Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Lydia C. Smith, 1871-1948 (Lydia Cuffee Smith-Ward)


By Michelle Sibilla

Undergraduate, University of Michigan-Dearborn

Lydia Cuffee was born in Berkeley, Virginia, in 1871, to Jeremiah and Martha Cuffee. Jeremiah was a minister for the African Methodist Episcopal Church and Martha a homemaker. Lydia was the second oldest of their four daughters and at least two sons. From a young age, she was surrounded by A.M.E. Church activities that shaped many of her later efforts on behalf of women and African Americans. Through her organizational affiliations, writing, and suffrage activism, Smith gave a voice to African American women.

Lydia Cuffee attended Norfolk Mission College and then Hampton Institute of Virginia. She served as secretary for General Armstrong, the founder of Hampton, before taking a teaching position. In 1893, at the age of 22, she married Virginia attorney and journalist Richard T. Smith and moved to Brooklyn, New York. The couple had three children, Harrison (1896), Frissell (1898), and a third child who died. Richard Smith died sometime in 1900, leaving Smith to care for their two sons and a nephew. In 1913, Smith moved to Kansas City, Kansas. Two years later, Smith married Rev. Armstead Milton Ward, a pastor for the A.M.E. Church. The couple relocated to Denver, Colorado and then Oakland, California. In 1941, Smith’s second husband died and she returned to Brooklyn.

Smith dedicated herself to a variety of social and political causes important to turn-of-the-century African Americans. In 1895, Smith and her first husband began to publish Brooklyn’s first African American newspaper, The Brooklyn Telegram. Smith served as editor, co-publisher, and reporter. She relinquished control of the paper after her husband’s death in 1900 and began writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. As one of the few African American women to be regularly employed by a New York daily, Smith used her position to advocate for civil rights, political activism, education, and the importance of women’s suffrage for the race.

Smith worked on behalf of the women of her race through both the Equal Suffrage League and the Young Women’s Christian Association. Upon Smith’s departure for Kansas City, the organization’s president praised Smith as an indispensable member of both organizations. Smith also joined the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and was a strong proponent of other African American women becoming active members. After the Equal Suffrage League became part of the NACW in 1907, Smith continued her efforts for suffrage. Her church, Bridge Street AME Church in Brooklyn, created a special committee to pursue suffrage work and appointed Smith secretary. This committee raised money for and generally supported the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, of which Smith was also a member.

In 1905, the New York division of the YWCA formed and Smith soon established herself as a significant leader within the organization, eventually serving as the executive secretary of the Fifty-third Street branch. Smith also held formal positions in the Howard Colored Orphanage and Asylum of Brooklyn, the Sunday School at the Bridge Street A.M.E. Church, and the AME Women’s Mite Missionary Society. Smith moved to Kansas City, Kansas in early 1913 to become General Secretary of the African American YWCA there, where Smith also taught classes for young working women and was elected Sunday School teacher. She also began to write a regular column on the YWCA’s activities for the National Review and the Plaindealer. Smith’s activism continued as she moved across the country. In Denver, she founded the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA. In California, she served as general secretary of the Los Angeles YWCA and president of the California Conference Women’s Mite Missionary Society of the A.M.E Church. Smith also joined the California Federation of Colored Women, became the first African American woman delegate to the National Republican Convention, and served as financial secretary of the Fanny Wall Children’s Home and Day Nursery. Smith remained active within the A.M.E. Church and club work for the remainder of her life, traveling to conventions and speaking at events into her seventies. Smith died on December 7, 1948 at the age of 77.


“The Colonel In the State of Kansas: Still Jumping From Place to Place Meeting Many Prominent Men and Women,” Afro-American, July 5, 1913.

“Lydia Cuffey Ward, 77, B’klyn Telegram Founder Succumbs,” New York Amsterdam News, Dec 11, 1948.

Smith, Lydia. “Advancement of Race People Not Solved by Wealth: The Colored People Want Their Political and Civil Rights Protected-Strong Plea for Justice,” The Pittsburgh Courier, May 25, 1912.

Weisenfeld, Judith. African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945. Harvard University Press, 1997.


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