her sister, Idella. At the time of her death, Annie was a member of the Union Baptist Church.

Rosa J. Richardson Fisher

(1875 - 1951?)

Rosa Fisher was born in Alabama in 1875 and she completed one year of college. In 1893 she married Charles L. Fisher. Rosa moved to Hartford when her husband was appointed as the new pastor of Union Baptist Church in 1916. During the summer of 1916, 400 members of the church held a reception to welcome the couple and their family. Rev. C.L. Fisher appeared regularly in the press as he urged for unity and uplift among the African American community as well as condemned the violence in the south and discrimination in the north.Often referred to as “Mrs. C.L. Fisher,” Rosa was socially active in her own right. In 1917 she served on the Colored Women’s Committee for the second liberty loan drive in Hartford, which demonstrated the patriotism of the African American community. She registered to vote in 1920. By 1930, the family had returned to Birmingham, Alabama, and by 1940 Fisher was widowed and living with a daughter in Selma, Alabama. Her daughter, Mildred I. Fisher, worked as a teacher at Atlanta University.

Sarah Lee Brown Fleming

(1876 – 1963)

Sarah Lee Brown Fleming is known as Connecticut’s Clubwoman, a leading civil rights activist who mobilized African American women across Connecticut around social welfare, suffrage, and equality. She was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on January 10, 1876. At the age of two, her family moved to New York, where she became the first Black teacher in the Brooklyn school district. While in New York, she met Richard Stedman Fleming, an immigrant from St. Kitts, whom she married on November 5, 1902. A year later, the couple welcomed their daughter, Dorothy; and their son Harold was born in 1906.The Flemings lived in New Haven by 1910, and they became prominent figures in elite Black circles. Richard became Connecticut’s first Black dentist, and Sarah bridged her career as an educator with her devotion to the African American community in New Haven, particularly women and girls. Shortly after settling in New Haven, she joined the Twentieth Century Club, New Haven’s oldest and largest Black women’s club, founded in 1901.Fleming’s career as a community activist is well-documented, but her career as a writer is less known. She was among the cohort of trailblazing literary critics who defined the Harlem Renaissance. In 1918, she penned her first novel, Hope’s Highway, a historical romance set in the South that balances being an activist and artist with racial discrimination and newfound freedom. In 1920 she published a collection of poems, Clouds and Sunshine, which integrated dialect in a form similar to Paul Laurence Dunbar and Black vernacular in the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston. In 1926, she published her last known work in Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction.Fleming’s writings were informed by her politics, which aligned with the Black women’s club movement and racial uplift activism of the day. Her involvement in such clubs brought her into circles with African American women pioneers and suffragists like Mary McLeod Bethune and Mary Church Terrell. As a leading voice for women’s rights and suffrage, Fleming worked within her club circles to elevate women and girls’ concerns, particularly women’s right to vote.In the aftermath of the passing of the 19th amendment, Fleming continued her suffrage work in the 19th Ward section of the League of Women Voters. While the League of Women Voters struggled to eliminate white supremacy within its ranks, the interracial membership of the 19th Ward section made it a standout. Fleming hosted League meetings in her home at 216 Dwight Street and served on the executive board as secretary, alongside her colleague Laura Belle McCoy. Voter education was her priority. In 1924 she joined the Colored Republican Women of Connecticut for their state meeting, delivering the address entitled, “Education in Politics.”Fleming had long worked with the leadership of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), specifically her long-time associate and NACW president, Mary McLeod Bethune (1924-1928). During Bethune’s tenure, Fleming served as an associate editor for the National Notes, the official organ of the NACW. By 1929, Fleming turned the Twentieth Century Club into the Women’s Civic League, an official league of the Northeastern Federation. In 1933, she galvanized Black women’s leagues and associations across Connecticut to officially form the Connecticut State Union under the NACW. The Connecticut State Union worked across class lines to advance African American women’s and girls’ rights. She held the title as the Honorary President of the Union and led the body in lobbying efforts, political training, and advocacy for women’s rights. In 1935, Fleming’s commitment to women and girls became a reality when she established the Phillis Wheatley Home for Girls, a home for young Black migrant women new to New Haven.Fleming continued to be politically active in her later years, becoming the first African American woman to earn the distinction of Connecticut’s Mother of the Year in 1952. In 1955, she testified before Congress, discussing her commitment to civil rights, equal education, and the social welfare of women and children. That same year, the National Association of Negro Professional and Business Women’s Club awarded Fleming the Sojourner Truth Scroll Award.Fleming remained politically active until she died on January 5, 1963.

