Maria Coles Perkins Lawton

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Maria Coles Perkins Lawton, 1864-1946


By Raya Koreh, undergraduate student, Harvard University


Maria Coles Perkins Lawton
in Who's Who in Colored America
(New York, NY: Who's Who in Colored America Corp., 1927)

Maria Coles Perkins Lawton, born in Lynchburg, Virginia on April 30, 1864, was a beloved educator, political worker, club leader, reformer, newspaper reporter, and lecturer. Maria Coles Perkins married William Rufus Lawton on May 7, 1886. The Lawtons had seven children, born between 1887 and 1906. In 1892, Lawton and her family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where her husband was appointed pastor of the Siloam Presbyterian Church. In New York, Maria began a new career as a newspaper reporter for the Brooklyn Standard Union, a daily newspaper in Brooklyn. Lawton was one of the first African-American women to break the color line in the twentieth century. She worked as a reporter at the Standard Union between 1907 and 1927, writing her stories under the byline M.C. Lawton. Notably, she spearheaded the successful campaign by the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP to get newspapers in the borough to stop using the derogatory term “darkies” in their articles.

Lawton became increasingly involved in the women’s club movement and Brooklyn and New York state politics. She is remembered most of all for her tremendous contributions to the women’s club movement. She was one of the most active African American women of her day in the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) at the local, state, and national levels. Lawton was a brilliant organizer. In 1912, she was appointed state organizer for the NACWC. Lawton served as the president of the Empire State Federation—the umbrella organization of New York State African-American women’s groups—from 1916 to 1929, and as national chairperson of the NACW Program and Literature Committee from 1926 to 1929. As a testament to Lawton’s leadership, the affiliate of the Empire State Federation in the Albany region, the M.C. Lawton Club, was founded in her honor in 1919.

In 1914, Lawton was designated by Governor Martin H. Glynn of New York to represent the state at the National Negro Educational Congress meetings in Oklahoma City and St. Louis. After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Lawton became an active member of the New York Republican Party, hosting teas and luncheons at her home on Willoughby Street for local and state leaders in the Republican Party. In 1924, Lawton was appointed director of the eastern division of the Republican National Convention and endorsed the nomination and election of Calvin Coolidge. Additionally, Lawton became active in the labor movement in the 1920s, representing the women of New York State at the Labor Conference of Women in Washington, D.C. in 1924.

Lawton was passionate about establishing a senior center in Brooklyn, a goal that was realized after her death. Founded first as the Stuyvesant Center for Older People in 1951, the Maria Lawton Senior Center—the first African American senior center and the oldest senior center in Brooklyn—provides senior citizens with social services, meals, and recreational activities.

Lawton died of cancer on March 1, 1946 at the age of 81.


Gonzalez, Juan, and Joseph Torres. News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. Verso Books, 2011.

Mather, Frank Lincoln, ed. Who’s Who of the Colored Race: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent. Chicago, 1915.

Montgomery, Velmanette. J2949: Commending the Maria Lawton Senior Center upon the occasion of the celebration of its 60th Anniversary (2012).

Smith, Jessie Carney. Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1996.

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Yenser, Thomas, ed. Who’s Who in Colored America. Vol. 6. New York, 1942.


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