Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Mary (Mamie) J. Dillard, 1874-1954

By Suzanna Krivulskaya
University of Notre Dame

Educator, activist

Mary (Mamie) Jane Dillard was born in Lawrence, KS, in 1874 to Fannie B. Dillard and Jesse Dillard. Jesse and Fannie Dillard were born in Virginia, and neither of them could read or write. The family moved to Kansas around 1870, where Jesse worked as a messenger for the Lawrence, Leavenworth and Galveston Railroad Company. They settled at 520 Louisiana Street, where Mary Dillard would live until her death in 1954.

In 1892, eighteen-year-old Dillard joined the segregated African American chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and wrote in support of the movement, encouraging other African American women to join the ranks of the organization.

Dillard graduated from Lawrence High School with excellent grades. She was the only African American in her graduating class. Dillard went on to receive her bachelor’s degree from Kansas University in 1896. She became a teacher at Pinckney Elementary School in Lawrence, where she taught African American students in the segregated system of the Kansas public schools. In 1909, one of Dillard’s students was the young poet Langston Hughes. Dillard and Hughes became close friends and maintained a correspondence for decades after Hughes left Kansas.

Between 1909 and 1913, Dillard took graduate courses at the University of Kansas in English and Special Education. After completing her course work, she became principal of Lincoln Elementary School.

Dillard served as a patroness of Delta Sigma Theta sorority at the University of Kansas, and her home briefly became the sorority’s headquarters in the 1920s.

An avid community activist, Dillard was a member of a number of clubs and women’s organizations, including the Home and Garden Club and the Sierra Leone Club. She also served as president of the Double Six Club and, in 1933, of the Self Culture Club, a local organization for African American women. The Self Culture Club promoted education and community building among working mothers.

Dillard died in 1954 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence, KS.  

Bibliographical Note

A Kansas historian, Katie Armitage, is the best expert on Dillard. Armitage reprinted a photograph of Dillard in the February 24, 1985 issue of the Lawrence Journal-World and provided some information on the women's club culture in Lawrence.

Another issue of the Lawrence Journal-World from June 7, 1991 featured Armitage's reporting on Dillard, her house, and her relationship with Langston Hughes. Census records for Dillard and her family confirm Armitage's findings.

The University of Kansas Luna Insight Image Collection features a photo of Dillard's home:

Finally, at least one letter from Dillard to Hughes from 1929 survives and can be found at the Beinecke Library in New Haven, Conn. (Langston Hughes Papers, James Weldon Johnson Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University).

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