Bessie Spence Dorrell

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Bessie Spence Dorrell, 1875-1945

By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware

Bessie Spence Dorrell (Helen Elizabeth Spence Dorrell), founding secretary of the Wilmington, Delaware Equal Suffrage Study Club, was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1875. She was the seventh of ten children of James Spence, a native of North Carolina who moved to West Chester as a child, and Minerva (variously Minta, Araminta) London Spence of Lancaster County. After a stint as a barber, James Spence followed his oysterman father into the restaurant business, opening what he advertised in the 1886 city directory as “James Spence’s Restaurant for Ladies and Gentlemen” at 29 E. Gay Street. The establishment, which James Spence owned outright, prospered with a largely white clientele, including “a saloon for ladies on the second floor.” By 1906, it included a hotel as well. Bessie grew up in this family undertaking, where most of her siblings worked as waiters, cooks, and caterers and where the children attended the nearby Gay Street School. The Spences were pioneers in other undertakings as well. James and Minerva helped found the Second Presbyterian Church in 1887, an independent church for African Americans, and were active in local civic organizations, including the West Chester Board of Trade, on which James served. James Spence lived his commitment to equal citizenship for African Americans in various ways: voting Republican, protesting school segregation in Pennsylvania, supporting the rebuilding of the Gay Street School when a fire hit it, serving on a district court jury, the only black man to do so, and in 1909, when his restaurant’s license was threatened by Chester County temperance interests, appealing his case to the state Supreme Court and winning. Although Minerva London Spence died in 1896 at age fifty-two, James Spence, who never remarried, lived to be eighty-one; he died in 1925.

Her parents’ commitments undoubtedly influenced Bessie Spence’s life decisions. Her father’s musical inclinations and talents—he was a founder and singer with the West Chester Liberty Coronet Band in 1867—may have shaped Bessie’s choice of a career: she became a music teacher. As a single woman, she lived in West Chester, a short walk from the family restaurant, taught at the Gay Street School, coached a local musical chorus, and enjoyed summer trips to Washington, D.C., and to the Maryland resort town of Arundel-on-the-Bay. Upon her marriage, in 1906, to skilled brickmaker Frederick Dorrell, a widower with two children, she moved to his home town of Wilmington, Delaware, about twenty miles from West Chester. Like her own family, Fred’s were property-owners, skilled workers, and civic leaders, and held a prominent place within the local African American community. The Dorrell home sheltered Fred’s children, his African American father, John Walter, a house carpenter, his white mother, Sarah Margrum (or Margerum) Dorrell, his brother J. Victor, a leather worker, and Victor’s wife, Cecelia Sterrett Dorrell. Newlyweds Bessie and Fred lived a short distance from the family home in Wilmington’s Hilltop neighborhood; Fred’s two children continued to reside with their grandparents. Soon, Bessie was participating in the civic life of her adopted city, joining the Gilbert Presbyterian Church, contributing her musical skills to both Gilbert Presbyterian and St. Peter’s African Union Church, and helping raise funds for two community institutions: the Sarah Ann White Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons, and the Layton Home for Aged Colored Persons. In those endeavors, she would have met community activists such as Alice Gertrude Baldwin, a teacher at the Howard School, which offered the only full four-year high school program for African American students in the state.

When the Equal Suffrage Study Club held its first meeting on March 19, 1914, at the home of Emma Belle Gibson Sykes, Bessie Dorrell was one of several attendees who “spoke enthusiastically in favor of a campaign of education” with the goal of “arousing interest in the suffrage movement among colored women.” Alice Baldwin “made a spirited address” at the event. With Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar (later Dunbar-Nelson) serving as president, Emma Sykes as vice-president, and Fannie Hopkins Hamilton as treasurer, Bessie Dorrell became the club’s secretary. In May, 1914, under the leadership of Blanche Williams Stubbs, the group marched, in a separate contingent, in Wilmington’s first suffrage parade. During the campaign for suffrage, other activities engaged Bessie Dorrell’s time and energy, including a Parent-Teacher Association devoted to “the welfare of the [N]egro child” and the effort, sponsored by the Delaware Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, to found and fund an Industrial School for Colored Girls in Marshallton, outside Wilmington. That plan came to fruition between 1919 and 1920 as the organization, with Alice Dunbar-Nelson as a key figure, secured state funding for the school. Bessie Dorrell’s involvement in the Federation continued into the 1920s.

