Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Sarah Willie Layton (Layten), 1864-1950


By Michelle Sibilla, Undergraduate, University of Michigan-Dearborn

Sarah Willie Phillips was born in May of 1864 in Grenada, Mississippi. Her father, William H. Phillips, was a minister for the Baptist Church and an advocate for racial self-determination. Her mother Mary H. Phillips was a homemaker. Sarah was the only surviving child of six and she followed in her father's activist footsteps, speaking out for women's and African Americans' civil rights from a young age.

Sarah Phillips attended LeMoyne College in Memphis, TN, graduating in 1881. After graduating she moved with her parents to Fort Smith, Arkansas where she began to teach. She married I. H. Layton in 1882 and her only child, Madaline Phillips, was born in Arkansas in 1885. After her daughter's birth, the couple moved to Los Angeles, California. When Layton's husband died, she moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to live with her parents in 1894. She took graduate classes in sociology at Temple University and social work at the University of Pennsylvania later. Layton also received an honorary masters of art degree from the University of Louisville and a honorary doctor of law degree from Selma University.

Layton's activism for women's rights and her rise to national prominence began during her time in California. Layton became president of the Western Baptist Association of California and helped to found the California Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. She was also the California editor for The Woman's Era, covering the women's movement with forceful candidness and a strong conviction in women's ability to change the world.

Shortly after moving to Philadelphia Layton began a four-year battle to organize a Baptist women's organization within the male-led National Baptist Convention (NBC). After several failed attempts and a secret meeting, the Baptist Women's Convention (BWC) was formed in 1900, and Layton was elected president. As president, Layton fought against opposition within the NBC to advocate for women's suffrage.

Under Layton's leadership, the BWC became a leading voice for women's suffrage in the 1910s. Creating suffrage and legislative departments, Layton used the church and Christianity as a platform to approach political issues that had generally been taboo for women earlier. Among the other issues that Layton tackled were anti-lynching legislation, voter education, child welfare, housing, and an end to racial segregation. Layton had the foresight to anticipate the ratification of women's suffrage and believed that the church was the ideal institution to develop voter education classes.

Layton networked with women in other organizations, speaking at events held by the YWCA and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and collaborating with the National Association of Colored Women, where she participated in symposiums and chaired important committees.

Layton also saw the benefits of interracial cooperation, reaching out to white Southern Baptist women as an ally in the fight against lynching and Jim Crow. In the 1920's and 30's, Layton took part in the Church Women's Committee on Race Relation (CWCRR), which was part of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ (FCC). Layton was also a member of Church Women United, an interracial organization that carried out the initiatives of the CWCRR. Their actions included boycotts, resolutions on lynching, and resolutions supporting the elimination of segregation in public schools and laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of a later generation.

Layton vigorously advocated for better resources and protections for working-class black women, showing particular concern for their safety as the migrated to the urban north. In another interracial endeavor, Layton worked closely with Frances Kellor to develop the National League for the Protection of Colored Women (NLPCW), replacing Kellor as general secretary in 1910. Under Layton, the NLPCW served as a clearinghouse for resources including travel, housing, education, and employment. The Committee of Urban Conditions and the Committee for Improving the Industrial Conditions of Negroes merged to form the National Urban League in 1911 and Layton became one of its first field secretaries.

Politically active throughout her life, Layton supported the Progressive Party, the Republican Party, including the Women's National Republican Committee and the Republican Committee of Philadelphia, and the National Woman's Party. Layton's political activism spilled over into her work with the BWC as she shared her views and encouraged women to take political action. After Layton retired from the BWC in 1948, it lost its political agenda and failed to continue advocating for women's rights.

Layton suffered from various health issues for the last half of her life forcing her to step down from a number of positions. After being bedridden for two years, she died in her Philadelphia home on January 14, 1950. S. Willie Layton devoted her life to working for the rights of others. She was a pioneering leader who helped further both the civil rights movement and the women's movement.


Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church 1880-1920. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Adams, Betty Livingston. Black Women's Christian Activism: Seeking Social Justice in a Northern Suburb. New York: New York University Press, 2016.

Smith, Jessie Carney. "S. Willie Layton (1863- 1950) Feminist, Organization Leader, Educator, Clubwomen, Political Worker," Notable Black American Women, Book II, Edited by Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996. Pp. 403-06

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

Collier-Thomas, Bettye. Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.


Related Writings in Database

View works by

View works about

back to top