Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Emma Belle Gibson Sykes, 1885-1970


By Alanna Gordon, Student, University of Delaware
Edited by Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware

Emma Belle Gibson Sykes was an exceptional woman: an active member of Delaware’s African American community throughout her life; a suffragist who hosted the first meeting of the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Study Club at her home; a teacher at Delaware’s only four-year high school for black students; a founder of the Wilmington Branch of the NAACP; a life-long devotee of the Republican Party; a choir director at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church; the first woman in the Episcopal diocese of Delaware to be elected to a church vestry board; and the first African American hired to work at the New Castle County Register of Wills office. When she died in 1970, a local newspaper summarized her accomplishments by describing her as a “community leader.”

Emma Belle Gibson was born on October 8, 1885 in Christiana, Delaware, a village ten miles from the state’s largest city, Wilmington. Her parents, Henry Harrison Gibson and Esther Ann Brown, both born in Virginia, had relocated to Delaware, where her father worked as a teamster at a flour mill. Of her parents’ four children, only Emma and her older brother, John Madison Gibson, survived to adulthood. Education was clearly a priority for the Gibson family, for her parents made the sacrifices necessary to send John and Emma Belle into Wilmington each day so that they could complete their high school educations at the state’s only four-year high school for African American children, the Howard School. Upon graduation from Howard High School in 1903, Emma Gibson began teaching at the school. In 1907, she joined St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, where she sang in the adult choir, and later directed the children’s choir. Her 1911 marriage to George J. Sykes, a North Carolina-born dentist who had attended Talladega College in Alabama and received his dental training at Howard University in Washington, D.C., required that Emma Gibson Sykes resign her regular teaching post, but she remained on the school’s staff as a substitute and evening school teacher of business subjects until 1939. The Sykeses had no children.

Together, Emma and George Sykes immersed themselves in the lives and concerns of Wilmington’s small African American middle class, most of whom lived within a few blocks of each other on the city’s East side. Before her marriage Emma Gibson Sykes had boarded at the home of another Howard High School teacher, Caroline B. Williams, at 202 East 10th Street. The married couple moved to their own home-plus-dental-office at 208 East 10th, where they lived for the rest of their married life. Next door, at #206, lived Edwina Kruse, Howard High School’s highly regarded principal, along with Latin teacher Anna Brodnax, and Alice Gertrude Baldwin, who taught pedagogy and headed the school’s Normal Department. Down the street, at #201, was Nellie Nicholson (later Taylor), Howard’s Mathematics teacher. A short distance away at 916 French Street lived the school’s inspiring English teacher, the writer and journalist Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar (later Dunbar-Nelson), who had moved to Wilmington in 1902 and who became a dear friend. These neighbors were central actors in founding the Wilmington branch of the NAACP, initiated in 1914 and chartered in 1915; George Sykes served as founding secretary, with Emma evidently doing most of the record-keeping necessary for tracking membership dues. She later served on the executive committee with Blanche Williams Stubbs, while George did a stint as branch president. The branch pursued a variety of lines of attack on Delaware’s demeaning segregation laws and practices, from preventing screenings of the racist documentary “The Birth of a Nation,” in Wilmington, to protesting the treatment of blacks in courtroom proceedings, to advocating for African American women rape victims, to lobbying local newspapers to capitalize the word “Negro.” Because Delaware did not disfranchise African American men, the group appears not to have devoted resources to the matter of women’s voting rights.

At a meeting called for Thursday, March 19, 1914, at the Sykes home, Emma G. Sykes took the lead in forming the Equal Suffrage Study Club and agreed to serve as the new group’s vice-president. Her involvement in the woman suffrage movement took place within an existing dense network of co-workers, neighbors, friends, political activists, and co-religionists. Along with Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar, chosen as president, Howard High School teachers Alice G. Baldwin, Nellie Nicholson, Caroline B. Williams, and Helen Anderson formed a key part of the group, as did Emma Sykes’s co-communicant at St. Matthew’s Church, Blanche W. Stubbs. Initially, the group planned only “a campaign of education” on the suffrage issue, but by May it had joined with white suffragists to march—separately—in Wilmington’s first suffrage parade. Their work continued through two unsuccessful campaigns, one in 1915 for an amendment to the state’s constitution, and the other in 1919-20 to persuade the state legislature to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

