The Women Who Took Care of Harriet Tubman (in her final years)
Harriet Tubman “ill and penniless” proclaimed a headline in the New York Age during the summer of 1911. While Harriet Tubman is now an iconic figure in US history, and deservedly so, in the early years of the twentieth century, her service to country and kin had somewhat faded from public memory. When the pension belatedly granted to her by Congress proved inadequate for her support, Tubman was reduced to becoming a resident in the old age home that bore her name. Newspaper articles quickly picked up the sorrowful story of “Aunt Harriet” as she was called, reminding their readers of her feats of daring and bravery and contrasting that with her reduced circumstances.
Black clubwomen had long commemorated Tubman by naming their organizations after her and New York State particularly claimed her as their own. Some women had even had the privilege of meeting Tubman who had attended, along with Susan B. Anthony, a 1905 gathering of black suffragists in Rochester. Of course, white clubwomen also admired Tubman, but black women were determined that they should aid their much-admired predecessor. Shortly after her circumstances were publicized, at the third annual convention of the Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs held at the A.M.E. Church in Yonkers, Miss S. Elizabeth Frazier, representing the Women’s Loyal League, presented a report on “the condition of Harriet Tubman.” The body delegated the task of visiting visit the Harriet Tubman Home to newly elected president Mary Talbert with an eye to ascertaining what financial aid she might require.
While the role of the Federation in caring for Harriet Tubman in the final years of her life is hardly unknown, indeed sometimes it seems the sole accomplishment of the organization mentioned in the historical literature, who were these women? Mary Talbert was acclaimed in her own day; she and a handful of leaders from the Empire State have found their place in the pages of history, but what of the thousands of women who made up the rank and file of the Empire State Federation?
During the 2018–2019 academic year, Rosemont College students researched the biographies of fifteen of the lesser-known members who were present in 1913 when the body formally endorsed woman suffrage (picture above). Here their biographies, written by Shequana Callendar, Leah Bene Pierre and Renee Vanish-McLaurin as part of their senior theses, with the assistance of Katie Pettine and Michelle Moravec, are intertwined with moments from Tubman’s life as we seek to restore these ordinary women to the larger stories we tell about the past (how Tubman found her prominent place in accounts of the past is another fascinating story).
By August of 1911, Talbert had completed her investigation into the condition of Tubman and reported back to the executive board with the recommendation that they commit to raising an addition $25 a month to subsidize her care and to see to her comfort. At an executive board session, it was resolved that “Every club comprising the ESF is requested to send to the financial secretary, Miss Elizabeth Mickens, 382 Riverdale Avenue, Yonkers, N.Y.”
Census records contain conflicting information about Elizabeth Ann Mickens but the date of birth that seems most likely is September of 1876 in New York. While no information about her parents has been found, as an adult she and her sisters lived with their aunt and uncle in Yonkers. Mickens was a stalwart clubwoman with involvement in leadership dating back to at least 1907 when she was the secretary of the Susan B. Anthony Association of Yonkers. In 1913, she was a delegate to the Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs when the organization formally endorsed woman suffrage. She served as financial secretary, collecting funds donated for Tubman’s care, and later as recording and corresponding secretary. As part of the Northeastern Federation of Women’s Clubs, where she also held the office of treasurer, Mickens was active in anti-lynching campaigns. She also served as assistant secretary for the National Association of Colored Women.
When Harriet Tubman died on March 10, 1913, members of the Empire State Federation, wearing club badges, turned out for a New York City memorial service a month later where Talbert eulogized Tubman and member Minnie Brown sang “By The Waters of Babylon.”
Born in March of 1879 John and Ella Brown, Minnie G. Brown was raised in Spokane Washington. Her talent for music took her far from that home. After touring abroad, she eventually landed in Harlem. During her time as the lead soprano soloist at St. Mark’s M.E. church, she was dubbed the “human mockingbird” by her peers for her sweet voice with remarkable control and range. Brown and her longtime companion musician Daisy Tapley were devoted clubwomen who often performed for events of the Empire State. However, Brown also served the organization in other capacities including chairwoman of the resolutions committee at the 1914 annual meeting, where the delegates formally “condemned the use of the word negress so commonly seen in the daily papers when referring to members of our race.” Brown and Tapley were connected to many members of the black elite, most notably W.E. B. DuBois. After Tapley’s untimely death, Brown founded the Musical School Settlement for Colored Children in Harlem and helped organized black musicians, serving as the president of the local musicians’ branch of the National Association of Negro Musicians.
