Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Mary E. Jackson, 1867-1923

By Kaylah VanWasshnova, Laura Sanchez, Kaitlin Roberts, Kayla Martin and Shereen Naem, Undergraduates, University of Michigan-Dearborn

Mary Elizabeth Jackson lived from 1867 to 1923 in Providence, Rhode Island. Apart from her religious affiliation as a Free Baptist, information about her personal life is scarce. Her impressive record of activism, however, offers insight into her character. A product of the Progressive Era, her affiliation with several activist organizations shows a remarkable dedication, intertwining social justice and her working life.

Jackson endorsed suffrage for women, while also advocating for racial equality and workers’ rights Jackson excelled at illustrating the connections between these issues in order to strengthen each cause. A testament to this approach, Jackson served as president of the Rhode Island Association of Colored Women’s Clubs for eight years, and also worked with the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the YWCA’s War Work Council as Industrial Secretary, the Alpha Suffrage Club, the Rhode Island Labor Department as part of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics, and eventually the Anti-Lynching Crusaders.

The earliest record of Jackson’s activism is an 1894 letter by Josephine Silone Yates, which highlights that Jackson hosted a lawn party fundraiser on her grounds for the Sojourner Truth Club on July 5th of that year. Over two decades later, on October 24, 1916, fellow activist John Hope wrote a letter to NAACP co-founder Mary White Ovington, recommending Jackson for the association’s field organizer position. Revealing the limitations placed on women even in this leading civil rights organization, Ovington acknowledged Jackson’s qualifications but asked if Hope had a man for the job instead. While never a paid organizer, Jackson did write for the NAACP magazine The Crisis in the 1910s. One article in particular shows her uncompromising position on suffrage. In “The Self-Supporting Woman and the Ballot,” Jackson argued that “the sane point of view [is that] all objections to the ballot for women are but protests against progress, civilization and good sense.” That piece also illustrated her consciousness of women’s vitality as an economic force, as she refuted the myth that all women depended on men for their livelihoods and argued for suffrage on the grounds that women competed successfully with men in all fields.

In December 1917, the YWCA appointed Jackson to direct the Industrial Section of its War Work Council, where she used her experience with Rhode Island’s Bureau of Industrial Statistics to gather information and advocate for women of color in industry. On behalf of the Council, she distributed a questionnaire to YWCA chapters in other states and to other relevant organizations in an effort to learn the conditions of colored women’s employment. Jackson oversaw the selection of women candidates to be trained as industrial secretaries, and supervised the successful organization of forty-five work centers for African Americans in twenty-one different states and Washington, D.C. Throughout this work, Jackson remained adamant that the experiences of working women of color were essential to the overall labor movement, and argued that racial unity was necessary in working toward improvement for all women industrial workers.

Through her administrative work, research, writing, and volunteer efforts, Mary E. Jackson made vital contributions opening political and economic opportunities for American women, especially women of color, as well as advancing the cause of racial justice. She should be remembered for her skillful organizing, her comprehensiveness, her ability to articulate movement perspectives, and her extraordinary dedication to social justice causes.

Mary E. Jackson

Image source: Mary E. Jackson, “Colored Girls in the Second Line of Defense,” The Association Monthly, October 1918.


“Broadening Opportunities for Colored Girls.” War Work Bulletin (New York City), May 3, 1918.

Davis, Leroy. A Clashing of the Soul. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

Dunbar-Nelson, Alice. Negro Women in War Work. Chicago: Homewood Press, 1919.

Jackson, Mary E. “Colored Girls in the Second Line of Defense.” The Association Monthly, October 1918.

Jackson, M.E. “The Self-Supporting Woman and the Ballot.” The Crisis, August 1915.

Mjagkij, Nina, and Margaret Ann Spratt. Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and the YWCA in the City. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Robertson, Nancy Marie. Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations, and the YWCA, 1906-46. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote: 1850-1920. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1998.

Vaz, Kim Marie. Black Women in America. Florida: SAGE Publications, 1994.

Yates, Josephine Silone. “Kansas City Letter.” Woman’s Era 1:5 (August 1894), 9.

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