Martha Minerva Franklin

(1870 – 1968)

Martha Franklin was born in New Milford in 1870, and her family later moved to Meriden. After graduating from high school, where she was the only African American person in her class, Franklin attended the Woman’s Hospital Training School for Nurses in Philadelphia. (Why did she have to go out of state for her training? Connecticut had its own nursing schools but they did not accept black students.) She graduated from nursing school in 1897, again, the only black woman in her class. Franklin returned home to New Haven and found work as a nurse in private homes.At this time, only 4% of hospitals hired black nurses, and the American Nurses Association did not accept black members. In 1906, Franklin took action and sent out 500 letters to African American graduate nurses and nursing organizations in order to gain an understanding of their professional experiences. In 1908, she sent out another 1,500 letters to black nurses, inviting them to organize and meet. Franklin founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) and served as its first president. Their motto was: “Not for ourselves, but for humanity.” Franklin and her associates fought against racial discrimination. They worked to unite professional black nurses nationwide and advocate for their integration into nursing schools, jobs, and organizations.In 1928 Franklin moved to New York to continue her training and become a Registered Nurse. She worked as a nurse in New York’s public schools. When she retired, she moved back to Connecticut and lived in New Haven.

Minnie L. Glover

(abt 1887 – 1963)

The middle sibling of the three political Edwards sisters who “fought vigorously for women’s right to vote and the active participation of Negroes in politics,” according to The Hartford Courant. Minnie Glover was recognized as a significant political, social, and church leader in Connecticut. In 1917 she moved to Hartford from Americus, Georgia, with her husband, John H. Glover, and their children. Her jobs included working as a hairdresser and a clothes presser.Glover was active in Republican politics for decades in Hartford. In 1926 she participated in organizing a Republican rally for the Colored Voters’ League, the Colored Women’s Republican Club, and the Colored Women’s (Independent) Voters’ League rally. The speakers included: Governor Trumbull, Secretary of State Francis A. Pallotti, Congressman Fenn, State Senator Alice Pattison Merritt, and Mrs. Mary A. Johnson, state chairman of the National Guard Colored Republican Conference. She also helped to organize the Colored Voters’ Republican League at the Union Baptist Parish House in 1928.Glover served as the Republican captain of the 21st precinct for many years, and her longtime leadership was honored at her 80th birthday celebration in 1945. The Hartford Courant covered the event in an article titled “Negro Woman Honored As One of First To Vote,” noting that Glover was one of the first African American women voters in 1920.In addition to her own activism, she encouraged other African American women to become politically involved. Glover was appointed to lead the African American membership drive team for the Women’s Republican Club of Hartford, Inc. In 1936 the Courant reported that the club had nearly 1,000 members, and the memberships of African American women had risen the greatest, by 81%.Glover would continue her pioneering “firsts” when, in 1918, she became a charter member of the New England Welfare League and, later, the first African American vice-chair lady of the 5th Ward. She also supported her community with her work in church and other benevolent organizations, including the Metropolitan AME Zion Church, Alpha Temple 83 (the missionary board of AME Zion Church), IBPOE (Elks) of Main W., Household of Ruth, and McKinney King Post 142, American Legion, auxiliary.

Lula M. Green Graham

(abt 1900 – 1945)

Lula Graham was born in Georgia about 1900. She moved to Hartford by 1920 with her husband, Doc Graham, who worked as a baker and janitor. Lula’s jobs included working as a tobacco sorter and in domestic service for private homes.In addition to her political activity, Graham was very interested in promoting health and hygiene. She was involved with the Hartford Tuberculosis and Public Health Society and served as a member of the Hartford Health Guild. In 1940, Graham was among the first class of graduates trained in home hygiene and care of the sick in her community.

Margaret Moore Green

(abt 1881 – 1965)

Margaret Green registered to vote in 1920 and was involved in Republican politics in Hartford. Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Margaret Moore moved to Hartford before 1910. In 1920 she was married to Henry B. Green of Virginia. Her life was busy as her household included her husband, parents, two daughters, and various lodgers for over twenty years. In 1930 she worked as a dressmaker.