In July of 1913, at their annual meeting, members held their own services for Tubman (Minnie Brown once again performed) and passed a resolution committing the body to erecting a monument in her honor. In 1914 much like they had to support Tubman during her lifetime, the Federation canvased its members to fund the monument: “Each member of clubs affiliated with the State Federation would contribute the sum of 10 cents.” The gravesite monument was dedicated during the July 1915 annual convention held in Auburn, NY. A small note in the New York Age social pages indicates Elizabeth Mickens was housed during the convention with a Miss Jacobs of Yonkers.
Eva S. Jacobs was born in August of 1879 in Mount Pleasant, Westchester, New York to Leander Jacobs and Mary E. Taylor. Leander Jacobs was active in Republican politics. Although Eva lived briefly in Yonkers, where she may have met Elizabeth Mickens, she appears to have spent her much of her adult life in Westchester County, New York. Like Mickens, Jacobs served as a delegate to the Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1913, when the body endorsed suffrage. She was at the very least an acquaintance of Mrs. Addie Jackson, financial secretary of the Federation, who also resided in her town. A 1914 newspaper notice reveals that “Miss Eva Jacobs, Mrs. W.H. Williams, Miss Beatrice Jackson, Mrs. Addie Jackson left Friday to attend the Federation of Women’s Clubs.” However, other than her presence at meetings, little evidence remains of Jacobs’ life as a clubwoman.
This too-brief biography of Eva Jacobs is emblematic of the difficulties encountered in researching members of the Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs. Jacobs does not seem to have held a position of leadership, the most common names in newspaper coverage of the federation, nor does she seem to have performed, another group of individuals who appear by name in the press. It took four hours of painstaking census research to identify her most basic information and she was not our most difficult subject to research.
Almost half of the delegates we researched were members of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, including Sarah Moles, Sylvia Harris, Mary Faulcon, Florence Henderson, Emma Miles, Lottie Henderson, Anna Collins, and Mary Hardy.
Mary Elizabeth Elder Hardy was born in March of 1850 in Petersburg, Virginia. In 1882, she married James T. Hardy in Brooklyn. James Hardy died in 1903 of alcoholism after many years of heavy drinking, and Mary continued to support herself and her three children as a laundress and a domestic servant over the years. Hardy was an active member of the Concord Baptist Church, where she served as a deaconess. She also belonged to the Order of the Tents, the oldest benefit society for black women founded in 1867 by a former slave named Annetta Lane. Hardy was a devoted club woman who despite her less-than-elite status held offices, including president of the Helping Hand Society and committeewoman for the Mother’s Day Nursery. Despite her modest financial circumstances, Hardy participated in charitable relief efforts: she raised $65 by holding a rummage sale in Brooklyn in 1917, which she donated to the Old Folk’s home. Hardy’s community recognized her contributions as evidenced by a 1927 New York Age article that described her as “a faithful worker in church, benevolent, and secret orders” who was “still vigorous and active” after a year’s illness. The paper reported on the death of Mrs. Mary Hardy on May 27, 1930, who was buried at Cedar Grove Cemetery.
CONCLUSION from my students’ conference paper
What we learned from researching these fifteen women over the past year is that the lives of everyday, ordinary black women like Elizabeth Mickens, Eva Jacobs, and Mary Hardy are just as important as those of the women whose names are featured more prominently in historical records. We also realized how easy it is for someone who was well-known in her time, like Minnie Brown, to be lost from historical accounts that rely too heavily on the lives and activities of the very top leaders. Although researching these women has been frustrating, it has also been enormously rewarding as we’ve learned about the many ways that in which they helped to build a successful black clubwomen’s movement that supported woman suffrage.
- The Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs was organized in 1908 by Alice Wiley Seay. It initially involved black women’s clubs in New York City and Buffalo. However, the Federation grew quickly and by 1913 it had 4000 members throughout the state. The Federation organized clubs that touched every aspect of the black community. Official departments that coordinated the work of members included; social settlement, arts and embroidery, mother’s meetings, writing, the eradication of lynching, as well as juvenile and community uplift. With membership as diverse as the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn, the Women’s Loyal League of New York, the Susan B. Anthony Club — the oldest colored woman’s club in New York, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which claimed the largest membership, the Federation sent delegates to annual meetings where they hashed out their agenda for the coming year. At their annual meeting in 1913, for the first time, despite long-time ties to the suffrage movement through some clubs and high-profile members, the Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs formally endorsed woman suffrage for the first time.
- Women and Social Movements has sponsored an Online Biographical Dictionary of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States to celebrate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment. This Dictionary will consist of around 3,000 biographical sketches of the supporters of the National Woman’s Party, of members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and of Black Woman Suffragists all culled from historical records.
- Other working class women who attempted to rise to more formal positions of leadership did not always fare so well. For example, there was opposition to opposition to Mrs. Anna K. Lewis a leader in the New York Woman Suffrage Party because she is “not an educated woman.” Instead, it was argued “a woman of marked ability ought to be the leader of the colored suffragists”