Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Lucy Thurman, 1849-1918

By Maureen Elgersman Lee, Professor, Hampton University

Lucy Thurman was a women’s rights activist and social reformer who, because of the trajectory of her life, is claimed by both Canada and the United States. She was born Lucinda Smith, in Oshawa, Canada West, (now Ontario) to parents Nehemiah and Catherine Smith. Born in 1849, Lucy Smith is situated between distinct two eras: the legal end of slavery in British North America and the abolition of slavery in the United States. This is to be noted because the life of Lucy Smith was shaped by her proximity to the still-fluid border between the two countries. According to sources, Lucy Smith was part of an accomplished family. Her younger brother, Charles Spencer Smith, was born in Canada in 1852, and, like his sister, moved to the United States. Charles Spencer Smith earned a medical degree from Meharry Medical College, and later served as the 28th bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

Lucy Smith was raised and educated in Canada, but moved to take a teaching position in Maryland in 1866. In the United States, a young Lucy Smith came into the circle of esteemed leaders like Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown. Smith ultimately made her home in Michigan, and while her professional service would take her throughout the Midwest, South, and West, her home base was Jackson, Michigan. Lucy Smith married twice in her lifetime. Smith’s first marriage is not well documented, and despite noting her 1849 birth, various sources contend that Smith married her first husband, Henry Simpson, in 1847. In contrast, there is greater clarity around Lucy Smith’s 1883 marriage to Frank Thurman.

A devoted member of the AME Church, Lucy Thurman was committed to a life of service that was religious, moral, social, political, and feminist in nature. Her activist profile is primarily constructed around her leadership in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), established in 1873 and 1896, respectively. By some accounts, Lucy Thurman was the WCTU’s only African American founding member; by more accounts she was the first African American woman to establish a WCTU Union. Thurman was also a founding member of the NACW and served as its third president from 1906 to 1908, following Josephine Silone Yates and preceding Elizabeth Carter Brooks.

Lucy Thurman spent more than 35 years of her life devoted to the work of temperance, within the organizational structures of both the WCTU and the NACW. Lucy Thurman died in Jackson, Michigan, on March 29, 1918, and was laid to rest in the city’s Mount Evergreen Cemetery. The Nashville Globe noted that Thurman’s death left “a vacancy in temperance work ranks that will be very hard to fill.” In 1933, the Lucy Smith Thurman YWCA was named in her honor, and in 1992, in recognition of her service to her adopted state, Lucy Thurman was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.


Bettye Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs and Justice: African American Women and Religion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010); Michigan Women’s Studies Association, “Lucinda Thurman (1849-1918),” Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, accessed online at; Virginia Law Burns, “Lucy Thurman: True to Her Race,” in Bold Women in Michigan History (Missoula, Mont: Mountain Press Publishing, 2006), 47-54; “Biography,” Charles S. Smith Papers Finding Aid, Bentley Library, University of Michigan, accessed online at; Hallie Q. Brown, Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction. Lucy Thurman Passes Into Great Beyond,” Nashville Globe, April 12, 1918, Library of Congress Chronicling America—Historic American Newspapers, accessed online at

Links to Additional Biographical Sketches

Homespun Heroines
Lifting As They Climb

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