Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists


Biographical Sketch of Alice S. Presto, ca.1879—?

By Quin’Nita Cobbins
Graduate student, University of Washington, Seattle

Alice Sampson Presto, early suffragist, clubwoman, and political activist in Seattle, became the first African American woman to run for the Washington state legislature. Presto was born around 1879 or a few years earlier in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Martha Murphy and Franklin Sampson. There is little known of her early life other than that she had three brothers and two sisters. In the 1890s, she moved to Seattle where she married Walter Leo Presto, an Afro-Cuban immigrant who worked as a porter and minister. They welcomed their first child, Gladys Presto, in 1898 followed by two more daughters, Dorothy and Martha Presto, in 1902 and 1904 respectively. Two other children died during childbirth. Presto remained a housewife with some practical experience in nursing the sick.

Between 1900 and 1920, African Americans comprised less than one percent of the total population in Seattle. When the State of Washington granted woman’s suffrage in 1910, a decade before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Presto became a leading social and political figure in Seattle’s small and fledgling black community. In 1917, she helped organize and found the Washington State Federation of Colored Women’s Club (WSFCW) during the Spokane meeting and was elected second vice-president. As a founding member of the Seattle branch of the NAACP, she served as secretary for six years until she resigned her post in 1919.

In 1918, Presto made her bid for the state senate on the Republican ticket from the 37th legislative district. Her platform supported equal pay for women, increased widow’s pensions, an Industrial Insurance Act for workers, reforms to the child labor laws, and free tuition for children of taxpayers attending state public institutions. In addition, she forcefully condemned discrimination of all forms and promised to give a “square deal” to the citizens of Washington. The Women’s Civic and Political Alliance, a political group of black women organized by Presto in 1916 to register women to vote and engage in civic affairs, held a meeting at First A.M.E church (Seattle’s oldest black church) to endorse her candidacy and make the campaign their primary objective until the election. Cayton’s Weekly, Seattle’s only black-run newspaper, provided strong support urging black voters to vote for their “own.”

Presto campaigned against three white male Republican candidates, Ed Palmer, George B. Lamping, and Charles S. Tilton, and one male Democrat Thorwald Slegfried. In August of 1918, she received 460 votes to the winning candidate’s 1,205 votes. The loss did not deter her from politics. She joined the King County Republican League, an interracial political group, and held the position of treasurer. She remained active in the Women’s Civic and Political Alliance serving as treasurer for a number of years. In 1920, she presented a lecture on “Civic Work” at the WSFCW annual meeting. On September 22, 1924, the Washington Office of the Secretary of State appointed her a notary public—a trusted public servant of the state.

After 1936, Presto and her husband disappear from the public record.


The Seattle Republican, (Seattle, Wash.), Sept. 5, 1902 (Vol. IX, No 14); Cayton's Weekly. (Seattle, Wash.), Aug. 31, 1918 (Vol 3, No. 12),; Office of Secretary of State, Seventeenth Biennial Report, Sept. 30, 1922 (Olympia, Washington); The Negro Year Book: An Annual Encyclopedia of the Negro, 1918-1919, p. 57-58; “152 King County Candidates File,” Seattle Times, Aug. 11, 1918, p. 5; 1920 United States Federal Census, Seattle, King County, Washington, accessed on Dec. 2, 2015.


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