Elizabeth Jeter Greene

(abt 1890-1973)

Born in Virginia in about 1890, Elizabeth moved to New London before 1920. The 1920 census records identified her as Mrs. Elizabeth Jeter, head of household, with a daughter named Gladys. Jeter ran a boarding house and also worked as a dressmaker. A few years later, she married Erskine Greene of Tennessee.Elizabeth Jeter Greene championed voting rights, political activism, and civic involvement. For decades, she was a prominent leader for Black women’s engagement with politics. On February 27, 1920, the Norwich Bulletin announced that “a branch of the Equal Franchise League has been organized among the colored women of Norwich,” and Elizabeth Jeter was named the president of the League. The League served as hosts to the Connecticut State Federation of Women’s Clubs during a meeting in New London in May 1920.After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, The National League of Republican Colored Women issued a questionnaire titled: Colored Women in Politics. The questionnaire’s introduction said: “Since Negro women have the ballot, they must not under-value it.” The League listed its goals and projects, including: “They must organize to fight discrimination and class legislation.” Greene’s completed questionnaire is held today at the Library of Congress. To the question which asked: “What is being done to educate women as to the value of the ballot?,” Greene answered: “Much through the League of Women Voters.”Greene was involved in the League of Women Voters of New England. She also led several other organizations that worked to advance racial and gender equity and representation in politics, including the NAACP’s New London Chapter, National Council of Negro Women, and Republican Women’s Club of New London. She participated in the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as in multiple municipal and civic agencies, advocating for uplift such as anti-poverty reforms.When Greene died in 1973, newspapers from Hartford to Bridgeport honored her as a “suffragette” and “one of the first Negro women in the suffrage movement in 1919.”

Josephine Leverett Haywood

(1887 – 1963)

Josephine Haywood was born in 1887 in Windsor County, Georgia. She moved to Hartford in 1916 with her husband, Noah Haywood. The couple lived in Sumter, Georgia, prior to moving to Hartford. In 1918 Noah registered for the draft for World War I.The 1920 census indicates that Josephine worked as a seamstress in her home where they had three boarders. The couple had a son, Marshall H. Haywood, in 1923. Tragically, Marshall died at the age of 22 at Cedarcrest Sanatorium in Newington, perhaps from tuberculosis.Haywood was strongly active in Republican politics in Hartford. She served on the precinct 31 Republican committee for the 3rd Ward for a decade. A resident of Hartford for 47 years, Haywood died in Preston, Connecticut, in 1963.

Anna Louise James

(1886–1977)

Anna James, the first woman pharmacist in Connecticut, hailed from a family of strong people. Her father was a Virginia plantation slave who escaped and made his way north where he married Anna Houston in 1874. Their daughter, Anna Louise James was born in Hartford in 1886. After she completed elementary school, her family moved to Saybrook, where they were one of the only black families in town. James completed her studies at the local high school in 1905.She enrolled in the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy and was the only woman in her class. James graduated in 1908 and became the first black woman to be licensed as a pharmacist in Connecticut. Despite discrimination, including a rejection from the Connecticut Pharmaceutical Association, which advised her to join the women’s auxiliary instead, James persevered. She ran her own pharmacy in Hartford from 1909 to 1911, then she moved to join her brother-in-law’s pharmacy. In the late 1890s, Peter Lane had opened the first pharmacy in Saybrook.James’s niece, the writer Ann Lane Petry, noted that she grew up surrounded by remarkable women. Her aunts, including James, were accomplished. Her mother, Bertha Lane, ran a business for embroidering linens and employed women from around the country.James became the sole owner of the pharmacy in 1917, renaming it the James Pharmacy. Known to everyone as Miss James, she ran the pharmacy for 50 years until 1967 when she retired at the age of 81.In 1920 she became one of the first women to register to vote in Old Saybrook and was politically active in supporting the Republican Party. James was a central figure in Saybrook, and her pharmacy was a community gathering place. When she died in 1977, she was the oldest member of the First Church of Christ in Old Saybrook.Photo Credit: “James behind the soda fountain in the James’ pharmacy,” 1909-1911. Reproduced with permission from Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Mary A. Johnson

(abt 1881 – 1959)

