Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Harriet C. Johnson, 1845-1907

By Jennifer Hanley, Western Kentucky University

Educator and Women’s Rights Activist

Like many African American women of the nineteenth-century, Harriet Johnson’s extraordinary efforts in trying to implement reforms for both black Americans and women went virtually unnoticed by her peers. Yet, the little historical record that remains suggests that Johnson was an educated and passionate woman who willingly put herself in the public eye to advocate for important changes for black women.

Johnson was born in December 1845 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and while details about her childhood are sparse, we do know that she graduated from the Institute for Colored Youth in 1864. Following her graduation, Johnson pursued a career in education—one of the few employment opportunities for a genteel black woman of her era. Her first job was as a principal at the Philadelphia Association of Friends for the Instruction of Poor People which was then followed by her appointment at Avery College as a principal over the ladies and preparatory divisions.

One can speculate that Johnson’s tenure at Avery College probably strengthened her commitment to lobby for rights for black women. Henry Highland Garnet, president of Avery College in the 1860s, was a famous black nationalist who advocated for, among other things, slaves to rebel against their masters and advocated black relocation to Africa. It is likely that Garnet’s passion for racial uplift carried across Avery College and invigorated the campus community with a fervor for racial justice and equality. In January 1869, for example, it was Henry Highland Garnet who opened the second day of the National Convention of the Colored Men of America (NCCMA) with a prayer.

Johnson’s most notable accomplishment for the cause of women’s suffrage took place during her tenure at Avery College when she also attended the NCCMA meeting in Washington, D. C. Harriet Johnson was the only female delegate seated at the NCCMA held in Washington, D.C. The express purpose of the NCCMA was a call to action to challenge “the partial or total exclusion of colored citizens from the exercise of elective franchise and other citizen rights, in so many States of the Union.”

Despite their call to action that seemed to encompass the entire black community, Johnson’s presence at the convention served as a source of contention between some southern and northern delegates. On the second day of the Convention, immediately after Johnson was recognized as a delegate from Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, Fields Cook of Virginia “objected to admitting women, as he understood the call for this Convention to be expressly for colored men.” Almost immediately, Dr. H. J. Brown of Maryland disputed Cook’s motion arguing “this was a progressive age, and that women would yet have the vote.” Garnet, who was witness to the proceedings, refused to table the motion and demanded that the convention settle the question of Johnson’s membership immediately.

Yet, Johnson’s role in the NCCAM was still up for debate. Multiple delegates immediately advocated in her favor and one, notably I.C. Weir, of Pennsylvania, said he “stood here as an advocate of woman’s suffrage, and to exclude them from seats in this Convention would be too much like the actions of the White House, who had excluded the colored race for two hundred years.” The matter was ultimately settled in Johnson’s favor after the Reverend J. Martin Sella (New York) reminded everyone that the convention was wrong to embrace prejudice and that they needed the help of every Delegate possible. Drawing on his training, calling, and profession, he noted that “it was a Convention of men, and the term ‘men’ in the Bible meant men and women.” Ultimately, Johnson was awarded her seat and the Convention proceeded.

While Johnson’s activities outside of the NCCAM are lost to history, her very presence at the Convention was an important milestone in black women’s quest for suffrage. The debate over her attending forced men to acknowledge that African American women too suffered from a lack of political voice and that for true racial uplift to occur, black men needed to draw on the strength, effort, and insights of their female counterparts.

The NCCAM was perhaps the apex of her push for women’s suffrage. In 1870 she married Frederick J. Loudin who later became one of the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers. The couple began their married life in Pittsburgh but Loudin’s career took him on the road a great deal and Johnson was his constant traveling companion. Loudin’s musical troupe was a great success and he managed to achieve financial stability—a feat that has been credited to the efforts of his wife Harriet.

After traveling the world Johnson and her husband returned to the United States and she presumably continued her efforts at improving the lives of African Americans and attaining female suffrage. We have no way of knowing for certain, because there are no records telling us what she was doing. Her husband was involved in a variety of campaigns, including anti-lynching, so it is quite feasible that Johnson’s work was not done.

Johnson’s life ended quietly on November 11, 1907. Her brief obituary in the Norwalk (OH) Daily Reflector is brief and does not provide any indication of her dedication to women and to her race.


“Institute for Colored Youth in the Civil War Era: Classes of 1856-1864” Accessed January 5, 2017.

Proceedings of the National Convention of the Colored Men of America, Held in Washington, D.C., on January 13, 14, 15, and 16, 1869 (Washington, D.C., 1869), 11.

Harper’s Weekly, February 6, 1869, p. 85. See this illustration featuring two African American women who participated in the 1869 Convention.

“Frederick J. Loudin, Baritone,” Accessed January 3, 2017.

“Wife of Famous Singer Dead,” Norwalk (OH) Daily Reflector, November 20, 1907, 3.

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