Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Helen A. Holman, 1894-?

By Julie Gallagher and Donna Massari
Penn State University, Brandywine

Helen A. Holman, native of Illinois, was born in 1894 and migrated to New York City.1 Year: 1920; United States Federal Census, Place: Manhattan Assembly District 21, New York, New York; Roll: T625_1224; Page: 60B; Enumeration District: 1440; Image: 852, By 1915, when New Yorkers first voted for a women’s suffrage amendment she had become a popular and fervent suffragist. Speaking to an appreciative audience in the spring of 1915, Holman argued for women’s right to the franchise, stating “By what logic can you argue that her equality is not of man’s? ... I urge that women in politics is a necessity.”2 New York Age, April 22, 1915, 5. Further, she justified women’s right to vote based not only on the substantial contributions women make in the workplace, the home and society, but because she was also an outspoken activist for racial justice, she urged that, “We must enter politics to rear our race with health.”3 The Philadelphia Tribune, January 15, 1916, 3.

To those who may have doubted women’s efficacy in politics, Holman pointed to their success in California, which enfranchised women in 1911. “The progress that the women’s vote has made in California, the general improvement politically, the discussion of labor and protection of domestics is the big issue that the California women are now undertaking. Just what they have done in California, women can do anywhere and will do.”4 New York Age, April 22, 1915, p. 5 She also traveled far and wide to seek support for women’s voting rights, speaking to women’s groups in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Audiences in those states as well as in New York recognized Holman “an ardent suffrage worker.”5 The Philadelphia Tribune, January 15, 1916, 3

New Yorkers voted down the suffrage amendment in 1915 but suffragists made sure it was on the ballot again in 1917. The Colored Women’s Suffrage Club of New York City, including Helen Holman, led the final push in Harlem. Even as the state’s historic vote loomed, black women questioned their status in the suffrage movement in relation to white women. While some argued that they had been discriminated against by white suffrage activists and advocated for a separate organization, others, including Holman resisted the call for separatism. As a sign of her commitment to the interracial struggle, Holman wrapped up a contentious meeting on the subject with an inspiring suffrage speech.6 New York Age, September 20, 1917, 1.

By early November 1917 New York City convulsed with excitement over the upcoming vote. Holman remained a vital contributor to the movement. Not only had she helped turn out large numbers of Harlem residents for the October 1917 suffrage parade down Fifth Avenue, but she also spoke frequently at the Harlem suffrage headquarters and on the busy corner of 133rd street and Lenox Avenue. And in the last feverish week before the vote, she was slated to speak almost daily at street meetings in Harlem.7 New York Age, November 1, 1917, 1.

Women’s suffrage activism paid off in the November 1917 election. Holman and over a million other women were finally enfranchised, but the victory hardly brought Holman’s struggles for justice to an end. Her activism had always been broader than women’s suffrage and included efforts to fight race and class discrimination as well. She was part of the NAACP struggle in Brooklyn to address “Discrimination, segregation, peonage, lack of industrial opportunity and other questions of vital interest” to those living under the heavy boot of racist oppression.8 New York Age, September 30, 1915. In the cold winter of 1918, Holman was one of fifty women who met with New York City’s mayor as members of the Women’s Committee on Food and Fuel. They urged the Mayor to address the pervasive “starvation, privation and suffering” across the city by establishing “stations where coal and milk may be sold at cost.” Grounding their case in the language of respectability, the interracial group of women further argued that, “We are not objects of charity… Practically every woman here is a member of a self-supporting household. All that we want is an opportunity to purchase wood, coal, and other necessities at fair prices.” Holman added the specific concerns of African Americans, contending that “New York doesn’t know that there are at least 50,000 colored people freezing and starving in the district north of Central Park.”9 The Evening World (New York, NY) January 3, 1918, p. 3

In early 1918, Holman also demonstrated her fierce commitment to the Socialist party, for which she is most remembered in historical accounts.10 The New York Call, February 7, 1918, p. 5; Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 15; Earl Browder, The Communists in the People’s Front (New York : Workers Library Publishers, 1937), 117; Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (New York : Vintage Books, 1981), 151; Erik McDuffie, “[She] devoted twenty minutes condemning all other forms of government but the Soviet: Black Women Radicals in the Garvey Movement and in the Left during the 1920s,” in Diasporic Africa: A Reader by Michael Gomez (New York : New York University Press, 2006), 9; Erik McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Lashawn Harris, “Marvel Cooke: Investigative Journalist, Communist and Black Radical Subject, Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 6:2, (Fall 2012), 91-126; Lashawn Harris, “Running with the Reds: African American Women and the Communist Party during the Great Depression,” in Journal of African American History, 94:1 (Winter 2009), 21-43; Irma Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and the Harlem Community, 1900-1930; (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1996 ); Julie Gallagher, Black Women and Politics in New York (Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2012). Among her Socialist activities, Holman lectured to white audiences and black audiences on the merits of the Party on Harlem’s street corners and she taught a course on the fundamentals of Socialism at the Rand School of Social Sciences, which was formed by members of the Socialist Party in 1906.11 New York Tribune, January 18, 1920, 15; Broad Axe (Chicago, Ill.) Jan. 24, 1920, 2; New York Age, November 4, 1922, 3; Columbia Daily Spectator, Volume LII, Number 42, 16 November 1921. She served as the Executive Secretary of the Kate Richards O’Hare Committee in 1919, which was formed to raise funds for the defense of national Socialist speaker Kate Richards O’Hare who was arrested on federal espionage charges after giving an anti-war speech in North Dakota.12 Kate Richards O’Hare and “Letter from Holman to Miss Gertrude Petzold re Kate Richards O’Hare Committee July 8, 1919.” Accessed July 11, 2016.

During the Great Depression, Holman served as secretary of the radical organization, the National Negro Congress, and spoke about “The Negro in the New World,” as part of a lecture series on “the Negro and his contribution to civilization that was given under the sponsorship of the WPA.13 New York Age, November 26, 1938, 4. Although less is known about Holman’s activities during World War II, there is evidence that she was a member of the National Council of Negro Women. There is regrettably nothing known about Holman’s death at this time.

Special thanks to Susan Goodier and Susan Ware who generously contributed vital sources to this project.


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