Born in Georgia, Mary A. Johnson and her husband, Sidney Johnson, moved to Hartford in 1916. They ran the first African American undertaker business in Hartford and, likely, in Connecticut.Soon after her arrival, she joined the Colored Women’s Liberty Loan Committee in 1917, which showed African American women’s patriotic participation in war support efforts. By 1918 Johnson was the chairman of the Colored Republican Women of Connecticut and the vice president of the Connecticut State Federation of Colored Women.She combined her political and social service, which is evident in her work of co-founding the Women’s League, Inc., of Hartford in 1918 and becoming its first president. The League opened their Community House in 1919 and aimed to uplift their community. The Community House offered childcare services, a wide variety of classes, and housing and skills training for women who had moved from the south, among other resources. The League and Community House became cornerstones. Women’s clubs in greater New England gathered at this center, which ran for over 75 years, and generations of children attended its daycare and programs.In 1926 Johnson served as the state chairman of the National Guard Colored Republican Conference. The speakers at this political rally included Secretary of State Francis A. Pallotti, Congressman Fenn, State Senator Alice Pattison Merritt, Governor Trumbull, and Johnson. She gave the address that introduced the governor.Johnson was devoted to civic service in Hartford for decades. As a member of the Mayor’s Committee on Unemployment in 1929, she established the Hartford Industrial Service and Exchange Bureau “to help the industrial situation among local Negro families.” Her focus for the program was to help people develop “the ability to create and execute one’s own ideas.”In 1941 Johnson was appointed to the City Juvenile Commission, and The Hartford Courant reported that she “is believed to be the first Negro woman appointed to a standing commission in Hartford.” She ran for the State House of Representatives as the People’s (Wallace) Party nominee in 1948 and was defeated. Johnson’s leadership helped shape African American women’s political involvement in Connecticut.

Lena E. Knighton

(1868 – 1968)

Lena Knighton, the oldest of the three political Edwards sisters, moved from Americus, Georgia, to Hartford by 1918, with her husband, James L. Knighton, and their five children. To honor her 100th birthday in 1968, The Hartford Courant ran an article titled: “Mrs. Knighton 100 Years Old Today.” It reported that Knighton, along with her sisters, “fought vigorously for women’s right to vote and the active participation of Negroes in politics.”For many years the sisters worked together in the Republican Party, including the Colored Voters’ Republican League. Knighton transferred to the Democratic Party when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1933, which seems to have caused some friendly sibling rivalry. In the 1930s Knighton also worked with Boce W. Barlow, Jr., in Democratic politics. Barlow would become the first African American judge in Connecticut in 1957, as well as the first African American elected to the Connecticut State Senate in 1966.Knighton was one of the founders of Bethel AME Church, which later joined Faith Congregational Church.

Ida Napier Lawson

(1877 – 1965)

Ida Morgan Napier was born in 1877 in Nashville, Tennessee. She attended college at Fisk University where she was a soloist with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. In 1902 she married Raymond Augustus Lawson, and the couple had three children: Warner, Rosalind, and Elizabeth. R. Augustus Lawson was a gifted concert pianist who performed in major cities and was a professor of piano in Hartford.Ida Lawson was a cornerstone of the African American community and worked with many organizations, which included black and white members, to improve the lives of people in Hartford, particularly those of children. A co-founder of the Women’s League of Hartford, Lawson led the organization from 1918 to 1943. The Women’s League’s Community House offered a home for young black working women, in addition to a daycare for children, community and educational programs, and a meeting space.Lawson’s service activities were wide ranging. She became the first African American member of the Board of Directors at the Hartford YWCA and the Greater Hartford Tuberculosis and Health Education Society. Her other leadership positions included working on the Boards of Trustees of the North End Community Center, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Women’s Auxiliary of the Hartford Symphony. She was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Talcott Street Congregational Church.

Florence Montgomery Lee

(abt 1894 – abt 1967)

Florence Montgomery registered to vote in 1920. Born in Florence, South Carolina, she moved to Hartford. Montgomery, a widow, worked as a laundress in a laundry shop and lived with her sister’s family in 1920. The 1930 census shows that she had married William Lee.

Pearl Woods Lee

(1882 – 1947)

Born in Springvale, Georgia, Pearl Woods Lee moved to Hartford in 1916 with her husband Green A. Lee. She lived in Hartford for 31 years. Lee registered to vote in 1920 and was also a member of Mt. Olive Baptist Church.Lee helped raise her granddaughter. The Hartford Courant said of her: “And Lee, a tough woman, strong-willed, and fiercely independent, made it her mission to instill in her granddaughter the bedrock of knowledge.”Decades later, this granddaughter would recall how Lee, or “Big Mama,” would rub her knuckles on the child’s forehead: “She’d say, ‘If you put it up here, no one can ever take it away from you.” Who was this granddaughter? Carrie Saxon Perry, Connecticut’s first African American woman mayor, and indeed the first African American woman mayor of a major American city, from 1987-1993.As The Hartford Courant noted, “[T]he Lee family did all right–thanks in large part to the vision, the forebearance, and the grit of its women”– and in Connecticut that started with Pearl Woods Lee.

