Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Sarah Jane Smith Tompkins Garnet, 1831-1911

By Susan Goodier, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at Oneonta



Sarah J.C. Garnet in Hallie Q. Brown, Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction (1926) (Xenia, Ohio: Aldine Pub., 1926), p. 96c.

Most African American women strongly advocated the right of women to vote. Almost always they did it in conjunction with their other activist work, seldom devoting their time exclusively to woman suffrage. Black women did not separate political rights for women from other rights they considered necessary. Because relatively little evidence of activist work on the part of black suffragists exists in the archives, we lack a clear understanding of black women's suffrage activism. To appreciate black women's activism for suffrage, we must understand that it did not always parallel—or integrate neatly with—white women's suffrage activism. Furthermore, most white women's suffrage clubs and organizations remained reluctant to include black women in the mainstream movement. Black women saw the potential of the vote "as a cure from many of their ills"—to promote education, alleviate "sexual exploitation," end prostitution and other "moral evils," challenge black men's disenfranchisement, and support workers' rights—demanding women's enfranchisement for reasons similar to those of white women.1 Having to confront racism at virtually every level complicated, but did not suppress, the suffrage movement for African American women.

As the suffrage movement dragged on to the dawn of the twentieth century, many white suffragists began to endorse an "expediency" theory that encouraged the exclusion of black women from voting rights. Adherents promoted states' rights, whereby individual states could determine the limits of suffrage. Under these ideas, many white suffragists could "practice racist principles without censure from other suffragists."2 So, to promote the cause of woman suffrage, black women not only had to confront the societal racism they had long faced, they also grappled with the racism increasingly characteristic of the suffrage movement. Among the many black women in New York State who confronted these challenges, Sarah Jane Smith Tompkins Garnet stands out as a dynamic advocate of the cause of woman suffrage.

Born Minsarah Jane Smith on July 31, 1831 on the Shinnecock Reservation, the first of eleven children of Sylvanus and Annie Springsteel Smith, both of whom claimed Long Island Native American ancestry, Minnie, as her relatives called her, joined a prosperous Queens County family. They earned a good living from farming and Sylvanus's work as a pork merchant.3 Sarah was listed in her parents' household in the 1850, 1860, and 1870 censuses for Brooklyn. Her father was recorded as a hog butcher in 1850, a drover in 1860, and a trucker in 1870. He was said to possess $3,000 in real estate in 1850, $8,000 in real property and $500 in personal property in 1860, figures that stood at $12,000 and $500 respectively in 1870.

Her maternal grandmother, Sylvia Hobbs, gave Sarah an elementary-level education, and then Sarah attended school in the Brooklyn public school system, perhaps at nearby Colored School No. 1 on Nassau Street, where her father served as a trustee. She must have stood out as a capable and intelligent young woman, for by the age of fourteen, she worked as a monitor under the supervision of John Peterson.4 Under the monitorial system, the teacher selected the best students, called monitors, to teach the younger students. Monitors gained rich teaching experience, and, like Sarah Smith, often chose the field as a profession.

By 1849, Sarah Smith married a man whose name and profession are not entirely clear. The most reliable source is based on finding evidence of her unique first name, Minsarah, in the federal census for 1850. The couple had a daughter, Serena Jane, born in February 1850. The census shows that Minsarah married Samuel Tompkins, a teacher, and had moved to Newark, New Jersey. This entry means that Sarah Smith was recorded in her parents' Brooklyn household in early 1850, but that after Serena's birth, mother and daughter likely moved to Newark where they were recorded in Samuel Tompkins's household. Samuel Tompkins died on September 15, 1851, and the widowed Sarah took her daughter home to her family and raised her with her younger siblings.5 The Ancestry record for the 1860 Brooklyn census lists "Sarah Hopkins" (30) and a daughter Sarina Hopkins (10) as living in her parents' household. When one examines the image for the original census, one notices that her surname has been corrected and reads "Thompkins." Various secondary sources list her married name as either Thompson or Tompkins and this census listing helps one understand why there has been confusion. Some biographical sketches link Sarah to James Tompkins, who was an Episcopal minister at the St. Matthew Free Church in Brooklyn. The 1860 Census lists Sarah and daughter living with her parents and in the 1870 Census Sarah appears once again with the surname Smith.

Sarah Smith Tompkins began teaching in the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg in 1854. On April 30, 1863, she accepted the principalship of Colored School No. 7 at 17th Street, following the death of its first principal, Charlotte S. Smith (no known relationship to Sarah's family). Tompkins continued to head the school, through several name changes, until it closed in 1894. She then took over Grammar School No. 80, following the death of its principal, Charles Reason. She retired in 1900.6 In addition to her full-time work as a school administrator, she apparently operated a seamstress shop in her home from 1883 to 1911.