Once the suffrage amendment had been ratified, Bessie Dorrell joined in the effort to register African American women voters and turn out the vote on Election Day. Like her father, with whom she shared regular visits until his death, she was a staunch Republican. Along with her sister-in-law, Cecelia Dorrell, she served on the Republican women’s committee for Wilmington’s 12th Ward throughout the 1920s. In 1926, she made a particular point of demonstrating her opposition to “jim crow schools” by contributing to a Philadelphia Tribune fund for the project. At some point during that decade, she resumed her work as a music teacher, primarily through piano lessons in private homes.

Those activist years also brought personal tragedy. Her and Fred’s first child, James Spence Dorrell, died four days after his birth in August 1913. In 1919, when their second child was four years old, Fred’s peculiar behavior—for instance, claiming that he owned “millions of dollars”—led Bessie and her brother-in-law, Victor, to commit him to the Delaware State Hospital at Farnhurst, an institution designated for the care of the “insane.” “The family thinks that the cause of his mental trouble is overwork,” read the hospital record. By May 1920, he had improved sufficiently so that Bessie signed him out of the hospital and took him home “against the wish and advice of the Sup[erintenden]t.” Five months later, however, he was readmitted for good. He died on July 23, 1924, suffering from “general paralysis of the insane,” a diagnosis more accurately attributed to syphilis. Likely because of Fred’s difficulties, the couple lost their home on Union Street to a sheriff’s sale. Then, in December 1934, nineteen-year-old Robert Allen Dorrell, known as Allen, died of tuberculosis, a few short months after graduating from Howard High School and being honored as the winner of a competitive exam.

Bessie Dorrell died on November 4, 1945, of a cerebral hemorrhage. Her brother, Percy Spence, who had pioneered as the first African American man to hold a supervisory position at the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., took care of the funeral arrangements. She was buried in Wilmington’s historic Mount Zion cemetery, alongside her husband Fred and their two children.


Genealogical information on the Spence and Dorrell families can be traced through censuses, city directories, and vital records available on and Privately generated information on Ancestry can be inaccurate, however. A death notice for the infant James Spence Dorrell appeared in the Wilmington Evening Journal, August 18, 1913, p. 2; a death notice for Bessie Dorrell appeared in Wilmington Journal-Every Evening, November 6, 1945, p. 19. The records of the Delaware State Hospital at Farnhurst are at the Delaware Public Archives in Dover, Delaware. Thanks are due to two researchers: Katherine Dettwyler for assistance in understanding Fred Dorrell’s case file, and Carolyn Williams for sharing material on the Spence family. Fred Dorrell’s brother and sister-in-law, Victor and Cecilia Dorrell, were part of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s social circle; see Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, ed. Gloria T. Hull (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984).

For information on Bessie Spence Dorrell’s activism, consult the following newspaper articles: “Concert for Two Homes,” Wilmington Every Evening, December 12, 1911, p. 6; “Colored Women Want the Ballot,” Wilmington Evening Journal, March 21, 1914, p. 12; “Care of Negro Child,” ibid., March 28, 1914, p. 4; “Want $25,000 for Colored Girls Home,” ibid., May 1, 1919, p. 1; “Colored Women in Republican Club,” ibid., September 6, 1920, p. 8; “Club Women in Convention,” ibid., August 2, 1921, p. 26; “Colored Women Aid Campaign,” ibid., October 27, 1924, p. 2; and “Defense Fund Grows Slowly but Steadily,” Philadelphia Tribune, May 22, 1926, p. 1.

For significant context on the Spence family, see Robert Bussel, “‘The Most Indispensable Man in His Community’: African American Entrepreneurs in West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1865-1925,” Pennsylvania History, 65 (June 1998): 324-49. For general context on Wilmington’s African American community, consult Annette Woolard-Provine, Integrating Delaware: The Reddings of Wilmington (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2003). For background on the Delaware Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, see Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, Lifting as They Climb (Washington, D.C.: National Association of Colored Women, 1933), 120-23.


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