Sarah Massey Overton

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Sarah Massey Overton, 1850-1914


By Lauren Namdar, undergraduate, University of California, Davis

Suffragist, women’s rights advocate, civil rights advocate.

Sarah Massey was born in 1850 in Lenox, Massachusetts. She moved with her parents to Gilroy, California as a young girl before settling in San Jose, where she would live out her later years as a distinguished citizen. Overton attended the seminary of Reverend Peter Williams Cassey, who in 1861 founded the Phoenixonian Institute, a residential secondary school for black children, and California's first black secondary school. In 1869, Cassey officiated at the wedding of Sarah Massey and Jacob Overton, a Kentucky native. As husband and wife, Sarah and Jacob Overton supported similar social causes, including the education of African American children. They also ran a catering business and had two children together: a son, Charles, and a daughter, Harriet.

In addition to her dedication to suffrage and women's rights activism, Sarah Massey Overton campaigned for equality in education. Until 1874, California's constitution forbade black students from attending public schools. Overton traveled throughout California and Nevada in an effort to drum up support among African Americans for the Phoenixonian Institute, and she enjoyed much success. By 1875, several California school districts had integrated, and the Phoenixonian Institute ceased to exist.

Overton focused much of her time on activities to uplift black women and create spaces for their political expression. She served as president of a branch of the Victoria Earle Matthews Club, which was founded with the mission to protect imperiled young black women. The first reference to Overton's support of woman suffrage was her involvement in the unsuccessful suffrage referendum in 1896. She was also vice president of the San Jose Suffrage Amendment League and a member of the San Jose Political Equality Club for many years. During the suffrage campaign of 1911, Overton traveled to several California cities to arouse political interest among African-American voters. In a memorial to Overton following her death, Sarah Severance noted that Overton was an excellent speaker, perhaps more so than any other member of the Political Equality Club.

Sarah Massey Overton passed away in San Jose, California on August 24, 1914 at the age of 64.


Beasley, Delilah L. The Negro Trail Blazers of California (Los Angeles: n.p., 1919), pp. 232-33.

"Women's suffrage in California," in Wikipedia, accessed online at


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The Negro Trail Blazers of California


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