During the latter campaign, in the spring of 1920, just as a special session of the state legislature was meeting in Dover to consider and vote on ratification, Emma Sykes wrote a letter to the Editor of the Wilmington Sunday Morning Star. Signing it “E.G.S.,” she directly addressed the racist arguments made by a member of the state House of Representatives, John E. McNabb, who opposed ratification on the grounds that it would enfranchise black along with white women. Invoking the sacrifices of the “mothers and sisters” of African American soldiers who “went over to France, and who gave up their lives” in the First World War, she decried the “use [of] the [N]egro women as an excuse” for ratification’s possible failure. Black women, she wrote, have “enough burdens to bear without having this other unnecessary one laid at their door.” Where they were already voting, she argued, African American women vote “to the satisfaction of all and for the benefit of all.” Despite their marginalization within Delaware’s suffrage effort (during the ratification campaign, white suffragists avoided any appearance of joining forces with black suffragists), Sykes closed her letter with praise for two “noble suffragists” who had refused to “exclude the colored women” and had suffered “criticism, jail terms and hunger strikes” for their commitment to women’s full citizenship. The issue of enfranchising African American women was one among many—including school taxation—that led the legislature to defeat the ratification effort in June, 1920.

Once ratification succeeded nationally, the Suffrage Study Club mobilized African American women to register and vote. Emma Sykes was a staunch Republican, and remained so throughout the post-suffrage decades, serving the party on ward-, city-, and state-level committees, and eventually being appointed as clerk in the New Castle County Register of Wills office, the first African American woman to hold such a position. She remained active in the Wilmington branch of the NAACP and devoted time to the Delaware Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, working initially to raise funds for the group’s Industrial School for Colored Girls, later renamed in honor of Howard High School’s esteemed principal Edwina Kruse; during the 1940s, Sykes was appointed treasurer and chairman of the school’s volunteer board. The “colored” YMCA/YWCA on Walnut Street in Wilmington was another of her interests, and she raised funds for war bonds during the Second World War.

But she was particularly committed to Howard High School and its students. As an alumna she helped found and sustain the Alumni Association. As a teacher, she worked with others to secure funding for a new school building in 1921, pursued advanced training so that she could introduce a business education course in 1922, and in the 1930s joined the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, along with her colleagues Caroline Williams and Anna Brodnax. The Alumni Association honored her for her contributions in 1963.

At her death on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1970 (George having predeceased her in 1960), Emma Gibson Sykes left a will in which she carefully listed bequests. Among them was a five-year scholarship fund for Howard High School graduates “in good standing,” $200 to secure new drapes for the Walnut Street Y, and $100 to the rector of St. Matthew’s Church.


Genealogical information on Emma Belle Gibson Sykes’s family can be traced through decennial censuses, vital records, and city directories found at and Two key newspaper articles summarize her career, “Mrs. Sykes’ Firsts Win Honors Tonight,” Wilmington Morning News, May 25, 1963, p. 24; and an obituary that includes a photograph, “Mrs. Sykes, Community Leader, Dies,” ibid., January 2, 1971, p. 24. Other important newspaper articles include: “Negro Women to Study Suffrage,” Wilmington Morning News, March 21, 1914, p. 2; “Negroes in League for Howard School,” Wilmington Evening Journal, March 14, 1921, p. 4; “YWCA Unit Plans Luncheon,” Wilmington Journal-Every Evening, April 3, 1940, p. 13; and an obituary for her husband, Wilmington Evening Journal, December 13, 1960, p. 37. Both Sykeses’ involvement in the Wilmington branch of the NAACP is recorded in the NAACP Papers, available on microfilm. Her will is at the New Castle County Register of Wills Office in Wilmington, Delaware, file #58098.

For Emma Belle Gibson Sykes’s letter to the editor of the Wilmington Sunday Morning Star, “Negro Women Unjustly Made Target by McNabb,” see the issue of April 4, 1920, p. 5.

In her diary, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson documented her friendship with Emma Gibson Sykes, which for a time included placing small numbers bets with Sykes; see Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, ed. Gloria T. Hull (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984). For broad context on Delaware’s African American community, see Annette Woolard-Provine, Integrating Delaware: The Reddings of Wilmington (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2003). See also Carol E. Hoffecker, “Delaware’s Woman Suffrage Campaign,” Delaware History, 20 (1983): 149-67.


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