Martha Rufner Maddox

(abt 1864 – 1943)

Martha Maddox was an anchor in her Hartford community, determined to support the African American community in Hartford, especially the women and children.Born in Lewiston, Virginia, Martha Harris was living in Leesburg, Virginia, in 1880. On October 3, 1887, she married John Henry Maddox, a barber, in Solano County, California. He died in 1901. Her daughter, Alta E. Maddox, was born in 1902 in California. In 1903 Martha Maddox moved across the country from California to Hartford and started a new life with her child. Martha did housework for various employers over the decades. In 1920 she lived in Hartford with her teenage daughter Josephine Yoncik, whose father was a white factory laborer. At this time Alta was likely attending college. She would graduate from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and work as a dressmaker in Hartford.Even as a single, working mother with two young daughters, Maddox began to change her community. In 1904 she organized the beginners Sunday School for the Union Baptist Church, “making a house-to-house canvas to bring children to the school,” according to The Hartford Courant. She taught more than 600 children in 35 years, not missing more than 15 Sundays during that time. Her work was honored by the Courant in a 1939 article titled “Sunday School Post Held For 35 Years.”Maddox was active in the political and social uplift of African Americans in Connecticut. She participated in the statewide organization, the Nutmeg State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, serving as the Church Relations Department Head in 1929. In 1939 she was the Vice President of the Women’s League, Inc., a significant African American organization in Hartford.

Rose Payton

(abt 1855 – 1917)

In 1893 the women citizens of Connecticut gained the right to vote for school officials and on educational issues. When Rose Payton registered to vote, it was reported in The Hartford Courant in an article titled: “Women Voters: Ten More Registered; One a Colored Woman.” Who was this trailblazing woman? Payton came from Virginia with her husband Fountain, and they had a daughter named Lillian. The family lived in Hartford. During her years in Hartford, Payton worked as a laundress and, later, a nurse, while her husband was a cook in Union Station.The Courant reported that Payton was “a colored woman, the first woman of that race to be registered in Hartford and probably the only colored woman who has registered to date.” Her pioneering act is notable because most women, black or white, did not seize the opportunity to vote at this time. By mid-September in 1893, 58 women had registered in Hartford, including Payton. She was an early registrant, signing up before the first large women’s political rally and Ladies’ Day at the Town Clerk’s office, which resulted in an increase of women voters.Payton valued having an electoral voice and took time out of her workday to register. She consistently held an interest in exercising her voting rights, and her name appeared every year in Hartford’s City and Town Election’s Lists of Women Voters until her death in 1917.

Anna B. Reese

(abt 1890–?)

The youngest of the three political Edwards sisters, Anna B. Reese hailed from Americus, Georgia. In 1920 she was living in Hartford and working as a housekeeper. It is not clear whether she was already a widow or if her husband, Henry Reese, resided elsewhere. The couple did not appear to have children, or at least none who moved to Connecticut. Anna B. Reese was a self-supporting woman.With her two older sisters, Lena Knighton and Minne Glover, Reese also engaged in Republican politics in Hartford. All three sisters “fought vigorously for women’s right to vote and the active participation of Negroes in politics,” according to The Hartford Courant. In 1926 she participated in organizing a Republican rally for the Colored Voters’ League, the Colored Women’s Republican Club, and the Colored Women’s (Independent) Voters’ League rally. Governor Trumbull, Secretary of State Francis A. Pallotti, Congressman Fenn, State Senator Alice Pattison Merritt, and Mrs. Mary A. Johnson, state chairman of the National Guard Colored Republican Conference, were speakers. She also contributed to the Colored Voters’ Republican League.The search for more information about Reese continues. She is sometimes listed as Annie B. Reese, Anna Reece, Annabel Reese, and other variations.

