Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Hester C. Whitehurst Jeffrey, 1842-1934

By Susan Goodier, History Lecturer, SUNY Oneonta


Hester C. Whitehurst was born in 1842 to Robert and Martha Pitts Whitehurst of Norfolk City, Virginia. In 1854, she, her sister Phebe, and a brother moved to Boston to live with her uncle, Coffin Pitts; his home, a station on the Underground Railroad, frequently welcomed William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and other leading abolitionists.[1] The Boston Slave Riot and Trial of Anthony Burns (Boston: William V. Spencer, 1854), 5; Vicki S. Welch, And They Were Related, Too: A Study of Eleven Generations of One American Family! (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corporation, 2006), 112. She married Roswell Jerome Jeffrey (1839-1908) on July 19, 1865. While little is known of their lives in Boston, Hester's sister, Phebe Whitehurst Glover, owned a successful dressmaking business and probably employed Hester Jeffrey and her husband. The Jeffreys moved to Rochester, New York in 1891, following his father's death. The couple had four children, none of whom survived childhood.

In Rochester, the Jeffreys rented rooms in the 13 James Street home of John W. Thompson, head of the colored branch of the Republican Party and a prominent activist. Thompson and his wife helped connect Jeffrey to social activism in the city. In addition to her primary allegiance to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Jeffrey, like Frederick Douglass, attended the First Unitarian Church. There she met political and social activists Mary Thorn Lewis Gannett (married to First Unitarian minister William C. Gannett) and Susan B. Anthony. The Unitarian church creed was "free faith," for people with an "independent bent of mind," linking the liberal ideas of Unitarianism about humans' relationship with God and society to their beliefs and reform efforts."[2] Heather Lee Miller, Emily Greenwald, and Dawn Vogel, Ethnographic Overview and Assessment, Women's Rights National Historical Park, Northeast Region Ethnography Program (Boston, MA: National Park Service, 2009), 85.

Hester Jeffrey joined, established, and held office in a wide array of organizations, usually connected with women. She joined the Rochester Political Equality Club, the Local Council of Women, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and the Needlework Guild of America. She also founded the Climbers and the Busy Bees, clubs for colored children, the Hester B. Jeffrey Women's Club to raise funds to pay the fees for colored girls to attend courses at the Mechanics Institute (now the Rochester Institute of Technology), and the Hester C. Jeffrey Industrial Association to oversee a home for self-supporting colored girls in Troy, N.Y. She served on a committee headed by Thompson to raise funds to erect a statue to Frederick Douglass following his death in 1895.[3] Frederick Douglass published the North Star, an anti-slavery weekly, in the basement of the AME Zion Church from 1847 to 1849, establishing a friendship with the Jeffrey family. John W. Thompson arrived in Rochester in 1883, worked as head waiter in the Powers Hotel dining room. Hester Jeffrey's husband served as a pallbearer for Frederick Douglass at his funeral service in Rochester. "The Last Honors," Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), February 27, 1895, 8. Following the dedication of the monument, she became involved with revitalizing the National Afro-American Council, an important predecessor organization to the NAACP. While her associates supported women's rights, Jeffrey founded the Susan B. Anthony Club in 1902 to support the suffrage activism of black women in Rochester.

Eventually Jeffrey joined the New York Federation of Colored Women, the National Association of Colored Women, the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, and served as corresponding secretary to the Flower City Council of the Society of Afro-Americans. She represented the National Association of Colored Women in 1898 when a large group of Rochester women met to raise funds to make the University of Rochester coeducational. She traveled broadly as a delegate and to speak during these years, attending national conventions in Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Seattle, Washington, DC, and elsewhere.

Susan B. Anthony spoke at the new AME Zion Church on Favor Street, just three months before her death in 1906. National American Woman Suffrage Association leaders asked Jeffrey to eulogize Anthony at her funeral. Hester Jeffrey helped raise funds for the first memorial to commemorate the suffrage leader--a stained glass window in the AME Zion Church on Favor Street in Rochester.[4] Parishioners moved the stained-glass window to the new Memorial AME Zion Church in Rochester. Jeffrey, assisted by prominent New York suffragist Jean Brooks Greenleaf and others, dedicated the window during a week of dedications of windows in the church.

The following year, when Mary Anthony, Susan's sister, died, Jeffrey told mourners that she had visited Mary Anthony, a true friend of her race, a few months previously. Mary Anthony gave Jeffrey a message to relay to her Susan B. Anthony club members: "See to it that you put your whole mind in this suffrage movement, for the destiny of your race is involved in it. The racial issue is whether the negro shall be accorded the rights and privileges of a man and citizen in this country."

R. Jerome Jeffrey died in 1908 and Hester Jeffrey's activism declined. After 1914 Hester Jeffrey left Rochester and returned to Boston where she contributed to the war effort and taught music, residing at the home of her niece, Georgine Glover Brown. Newspapers reported her activities as relating to events held at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Boston and New York City. She died in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, on January 2, 1934 of pneumonia and old age.


Note: Newspaper reporters and writers referred to Hester C. Jeffrey by several different forms and spellings of her name. So far, those names and (mis)spellings include Mrs. Hester Jeffrey, Mrs. R. Jerome Jeffries, Mrs. Jerome K. Jeffrey, Mrs. R. J. Jeffrey, Mrs. R. J. Jeffreys, Mrs. Jeffreys, and Mrs. Jerome Jeffery.

From the 1890s until just before her death newspapers published across the United States frequently reported on Hester Jeffrey's activities. Hundreds of newspapers mentioned her name in the articles they reprinted describing Susan B. Anthony's funeral, noting that Hester Jeffrey delivered one of the eulogies. Unfortunately, none of the newspapers found so far printed texts of her many speeches.

Hester Jeffrey is fairly well represented on line, with website entries such as The Black Past,, The Rochester Regional Library Council,, the personal website of Scott W. Williams,, Uncrowned Community Builders,, Wikipedia,, and others. Most seem to have closely followed the text of the first two websites. The full text of Jeffrey's eulogy of Susan B. Anthony is posted on the Susan B. Anthony House website: Although it only briefly mentions Jeffrey, see for more on the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Rochester.

Articles and books that offer some information relative to Hester Jeffrey, her life and activism, include Shawn Leigh Alexander, An Army of Lions: The Civil Rights Struggle before the NAACP (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), especially chapter 7; Howard W. Coles, The Cradle of Freedom: A History of the Negro in Rochester, Western New York, and Canada (Rochester, NY: Oxford Press Publishers, 1941); Adelaide M. Cromwell, The Other Brahmins: Boston's Black Upper Class, 1750-1950 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994), 52, 158; Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello, Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017), especially chapter 4; Blake McKelvey, "Woman's Rights in Rochester: A Century of Progress," Rochester History 10, nos. 1 and 2, July 1948; Heather Lee Miller, Emily Greenwald, and Dawn Vogel, Ethnographic Overview and Assessment, Women's Rights National Historical Park, Northeast Region Ethnography Program, (Boston, MA: National Park Service, 2009); Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 99-100; Bishop Alexander Walters, My Life and Work (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1917), especially chapter 12 on the National Afro-American Council; Vicki S. Welch, And They Were Related, Too: A Study of Eleven Generations of One American Family! (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corporation, 2006), 110-14; and Charles Harris Wesley, The History of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs: A Legacy of Service (Washington, DC: National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Inc., 1984), 42, 64.


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