Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Mary McCurdy (Martha "Mary" Harris Mason McCurdy), 1852-1934


By Aimee Loiselle, Ph.D. candidate, University of Connecticut

Martha Ann Harris was born on August 10, 1852, to Alexander and Martha Brooks Harris in Carthage, Indiana. During her childhood, she attended the mixed schools in Rush County but was unable to afford college due to her father's death in the 1860s. Harris continued to pursue her informal education and acquired a teaching job at a county school when she was nineteen. When the school closed, she married J.A. Mason in 1875 and moved to Richmond, Indiana. They were married for eight years and had four children. However, her husband and children died, and Mason was on her own for several years. She dedicated more time to the African-American community and became particularly interested in temperance and the need for political responses to the living conditions in many black neighborhoods.

In 1884, Mason became the secretary of the temperance newspaper in Richmond, where she often went by the name Mattie. She eventually took the editor position and became known as a columnist and vocal advocate for temperance and prohibition. Like many women activists at that time, Mason believed liquor and inebriation inhibited the uplift of African Americans. In 1886, Mason decided to dedicate her efforts to black communities in the South and relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, with the help of Reverend J.M. Townsend, Bishop H.M. Turner, and his wife Mrs. Turner. Mason took a post as the secretary and editor pro tem of the Southern Recorder in September 1886. She wrote many articles for the newspaper, some appearing under Bishop Turner's name. As a member of St. James A.M.E. Church in Atlanta, Mason visited the chain gang to promote temperance and served as superintendent of the Sunday school. On July 16, 1890, in a formal ceremony at the home of Bishop Turner, she married Reverend Calvin McCurdy, a respected Presbyterian minister in an orthodox tradition. Her name appeared as "Mattie" on the marriage record. It was a second marriage for both of them, and he was 23 years older. Reverend and Mrs. McCurdy moved to Rome, Georgia, to establish a church.

In Rome, McCurdy continued her work for temperance, the African-American community, and women's suffrage. She served as corresponding secretary for the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) of the state of Georgia and president of missionary work for the Presbyterian Church. Her commitment to temperance led her to write a regular column for the National Presbyterian. McCurdy supported the mayor of Rome when he closed the local barrooms in 1895. She also contributed to the Rome Branch of the Needle Work Guild of America, which made clothing for poor residents and for an orphans' home in Atlanta. Her professional name appeared as Mrs. M.A. McCurdy or Mary McCurdy during these years.

Her writing and editing career advanced again when she became editor for The Woman's World, a newspaper for the intellectual, moral, and spiritual progress of black people. In this role, McCurdy was an ardent advocate for women's suffrage although she was not officially affiliated with a suffragist organization. The promotion of suffrage intersected with her belief in temperance, and McCurdy argued that if women had the vote, liquor would be banished. She spoke on behalf of temperance and suffrage in her local community, in Atlanta, and across the state of Georgia. She used her position as a journalist and respected activist to encourage black women to demand political equality and to seek political solutions to the economic and social problems in their communities. McCurdy was one of several visible independent suffragists, like Gertrude Mossell, who wrote and spoke without membership in the prominent National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

In 1895, McCurdy published a piece titled, "Duty of the State to the Negro," that argued the government had a responsibility to guarantee African-American men were able to exercise their right to vote and participate as citizens. She shared the idea that the widespread availability of alcohol, with the resulting intemperance, was a ploy by public leaders and politicians to keep black men "deprived of a free exercise of franchisement." While acknowledging the efforts of churches, affluent African Americans, and schools built for the millions of free blacks after the Civil War, McCurdy emphasized the lack of political equality. Churches, she said, did not serve to right political wrongs. She celebrated the U.S. Constitution but said a lack of conformity in enforcing its provisions left African-American men unable to achieve equality of franchise and political participation.

McCurdy also argued the government was not fulfilling its obligations to the millions of women, worthy of consideration, who pleaded for equal franchise. Like many suffragists, she believed women would not permit their votes to be bought or subverted in ways that men allowed. She said women had "their executive ability, culture, learning, and wisdom" to share as voters for the good of all Americans. McCurdy called on the government to "emancipate the Anglo-Saxon and Afro-American women who are wearing a yoke of oppression, the equal of that which did hold the slave in bondage for more than two hundred years." If women had the right to vote, McCurdy stated, they not only gained rightful political equality, but also had more opportunities to better the nation with their considerations on behalf of the poor, inebriated, and sinful, who would gain attentive care for their cultivation.

Reverend McCurdy died in 1905 in Rome and was buried near his first wife. By 1910, McCurdy had returned to Richmond, Indiana, where she lived with her sister and brother-in-law into the 1930s. (Her brother-in-law, Grovelle Bundy, was one of Richmond's first black patrolmen.) She continued her activism on behalf of temperance, suffrage, and black electoral politics, with her name appearing as Mrs. M.A. McCurdy and Mrs. Martha McCurdy. She attended the 1913 National WCTU convention in New Jersey as a delegate of Indiana. In 1915, she organized meetings on behalf of the WCTU with three churches in Indianapolis. McCurdy was also involved in the Women's Division of the National Republican Committee as a representative from Indiana. Many black women promoted their causes by merging their volunteer and service efforts with the traditional party structure and the campaigns of black men politicians.

In June 1934, Martha Ann "Mary" McCurdy died at the age of 81 at Reid Memorial Hospital in Indiana from complications due to pneumonia. She was buried at Earlham Cemetery in Richmond.


Allen, A.B. "Sketch of Her Life and Labor in Rome, GA." In Afro-American Encyclopaedia or, the Thoughts, Doings, and Sayings of the Race, edited by James T. Haley, 139-142. Nashville: Haley & Florida, 1896.

Gibson, J.W. and W.H. Crogman. "Mrs. M.A. McCurdy." Progress of A Race: The Remarkable Advancement of the Colored American, 610-611. Naperville, Illinois: J. L. Nichols, 1912. [LINK]

Graham, Reverend Richard. "Wedding at Bishop Turner's." The Christian Recorder. July 31, 1890.

Haley, James T. "Mrs. M.A. McCurdy." In Afro-American Encyclopaedia or, the Thoughts, Doings, and Sayings of the Race, edited by James T. Haley, 137-139. Nashville: Haley & Florida, 1896.

King, Susan E. and Thomas D. Hamm. Images of America: Richmond, 120. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2015.

Mayo, Edith, editor. "African American Women Leaders in the Suffrage Movement." Based on the scholarly work of Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. Turning Point: Suffragist Memorial. Accessed online at

McCurdy, Mrs. M.A. "Duty of the State to the Negro." In Afro-American Encyclopaedia or, the Thoughts, Doings, and Sayings of the Race, edited by James T. Haley, 142-145. Nashville: Haley & Florida, 1895. [LINK]

"News From Round About: Marion." Indianapolis Recorder. June 5, 1915, 6.

Photograph, Women's Division, courtesy of Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. "Political Parties." Oxford African American Studies Center.

"Report of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union: The Fortieth Annual Convention." The Casino in Asbury Park, New Jersey. October 31-November 5, 1913.

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

Special thanks to Kevin Finefrock for his guidance on family and ancestry research.


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