Linna Saunders

(1865 – 1944)

Linna Saunders was one of the leading civil rights activists and suffragists in New Haven County. She was born in December 1865 in Pennsylvania. In 1890, she married Canadian Judson Saunders from Nova Scotia, and they settled in New Haven, Connecticut. The Saunders lived on Harriett Street and were members of Temple Street Baptist Church and Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church.Through her membership in the Twentieth Century Club and the Northeastern Federation of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Saunders became a towering figure in New Haven’s Black women’s club scene. In this capacity, her influence on the Federation’s Executive Board led to their advocacy for the suffrage movement and the long struggle for voting rights. She was also a devoted member of the New Haven Chapter of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP). She served on the Board of Directors of the Dixwell Community House. Saunders moved her family to Hamden, Connecticut, in 1920, and she remained active in New Haven politics until she died in 1944.

Beatrice Johnson Saxon

(1881 – 1974)

Beatrice Johnson Saxon was a pioneering civil rights activist in New Haven, Connecticut. Johnson was born in 1881 in South Carolina to Walter and Lucy Adams-Johnson. Less is known about her childhood, but records show, by the turn of the 20th century, Beatrice lived in Georgia with her husband, Belton George Saxon. In 1901, the Saxons welcomed their only son, Spann Saxon, before moving to New Haven. The Saxons lived on Garden Street in the Dwight neighborhood, and Beatrice worked as a caterer.Saxon became a political figure in New Haven’s black community and participated in the black women’s club scene. According to local historian, Daniel Stewart, Saxon was one of the most influential women in New Haven politics. In the wake of the Great Depression, the political realignment of African Americans shifted from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. In New Haven, Saxon was part of that shift as a leader in the Democratic State Central Committee. She remained politically active until she died in 1974.

Mary Townsend Seymour

(1873 – 1957)