In 1875 Sarah Smith Thompson married the well-known abolitionist and minister Henry Highland Garnet and lived at 175 MacDougall Street. He served at the time as minister of the Shiloh Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn. Henry Garnet had long advocated for emigration to Africa, believing that blacks and whites would never be able to live equably in the United States. In 1881, President James A. Garfield, who supported African American rights and education, appointed him to serve as ambassador to Liberia. He died in Monrovia in February 1882. His widow received a small stipend from the government.7 Sarah Garnet increasingly focused her energies on woman suffrage and other feminist causes.

Garnet believed that women had the "same human intellectual and spiritual capabilities as men," and that no democracy should deny women the right to vote.8 Her activism manifested itself at both the local and national levels. On the local level, Garnet, with her younger sister Susan Maria Smith McKinney Steward, the first black female physician to practice in New York State, and others, founded the Colored Women's Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn in the late 1880s, holding meetings in her seamstress shop. The group met to discuss voting and citizenship rights for women. When the league became too popular to continue meeting in Garnet's home, they adjourned to a local church or the Colored YMCA branch on Carlton Avenue.9 Most meetings opened with a musical performance, followed by speeches presented by members or special guests, and closed with a report relating the group's accomplishments since the previous meeting. Although ostensibly a women's club, men attended many of the meetings.

The league held a memorial service for Susan B. Anthony in April 1906 where both black and white women spoke in memory of the suffrage leader.10 They honored author Harriet Beecher Stowe at another meeting a few years later.11 Sometimes the league hosted white suffragists, such as when Mary E. Craigie spoke at a league meeting. Arguing that "we are all bound together by the ties of humanity," she contended that women wanted the right to vote because "we want to be human individuals."12 On another occasion the league enjoyed the speech of Anne Cobden-Sanderson of London, who also "listened with deep interest to Mrs. S. J. S. Garnet, who told of the efforts of the black women to organize and assist with the women's suffrage work."13

The league also participated in political playacting. For example, in July 1908, members held a mock national Republican convention, and Garnet, appointed as the "one woman delegate," voted for the controversial Joseph B. Foraker, who had disagreed with Theodore Roosevelt over the Brownsville Affair two years before, in which Roosevelt had dismissed an entire black battalion for allegedly terrorizing a town in Texas.14 League members assisted with preparations for helping to host a meeting of the National Association of Colored Women, held the same summer.15 Although Sarah Garnet gave up her role as president of the Equal Suffrage League to another prominent African American suffragist and activist, Dr. Verina Morton-Jones, she consistently attended its meetings. The newspapers often referred to Garnet as the league's "leading spirit."16

Garnet also worked for woman suffrage and racial uplift at the national level. As a member of the National Association of Colored Women, Garnet served as head of the special suffrage division. In this capacity, she helped educate members of the association about woman suffrage, distributing literature and giving speeches. Garnet gave "an excellent talk" on woman suffrage at the fourth convention of the association in St. Louis, Missouri, in July 1904. The association represented about forty thousand women and worked to overcome some of the racist and sexist challenges black women faced. She also served as superintendent of the National Federation of Colored Women's Clubs.17 At every opportunity, Garnet promoted the woman suffrage cause.

Like most black women suffragists, Garnet also worked for social justice in other fields. She sought to end race-based discrimination against African American teachers and advocated for equal pay for women and better retention for educators. According to the biography written by prominent educator, Maritcha Rémond Lyons, Garnet, accompanied by Bishop W. B. Derrick and the lawyer T. McCants Stewart, traveled to Albany to "confront the legislature with indisputable facts" regarding the discrimination black teachers faced.18 Garnet maintained an active schedule to improve the education of black children. She also worked for this goal nationally as a member of the National Teachers' Association, one of very few African American women who belonged to the organization. In addition, she served as a manager for the Howard Orphan Asylum.19

Garnet attended an anti-lynching event with Ida B. Wells and other activists, held in October 1892 at Lyric Hall in New York City. The event, organized by Sarah Garnet, her sister, Dr. Susan McKinney, Victoria Earle Matthews of the White Rose Working Girls Home, and Maritcha Lyons, drew 250 supporters and raised $500 to enable Wells to write her anti-lynching pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Following the meeting, Garnet, McKinney, Lyons, Matthews, Elizabeth Frazier, and others organized the Woman's Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn to support Wells's anti-lynching work, with Matthews serving as president. Its focus included education for African Americans and the "desire to increase their happiness in every way consistent with law and reason."20 Woman suffrage would help to achieve all the goals of the Woman's Loyal Union.

In 1911 Garnet and her sister, Susan Steward, traveled to the University of London to attend the first meeting of the Universal Races Congress, held July 26 to 29, so that Steward could present a paper, "Colored American Women." While in London, Sarah and Susan listened to other activists who discussed the status of people of color outside of the United States and gathered information on various topics, including woman suffrage. Upon their return to Brooklyn, the Colored Women's Suffrage League held a welcome home reception at Garnet's home on September 7. In addition to the usual playing of music and reading of poetry, several attendees read papers. Susan Steward read the paper she had presented at the London Congress. Garnet distributed the suffrage material she had collected. Attendees included Atlanta professor John Hope and his wife, Lugenia Burns Hope, W. E. B. Du Bois, Verina Morton-Jones, and other members of the Equal Suffrage League.21

Just ten days after the reception, on September 17, 1911, Sarah J. Smith Tompkins Garnet died in her Hancock Street, Brooklyn, home. Addie Waites Hunton, suffragist and national lecturer for the YWCA, and Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois spoke at her memorial service, held at the Bridge Street African Methodist Episcopal Church on October 29, 1911, while Fannie Garrison Villard, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and others sent letters to be read at the service.

