Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography Frances Reynolds Keyser, 1862-1932

By Steven Kramer, The Hockaday School, Dallas, Texas

Frances Reynolds Keyser was born in Georgia around 1862, probably in Savannah. She was able to attend "Mr. Reason's School" in New York City through the generosity of a Mrs. Francis Thurber "to prepare herself to teach in the South." She was admitted to the Normal College, later known as Hunter College, and graduated in 1880 with honors in French and the second highest average in Latin. The 1880 census shows her living in New York, attending the Normal School. She graduated at the height of the controversy about "placing colored teachers in the mixed schools in New York." Nevertheless, she found a job at the New York Evening School where Miss Mogen Howard was the principal. After the loss of her husband and children, she returned to the South to teach in Maryland and Florida before Victoria Earle Matthews convinced Keyser to return to New York to work with the White Rose Mission. Keyser took over the role of the superintendent of the White Rose as Matthews eventually succumbed to tuberculosis. Prior to her time at the Mission and while she was superintendent, Keyser was also active as a clubwoman. She was an officer in the National Association of Colored Women, the founder and first president of the Empire State Federation of [Black] Women's Clubs, and active in the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. In 1912, she accepted a position with Mary Bethune at the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute where she worked for twelve years before a debilitating illness forced her retirement to stay with relatives in New York City.

Mrs. Keyser, however, was more than just an educational and social reformer. She served on the first executive committee of the NAACP and was involved in the women's suffrage movement. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 9 February 1908 reported that Keyser was a speaker at a "Lincoln-Douglas celebration" of the Brooklyn Equal Suffrage League. The New York Age a little over a year later stated that Keyser would "read a paper" on the "suffrage question" at a Women's Suffrage League lyceum at St. Mark's Church; her remarks were strongly in favor of women's suffrage, even as other female speakers opposed the right. An article titled "Colored Suffragettes" that appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle later in 1909 stated that Keyser had made remarks at a reception honoring Dr. Varina Morton Jones, president of the Equal Suffrage League, an organization of women in the borough of Brooklyn. Keyser also spoke in February, 1910, at what was called "the first colored meeting in the cause of woman's suffrage" in New York City. This claim is not necessarily true, but the meeting was a concerted attempt by white suffragists to enroll organized Black women reformers in the woman suffrage cause. The president of the Political Equality Association, Mrs. Oliver H. P. Belmont, speaking at the Mount Olivet Baptist Church, a black church, invited black men and women to join her organization, asserting "that unless this cause means freedom and equal rights to all women, of every race, of every creed, rich or poor, [equality's] doctrines are worthless, and it must fail in its achievements." Portions of Mrs. Belmont's remarks and some of those of Mrs. Henry Villard, daughter of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, were recorded in the New York Times but none of the remarks of several black speakers, including those of Keyser. The New York Age, however, in noting that the Belmont and Villard speeches "did not evoke much applause," quoted Keyser as saying, "it was wonderful to be a Negro at just this time, in this glorious era, for the race is now a sort of balance of power." In 1912 at the sixteenth annual session of the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, the agenda included "woman suffrage" along with suppression of lynching, and child welfare. Keyser spoke, but the newspaper report does not describe her remarks.

From this limited amount of evidence, it is clear that Keyser was a suffragist. Newspaper accounts state that she made speeches, which the newspapers rarely recorded. As the president of the Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs, she made sure the topic was discussed at meetings. Once she left New York in 1912 for Bethune's Daytona Institute, she apparently focused more social and educational reform. At the institute Keyser took responsibility for the educational program and permitted Bethune to focus her energies on fundraising. During the next twelve years, newspaper accounts speak to her active participation in statewide conferences of Black teachers and the Florida Federation of Colored Women's Clubs.

Frances Keyser passed away in Manhattan in August 1932. Mary McLeod Bethune wrote a "tribute to the memory of her gracious personality and benevolent influence."


Mary McLeod Bethune, "A Tribute to Frances Reynolds Keyser: Club Woman, Writer, Teacher," New York Age, 29 November 1924, p. 2.

1930 Federal manuscript census through

1932 Death Record, Manhattan. Accessed online through Ancestry Library Edition.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 17 June 1909

"Negro Women Join in Suffrage Fight," NY Times, 7 February 1910

"St. Mark's Lyceum," NY Age, 8 April 1909

"Easter at St. Mark's Lyceum," NY Age, 15 April 1909

"Ask Negro Women to be Suffragists," NY Age, 10 February 1910

"Raise Tubman Pension," New York Age, 25 July 1912, p. 2.

"Suffrage for Women," Broad Ax, 12 March 1910, p. 3.

Mary McLeod Bethune, "Tribute to My Friend and Co-Worker Frances R. Keyser," New York Age, 17 Sept. 1932, p. 7.


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