Mary Emma Townsend Seymour, a prominent 20th-century African American politician and union organizer, was born on May 10, 1873, to Jacob and Emma Townsend. Seymour was a political and social visionary whose activism, particularly on behalf of African American workers, laid the foundation for Black union organizing and civil rights activism in Hartford.Seymour’s beginnings were humble; she was the youngest of seven children and orphaned by the age of fifteen. Just before her mother’s passing in August 1888, she was adopted by Captain Lloyd G. Seymour, a distinguished Civil War hero and civil rights activist who served in the 29th Connecticut Volunteer Regiment. The Seymour family was one of Hartford’s most prominent African American families, and they inspired Mary’s appetite for community organizing. On June 3, 1888, she engaged in her first action when she entered the city’s Halls of Record at the intersection of Trumbull and Pearl Streets. At a time when Black women used naming to preserve their legacies, Seymour changed her birth name from “Mary Emma” to “Mary Emma Townsend Seymour.” Reclaiming her identity marked the beginning of her journey as a freedom fighter and champion for women.On December 16, 1891, Mary married Frederick Seymour, one of the first African American U.S. Postal Service workers in Hartford. A year later, the couple welcomed their first and only son, Richard, who died as an infant and buried at Old North Cemetery.By the turn of the 20th century, African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South and immigrants from the Caribbean poured into the urban North, radically changing the complexion of Connecticut. The African American community swelled along Gold, Lewis, Hicks, and Pearl Streets. From the Hartford Fire Insurance Company to the Sisson Drug Company, African Americans worked as janitors, porters, waiters, chauffeurs, and domestic workers. In some cases, they owned their own barbershops, beauty salons, and funeral homes. Through the 1910s, Mary Seymour emerged as a civil rights activist, union organizer, and suffragist, forming interracial coalitions of activism committed to addressing unemployment, education, working conditions, racial segregation, poor housing, lynching, and disenfranchisement.Inspired by the 1917 anti-lynching rally in Hartford, Seymour, along with W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, founder and field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP), formed the first local chapter in Connecticut. On October 9, 1917, the Seymour hosted NAACP officers–Du Bois, Johnson, and Mary Ovington–at their home at 420 New Britain Avenue. They officially chartered the branch, alongside other leaders including the Reverend R. R. Ball of the A. M. E. Zion Church, Dr. Rockwell H. Potter, Dean of the Hartford Theological Seminary and a leading white reformer, and three white female reformers and suffragists: Mary Bulkeley, Josephine Bennett, and Katherine Beach Day. At the branch’s first meeting on November 26th, Mary Seymour became the branch’s administrative officer, a typical role for women in the NAACP.Like most African American women in Hartford, Seymour also formed and joined clubs and organizations that assisted African Americans fleeing the terror of the Jim Crow south. She joined the Colored Women’s League of Hartford, established in 1917 as a cornerstone institution servicing black women and children. In May 1918, she formed the local chapter of the Circle for Negro War Relief, Inc., which addressed the needs of soldiers of color and their families. Seymour highlighted the paradox of Black soldiers in her letters to the editor of the Hartford Courant and the NAACP’s Crisis. In a letter to the editor of the Hartford Courant dated July 2, 1918, Seymour addressed these challenges by stating:“They are not with their lot in this democracy, which is going forth to make the world safe for democracy. There are so many parts of this country that are not decent places for [Blacks] to live in – yet they are dying and going to die to ‘make the world a decent place to live.’ They have more to forget and forgive than any racial group beneath the Stars and Stripes.”During her time with the Circle for Negro War Relief, Seymour worked with several Connecticut suffragists such as Carolyn Ruutz-Rees, chairperson of the Women’s Committee of the Connecticut State Council of Defense, and produced a detailed report of how African American soldiers were discriminated against in the Army, Navy, and Red Cross.During the war, Seymour also championed workers’ rights for African Americans in Hartford. In addition to domestic work, Black women worked in warehouses stripping tobacco leaves while men labored in the fields. Seymour fought against the white foremen who cheated the women out of fair wages. Seymour, in collaboration with her friend, Josephine Bennett, formed the first all-Black women’s union in Connecticut. In addition, with Bennett, Seymour contacted the International Garment Workers Union, who sent a representative to assist in the organizing process. Seymour made her residence the union headquarters, and at its peak, the union had sixty-one African American women who were dues-paying, card-carrying members. Seymour and Bennett served as representatives of the state’s Central Labor Union, challenging deep-seated divisions along racial and gender lines. By the end of the war, Seymour evolved into one of Hartford’s leading voices, fighting against racial discrimination, lynching, labor discrimination, and disenfranchisement.Between 1917 to 1920, Seymour was among a handful of African American women in Connecticut who advocated specifically for voting rights for women. Despite her long commitment to suffrage, racial barriers prevented Seymour from joining the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and working with the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association (CWSA). At her recommendation, the NAACP petitioned Alice Paul and the NWP, but the white suffragists ignored their inquiries. While Seymour had a long-standing friendship with CWSA member Josephine Bennett, Seymour would fight for voting rights through the Farm-Labor Party whose platform included the nationalization of major industries, workers’ rights, a national anti-lynching bill, demilitarization, and the destruction of imperialism. In 1920, Seymour joined the first cohort of American women who ran for office after the passage of the 19th Amendment. She ran for the Hartford City Board of Education, and on the Farm-Labor ticket ran for state representative to the General Assembly. Historian Rosalyn Terborg-Penn described how Seymour belonged to a cohort of our nation’s first African American women candidates running for state office. While Seymour’s historic run has been well-documented, what is less known is her 1922 run for Connecticut’s Secretary of State, becoming the first African American woman to run for this state position.From 1920 onward, Seymour remained actively involved in the political landscape of Greater Hartford. In 1926, she resigned from the NAACP’s executive board and worked on behalf of Black workers until her death on January 12, 1957. Her legacy lives on in the Greater Hartford NAACP, Mary Seymour Place (formerly known as My Sister’s Place), and the hearts of all the activists fighting for freedom and equity.

Pearl Reese Shaw

(abt 1886 – 1951)

Pearl Shaw was born in Americus, Georgia, in about 1868. When she moved to Hartford, she worked as a presser in a garment factory. She and her husband Eugene had a son named Eugene Jr.Registered as a voter in 1920, Shaw was a member of the Colored Voters’ Republican League, and in 1931 she worked as the secretary for the organization. In 1929 she served as a delegate for the Third Ward, precinct 32, on the Dunn ticket. Records show that her work for the Republicans continued, and she was working for precinct 31 of the Third Ward in 1937.