Black activists refused to back away from the goal of political enfranchisement, rarely separating their goals related to political equality from their other goals for economic and social equity. Many black women worked for the woman suffrage cause, despite the tendency of white women to exclude them from full participation. By promoting political education, as well as the full engagement and support of black men in the political process, black women's suffrage activism aided the mainstream suffrage cause.


An earlier version of this essay appeared originally as "'Bound Together by the Ties of Humanity': Sarah Jane Smith Thompson Garnet." In Votes for Women: Celebrating New York's Suffrage Centennial (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2017), pp. 50-53, and it appears here by permission of the State University of New York Press.


1. Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: Bantam Books, 1984), 121; Karen Garner, "Equal Suffrage League," in Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations, ed. Nina Mjagkij (New York: Garland, 2001), 224; Mrs. Sarah J. S. Garnet, Seventh Report, file #358, New York City Municipal Archives, New York, NY.

2. Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 127.

3. Sources about Sarah Jane Smith's early life often contradict each other, and it is not uncommon for individuals to be counted in more than one census. She could have been born at 189 Pearl Street, Brooklyn, the family's longtime residence, and her mother's maiden name could have been Springstead. Sources rarely use the name "Minsarah," noted in a family history; her gravestone is engraved with "Sister Minnie." See Ellen Holly, One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress (New York: Kodansha International, 1996), 15. See also Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850 to 1920 (Bloomington: Indiana Press, 1998), 94-95. Hallie Q. Brown, Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 111.

4. Carla L. Peterson, Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 355-356.

5. Maritcha Lyons, Garnet's biographer, stated that her husband was James Tompkins and that he was a reverend. Brown, Homespun Heroines, 114. For Samuel's death, see Samuel Tompkins (1826-1851) - Find a Grave Memorial. He was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. New York, U. S. State Census, 1855 for Sarah Tompkins, Kings County, Brooklyn City, Ward 4.

6. Brown, Homespun Heroines, 112; Mrs. Sarah J. S. Garnet, Seventh Report, file #358, New York City Municipal Archives, New York, NY.

7. Peterson, Black Gotham, 356. M-K-1875-0002589 - Historical Vital Records of NYC (accessed April 26, 2022). Thank you to Eric K. Washington for bringing this source to my attention. For more on Henry Garnet, see "The Last Official Act of the President," Christian Recorder, July 21, 1881, 1; "1880 United States Federal Census." Census Place: New York City, New York, New York; Roll: 874; Page: 568B; Enumeration District: 165, a source Eric Washington brought to my attention. This address is listed for Sarah Garnet and Joan Imogen Howard until 1891. "Approved," Evening Star (Washington, DC), August 2, 1882, 1.

8. Garner, "Organizing Black America," 224; Peterson, Black Gotham, 355-356.

9. The Brooklyn and Queens YMCA Carlton Avenue Branch, the first branch in Brooklyn for African Americans, opened in 1902 and closed in 1955. (accessed 2 April 2015).

10. "Susan B. Anthony Memorial," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1 April 1906, 22.

11. "Honor Harriet B. Stowe," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 16 June 1910, 6.

12. "Mrs. Craigie Wants to Vote," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 29 April 1907, 5.

13. "Afro-American Notes," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 5 January 1908, 22.

14. "Afro-American Notes," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1 July 1908, 8.

15. "Afro-American Notes," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 29 May 1908, 13.

16. "Afro-American Notes," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 5 January 1908, 22.

17. Report of the "Fourth Convention of the National Association of Colored Women," p. 29, Microfilm, Burke Library, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY; "Civilization in Africa," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 February 1906, 10.

18. Brown, Homespun Heroines, 115.

19. "For Colored Orphans," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 16 December 1892, 9; "Howard Orphan Asylum," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 16 October 1900, 13.

20. "Colored Women Organize," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 21 February 1893, 4.

21. Sarah Garnet continued to reside in Brooklyn in the final decades of her life. In the 1900 and 1910 Federal Manuscript Censuses she lived with a niece and two nephews on DeKalb Avenue. "News of Greater New York," New York Age, 14 September 1911, 7; Brown, Homespun Heroines, 116.

March 2023—added further information derived from 1850-1910 Federal Manuscript Census listings for Sarah Smith, Sarah Hopkins, Mintsam [actually MinSarah] Tompkins, and Sarah Garnet, accessed via Ancestry Library Edition.


Links to Additional Biographical Sketches

Notable American Women*
Monroe Majors, Noted Negro Women
Dictionary of American Negro Biography*
Homespun Heroines


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