Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Mary E. Britton, 1855-1925

By Karen Cotton McDaniel
Professor Emeritus, Kentucky State University

Unlike most American-born blacks prior to Emancipation, Mary Ellen Britton was born free in Lexington, Kentucky on April 16, 1855 to Laura Marshall and Henry Harrison Britton. Her father Henry, who was of Spanish/Indian heritage, was a free-born carpenter and barber. Her mother, Laura was the daughter of Mary, an enslaved woman, and the Honorable Thomas Francis Marshall, a renowned Kentucky statesman of a very prominent family. Laura was taught to read and write and was freed by her mistress in 1848 at the age of 16. Mary Ellen was the third of Laura and Henry Britton's ten children. Initially she attended local schools run by the American Missionary Association but later attended the William Gibson School in Louisville. Beginning in 1871 Mary was enrolled in Berea College until 1874 when both her parents died within a few months of each other, forcing her to leave the college without graduating. To support herself she began teaching in the segregated schools first in Chilesburg, Kentucky then later in her hometown of Lexington in 1876.

Mary Britton was among the first members of the State Association of Colored Teachers, which was established in 1877. From the Association's beginnings, she was actively engaged in the group's work, presenting an essay entitled "Literary Culture of the Teacher" at the initial meeting in Danville on August 7, 1878. She also was selected to serve on the Program Committee. At the Eighth Annual Convention, in Louisville in 1886, Britton served as the Association's secretary. When the Association met the following year in Danville, Mary Britton was visibly occupied in association business delivering two speeches, the second of which was on woman's suffrage. The speech on woman's suffrage was so well received that it was subsequently published on the front page of the American Catholic Tribune (Cincinnati, Ohio) newspaper. Britton began her speech on suffrage by acknowledging that Kentucky was not a state that supported women's voting rights and thus her initial feelings and comments on the subject were formulated from hearing only one side of the issue. She said "From my early youth I was a strong advocate of human rights".not woman's rights--I wish to retract so much as was said to deprive them of the liberty to follow freely their own natural gifts, and the reluctant recognition of the right to do whatever they can do well." She further expounded on women's gifts by evoking her Christian upbringing to say that Jesus Christ applied equal justice to both sexes and thus inaugurated the process to remove laws "made in the sole interests of men, and denying to wives and mothers their just rights." Britton argued that woman's suffrage was based on the premise that everyone had a right to define their own fate within the laws of society and that those laws should be equally applied to women as well as men. She believed that the vote would not only give women a voice but also insisted that women deserved representation, referring to "taxation without representation" as tyranny. She argued that "If woman is the same as man then she has the same rights, if she is distinct from man then she has a right to the ballot to help make laws for her government." She encouraged those opposed to suffrage to examine Christ's golden rule and "come down from your high perches of superiority and give to women what is justly hers." Throughout her discourse Britton defined the qualities that women possess that make their voice in government necessary. Stating that "No one is better for being ignorant, no one is a better companion for being weak and helpless," Britton argued that women decide issues based on morality which works well when combined with men's decision-making. In her plea she pointed to successful men who publicly relied on their wives' intelligence in combination with their own to achieve success. Britton professed that "as woman is made to be worth more to society at large, and in public interests, she becomes richer at home and is capable of building it better" without losing her tenderness and love. Britton proclaimed that men are not the "true fruit of the human race" and that men and women are expected to work together to govern with each bringing different traits to the mixture for the betterment of human kind. Women, she argued from an historic viewpoint, have consistently progressed and learned not only the alphabet but science, technology, law, medicine and other disciplines and trades and are then discriminated against by receiving less wages although they excelled in these endeavors. Britton maintained that granting suffrage for women would protect young men and boys from ruin because women would help elect moral leaders and enact better laws including temperance legislation. To gain the approval of the male audience, she offered quotations from nationally recognized men including Henry Ward Beecher and Frederick Douglass, who both supported women's suffrage. Miss Britton concluded her remarks by saying, "No movement of any great importance has ever taken place in the world, in which woman has not taken a prominent part as a worker, -- most assuredly is Woman Suffrage a Potent Agency in Public Reforms." The suffrage speech was one of the earliest records of her activism on public issues confronting women and blacks. Mary Britton was very politically active throughout her lifetime and used her writing skills as well as her verbal abilities to voice her opinion on many issues confronting women and African Americans in Kentucky.

The segregated schools of Lexington engaged her services until she publicly resigned from teaching in 1897 to study medicine at Chicago's American Missionary College of Medicine. Five years later after completing her course of study at the Illinois school and also studying at the Sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan she returned to Lexington and applied for a license to practice medicine in Fayette County. Approximately three months later, she received her license making her the first woman to practice medicine in Lexington, Kentucky. In addition to her medical practice in Lexington, she also practiced in Georgetown, Kentucky twice weekly.

Britton retired from her practice in 1923 at the age of sixty eight. On August 27, 1925, Britton, who was gravely ill, was admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital where she died shortly thereafter. She was buried in Lexington's Cove Haven Cemetery.

During her life, Britton was a prolific journalist, contributing to newspapers in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and Maryland addressing issues of social reform: education, women's suffrage, and social equality among the races. As an early feminist Mary Britton openly challenged the status of women and blacks in a white, male-dominated world. In 1892, Britton spoke before the Kentucky Senate and House of Representatives to protest Kentucky's separate railroad coach laws. She was a founding director of the Colored Orphans Industrial Home in Lexington and president of the Women's Improvement Club, an affiliate of the Kentucky Association of Colored Women's Clubs. Early in her life she assumed a feminist stance through her articulation of expectations regarding woman's suffrage and women's equality to men. Mary Ellen Britton worked continuously for racial equality, gender rights, and her personal and religious beliefs throughout her life helping to transform Kentucky's black communities.


Boris, Joseph, J. ed. Who's Who in Colored American. New York: Who's Who in Colored American Corp., 1927, 236.

Britton, Mary E. "Woman's Suffrage: A Potent Agency in Public Reforms." The American Catholic Tribune, July 22, 1887, p.1, cols. 3-5.

"Colored Notes." Lexington Herald, August 29, 1925.

Dunnigan, Alice Allison, The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Traditions. Washington, D.C., 1982.

McDaniel, Karen Cotton. "Mary Ellen Britton: A Potent Agent for Public Reform" The Griot: The Journal of African American Studies 32:1 (Spring 2013), 52-61.


Mary E. Britton (1855-1925)


Photo Credit: Berea College Photo Archives – Record Group 8 – Students - Special Collections & Archives, Hutchins Library,
Berea College, Berea, KY

Links to Additional Biographical Sketches

Monroe Majors, Noted Negro Women
Women of Distinction
Who's Who in Colored America


Related Writings in Database

View works by

View works about

back to top