Rebecca Primus Thomas

(1836-1932)

Born on July 10, 1836, Rebecca was the eldest of four children in the Primus household, a prominent free Black family in Hartford. She attended the First African School and taught for the Talcott Street Congregational Church. Active members of the church, the Primus family fought for racial equality and uplift as part of a historically abolitionist Black community. Rebecca Primus became a significant educator, activist, and church leader.In 1865, Primus traveled south to teach at a freedmen’s school in Royal Oak, Maryland, on behalf of the Hartford Freedmen’s Aid Society. The only woman of color sponsored by the organization, she was paid $30 a month compared to the $50 paid to white teachers. Primus’ achievements in Royal Oak included participating in an impressive cohort of Black teachers, helping form the town’s Union League, and spearheading a project to construct a permanent schoolhouse that would become known as the “Primus Institute.” Fundraising for the school took place both in Royal Oak and at Hartford’s Talcott Street Church, which held a fair in 1867. In the letters she sent to loved ones at home in Connecticut, Primus chronicled the political and social reforms enacted by Black women during Reconstruction.After she returned to Hartford in 1869, Primus continued to work as a teacher and dressmaker in Hartford. In 1870, she worked as a book agent and was elected as Assistant to the Superintendent of the Talcott Street Sunday School. She married Charles H. Thomas, a formerly enslaved man who moved to Hartford in 1871. Primus had boarded with his family when she worked in Royal Oak.Rebecca Thomas remained an active member of the Talcott Street Church and participated in women’s groups, including the Ladies’ Aid Society, “Helping Hand” Society, and Ladies’ Sewing Circle, which hosted festivals, concerts, school exhibitions, and spelling bees. She also took on leadership roles, serving as a deaconess well into her nineties. The church community recognized Primus’ important contributions and honored her with a prominent position during its Diamond Anniversary celebration in 1901.Although women were not permitted to vote in national elections until 1920, Thomas registered as a Hartford voter as early as 1894. (Women could vote on local school and other limited issues.) Thomas’ commitment to enacting her citizenship through direct participation highlights the importance of women’s leadership and political thinking within Hartford’s Black community.She died in 1932 at the age of 95 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Zion Hill Cemetery in Hartford. Thomas left a legacy of courage and strength in the face of discrimination and exclusion.

Idella Scott

(1868-1932)

“The movement for women’s suffrage is just a part of the eternal forward march of the human race toward a complete revolution.” —Idella Scott, 1914Idella Scott was born in 1868 in Jewett City and spent most of her life in Norwich. One of the two daughters of Eliza and Moses W. Scott, Idella worked as a dressmaker and later as domestic staff.The core of her life revolved around the church. She was active in church activities from a young age, participating in the church choir and later becoming the church organist for two of Norwich’s churches: Mt. Calvary and the McKinley Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church.Through her church activities, she also engaged in political and social activities. Scott joined The Rose of New England Woman’s League, which established in 1897 to focus on the education and welfare of Black women and children in Norwich. She rose through the ranks to eventually become the League’s president. The R.N.E. undertook many activities that uplifted the Black community of Norwich, including fundraising efforts to honor and uphold the legacies of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.Scott was active in the Union Lyceum, another organization that also encouraged the political education and activism of Black women. The Union Lyceum hosted lectures, essay-readings, and religious discussions among both men and women. During a Lyceum meeting in 1914, Scott presented her paper and championed women’s suffrage. She declared that equal suffrage rights benefited all, from individual lives to families to society at large: “The new movement has…enlarged the outlook of women, increased their intelligence and self-reliance, rendered homes happier, ennobled men and politics.” Her essay was published in its entirety in the Norwich Bulletin on February 3, 1914.Scott led the RNE as president for many years and she continued to be active in her church activities, including serving as church organist at Mt. Calvary for 16 years. Towards the end of her life, she lived with her sister Annie Drury, a leader in anti-lynching activism.

Ida Sully Troy

(abt 1886 – 1951)

Ida Sully moved to Hartford between 1900 and 1910. Before then, she lived with her family in Virginia and worked as a laborer in a shirt factory. In Hartford she worked as a housekeeper before marrying Frank K. Troy in 1910. He also came from Virginia and ran his own gardening business. The couple did not have children, and Ida devoted her energy and time to helping the African American community in Hartford.The Community House of the Women’s League was a central planning, meeting, and gathering space for the African American community in Hartford from the early to mid-twentieth century. An early member, Troy served as an elected leader for the organization. She became the recording secretary in 1928 and continued her service for decades, later elected as the treasurer. This position was especially meaningful for Troy, and in the 1950s city directories, she listed her occupation as “treasurer.”

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Funding for this project is made possible by the State of Connecticut and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both of which provide significant support to Connecticut Humanities.

 

Funding for this project is also made possible by the League of Women Voters of Connecticut

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