Mary Townsend Seymour: Civil Rights and the Suffrage Movement
Much recorded history of suffrage in Connecticut involves white women of privilege and ignores the contributions of women of color and poorer white women. One of the more prominent African American suffragists in Hartford was Mary Townsend Seymour. Born in Hartford May 10, 1873, she was active in efforts supporting rights of African Americans, workers and women. She was a co-founder of the Hartford NAACP and a member of its national Anti-Lynching Committee, worked locally for the American Red Cross with families of black servicemen, belonged to the Colored Women's League of Hartford, led literacy efforts for Hartford African Americans, fought for workers' rights and unionization, and was the first African American woman in the country to run for a state-level office.
When the United States entered World War I, Mary Seymour was devoted to improving the conditions for African Americans from Hartford serving overseas. One of the things she did was to write letters to newspapers drawing attention to the treatment of African American soldiers fighting in the war. Here she is objecting to a racist letter published in the Courant during that time:
"Under such circumstances the Caucasian newspaper that sows this sort of discord and dissension among the brave and badly needed black fighters of America at this time is doing a wicked, seditious, unpatriotic thing. We want to inform these dailies that colored citizens do not enjoy being made fun of. They would do not only a welcome, but a wise thing, to let their negrophobe readers forego for a while the pleasure of being amused at the expense of our people--for the sake of winning the war."
The Courant replied that the writer was "too sensitive." Read the entire letter and response.
Mary formed alliances with white suffragists in Hartford, including Josephine Bennett. They worked together to better understand working conditions of women laboring in the CT Valley tobacco industry. An account of Mary's undercover work was published in The Crisis in June 1920 under the title "A Woman's Work":
"...herself donned working clothes, entered the factory and for a time worked at tobacco stripping and stemming. The stories that had been brought to her by the women, she found were all too true. There was no regularity regarding payment. Payment was made in such fashion that no one could tell how much she could make a week. One women, a widow of a soldier with four children, made $3.90; another $1.62; another as low as 40 cents."
In southern states, some advocating for suffrage disavowed the rights of African American women to vote. They argued that women's suffrage would not be a threat to white supremacy. With her close association with Bennett and a belief in the right of all women to vote, Mary Seymour was dismayed when the leader of the National Woman's Party, Alice Paul, appeared to align herself with this racist view when she was quoted in The New York World that she knew of no interest in voting among South Carolina black women: "We are organizing the white women in South Carolina and hear of no activity or anxiety among the negresses." The white leaders of the movement seemed to be abandoning African American women so that they could secure passage of women's suffrage among the southern states. Seymour asked the NAACP to question the NWP to try to get assurances that this was not true, but no such assurance ever came. She wrote to Mary White Ovington, of the NAACP, asking her to write to her colleague Josephine Bennett, "who does not know the meaning of the word expedience." She had less faith in others such as Paul, who would not the assert right of all women to vote.
Despite this betrayal by Paul and other leaders, she did not abandon the cause of suffrage. When the NWP Prison Special came to Hartford in 1919, Seymour was there to contribute money to the cause.
Mary Townsend Seymour died January 12, 1957. She is buried in Hartford's Old North Cemetery on Main Street, in a plot toward the back, named on the stone with her husband, Frederick W. Seymour. For many years her accomplishments were not widely recognized, but in 2006 she was finally inducted into the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame.