Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Josephine Silone Yates, 1859-1912



Josephine Silone Yates (1859-1912)




Josephine Silone Yates
in D.W. Culp, Twentieth Century Negro Literature (Naperville, Ill.: J.L. Nichols, 1902), p. 21.


By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, SUNY Binghamton

Josephine Silone was born in Mattituck, on Long Island in 1859 of Alexander and Parthenia Reeve Silone. At the age of 11 she went to live in Philadelphia in the household of an uncle to attend the Institute for Colored Youth, a private school directed by Fannie Jackson Coppin. A year later, when her uncle moved to Washington, D.C. to take a chair in theology at Howard University, Josephine returned to her family, but two years later moved to Newport, RI, where she lived with an aunt, once again with the express purpose of receiving better schooling. She completed grammar school and then the local, public high school, as the only black child in the school and the valedictorian of her graduating class. Josephine next attended the Rhode Island State Normal School, took the state teachers' exam and, according to one biographical sketch, "became the first black American certified to teach in the public schools of Rhode Island."

Rather than teaching locally, Silone joined the faculty at the Lincoln Institute in Missouri (today, Lincoln University), where she taught chemistry. In 1886 Booker T. Washington recruited her to serve as lady principal at Tuskegee, a position she declined. She remained at Lincoln, rising to professor with an annual salary of $1,000.

In 1889 she married William W. Yates, a school principal in Kansas City, and gave up her teaching position. The couple had two children. Her daughter Josephine became a teacher; her son, William Blyden, a physician. She resumed her teaching at Lincoln Institute in 1902-1903. She taught English and drawing and became an advisor to women students. When Anna Julia Cooper taught at Lincoln Institute, Yates and Cooper lived in the same women's dormitory. Marriage and parenting did not keep Josephine Silone Yates bound to domestic pursuits.

In these years, Yates wrote extensively for varied publications, of ten under the pseudonym of R.K. Potter, and became active in black women's club life in Kansas City. In 1893 she helped found and served as first president of the Kansas City Woman's League. She was a major player in founding the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896, serving stints as both treasurer and president of the organization. She also made numerous contributions to The Women's Era, before and after it became the of ficial publication of the NACW.

Silone Yates proved a national figure in the NACW from its founding. She presented a paper at the 1999 biennial meeting in Chicago. W.E.B. Du Bois attended the meeting and commented, calling her "Perhaps the finest specimen of Negro womanhood present . . . a dark-brown matron, with a quiet air of dignity and earnestness." He called her paper, "An Equal Moral Standard for Men and Women," one of "the best papers of the meeting." In 1901 she was elected president of the NACW. She exemplified the dominant perspective of the black women's club movement, "Lifting as We Climb." In one of her presidential speeches she concluded: "These are years of pioneering; let's hurl a challenge to the women of the country to lift our status as we climb."

During the years when Yates was president of the NACW the association had a Suffrage Department and in her published articles mention very positively the association's good relations

with the predominantly white National American Woman Suffrage Association, but I have not found any explicit support in her writings for woman suffrage as an association goal or priority. Her emphasis seems to be entirely on black women's role in broader racial uplift, a perspective very common among black club women in these decades.

When her husband died in 1910, Josephine Silone Yates returned to Kansas City and began teaching at Lincoln High School in the city. She died in September 1912 at the age of 53 after a very brief illness. The Indianapolis Freeman noted her passing: "We deplore the loss of the woman who had such a large share in the colored women's work of racial uplift."


Gary R. Kremer and Cindy M. Mackey, "'Yours for the Race': The Life and Work of Josephine Silone Yates," Missouri Historical Review, 90:2 (January 19996), 199-215.

Robert L. Johns, "Josephine Silone Yates (1859-1912)," in Jessie Carney Smith, ed., Notable Black American Women (Detroit: Gale Research, 1992), 1286-87.

Marcia Y. Riggs, "Yates, Josephine," in Dorothy C. Salem, ed., African American Women: A Biographical Dictionary (New York: Garland, 1993), 569.

Jan Gleiter, "Yates, Josephine Silone," in Darlene Clark Hine, ed., Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1993), 1297-98

"Josephine Silone Yates," in Hallie Quinn Brown, Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction (Xenia, OH: Aldine Publishing, 1926), 178-81.

"Josephine A. Silone-Yates," in Lawson Andrew Scruggs, ed., Women of Distinction: Remarkable in Works and Invincible in Character (Raleigh, NC: Privately published, 1893), 40-47.

Federal Manuscript Censuses for 1900 and 1910, for William and Josephine Yates. Accessed online via


Links to Additional Biographical Sketches

Monroe Majors, Noted Negro Women
Women of Distinction
Homespun Heroines


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