Nellie B. Nicholson

Biographical Database of African American Suffragists

Biography of Nellie B. Nicholson (Taylor), 1888-1965

By Helene Carey, Undergraduate Student, University of Delaware
Edited by Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware

Nellie B. Nicholson was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 22, 1888, the youngest of five children of George W. and Charlotte Nicholson. Her father, a waiter and then a janitor, had served in the 39th Regiment Maryland Infantry as part of the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. Her mother was a skilled seamstress and dressmaker. After attending Baltimore Colored Training School for her high school education, Nellie Nicholson moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1906 to attend Pembroke College of Brown University. She received her Bachelor of Philosophy degree in 1911. While in Providence, she lived at a “Working Girls Club”; apparently, Pembroke’s few African American students were not permitted to live in the college’s dormitory. Founded in 1898 and incorporated in 1902, the club was one of a number of such urban institutions established by middle-class African American women’s associations to provide low-cost, safe living quarters for young single working women and college students. During Nellie Nicholson’s time in Providence the residence’s executive board was headed by Roberta J. Dunbar, who provided energetic service to the New England Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, an affiliate of the National Association of Colored Women as well as to the Rhode Island Federation of Women’s Clubs, of which she later became president.

Upon completion of her studies, Nellie Nicholson returned to Baltimore to join the faculty at the Colored Training School, teaching Education, Arithmetic, and English. By 1914, she had moved to Wilmington, Delaware, to fill a position as Mathematics teacher at Howard High School, where she also later, and briefly, taught English. In Wilmington, she lived on East 10th Street, where so many Howard School teachers lived that students referred to it as “Teachers’ Row.” The 1920 census found her living in the household of Caroline B. Williams, Howard’s geography teacher, at 202 East 10th Street, where other residents included another teacher, Helen Henderson, a Howard High School student from Maryland, Cora Berry, and Caroline Williams’s sister, Elizabeth Williams Tyler, a nurse staffing a local health clinic. After her 1928 marriage to William H. Taylor, a widower with three children, Nellie Nicholson Taylor continued to teach at Howard High School, commuting daily from her new home in Philadelphia until her husband’s sudden death in 1930, when she returned to live in Wilmington. Two of her step-daughters then attended and graduated from Howard High School. She undertook further study at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving her Master’s degree in Mathematics Education in 1931 with a thesis on the teaching of algebra. She completed additional coursework toward a doctoral degree, but did not finish a dissertation. After a brief stint as advisor for girls at the high school, she was promoted to vice-principal in 1931, an appointment she filled until her retirement in 1958.

During her teaching career, Nellie Nicholson Taylor was surrounded by many other strong African American women, particularly fellow teachers and other college-educated women. This led to her involvement in groups such as the Zeta Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority in Wilmington, of which she became the second chapter president in 1923, following her colleague, Oberlin College graduate, Latin teacher Anna Brodnax. For the National Association of College Women, of which Brodnax was vice-president, she served on the executive board, beginning in 1925, and became a life member in 1943. With another colleague, English teacher Sadie L. Jones, she founded a local Delaware affiliate, the Women’s College Club of Delaware. The group dedicated itself to improving the “educational condition of Negro girls,” ending “dormitory discrimination,” promoting “equality of opportunity,” and sponsoring scholarships for African American college women. In 1925, too, she joined the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, one of only ten Delaware teachers who belonged to the association.

Howard High School teachers formed a core element of the Equal Suffrage Study Club, founded in March, 1914, at the home of Nellie Nicholson’s neighbor, Emma Gibson Sykes. Nicholson was a founding member. With Howard’s renowned English teacher, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar (later Dunbar-Nelson) as president, the group quickly organized to study and agitate for African American women’s voting rights, meeting regularly, marching as a separate unit in Wilmington’s first suffrage parade in May, 1914, and lobbying for both state and national suffrage amendments between 1915 and 1920. Once the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, the Suffrage Club reorganized in order to encourage African American women to register and vote. Many of the Suffrage Club members were also involved in initiating a Wilmington chapter of the NAACP, chartered in January 1915. Along with colleagues Alice Dunbar, Caroline B. Williams, and Alice G. Baldwin, Nellie B. Nicholson signed on as an early supporter, and agreed to take charge of press relations for the fledgling group. She remained an active member for decades, during which the group successfully protested the screening of the film "The Birth of a Nation" in Wilmington, campaigned to get newspapers to capitalize the word “Negro,” worked to ring in justice through lawsuits seeking fair treatment in jobs and equal benefits for African American soldiers, and supported the Dyer anti-lynching bill.

Throughout her years as Howard High School vice-principal, “Nellie B.,” as her students called her, was heavily involved in the Wilmington community; well after her retirement, she continued to live an active life. She was a long-time member of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, where two colleagues in the Equal Suffrage Study Club, Blanche Williams Stubbs and Emma Gibson Sykes, also worshipped. She gave time to the Red Cross, the United Negro College Fund, and the Wilmington “colored” YWCA, of which she was a founder in 1935. She was also the President of the New Castle County Retired Teachers’ Association. In 1957, as Delaware was responding to a Supreme Court order to desegregate its schools, and shortly before she retired, she took the lead in facilitating conversations across racial lines at a three-day conference of the Delaware Council of Churches and United Church Women of Delaware.

Nellie B. Nicholson Taylor died at her Wilmington home, 1509 West 6th Street, on December 20, 1965. She was buried in the historic Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, the final resting place not only of her late husband, but also of such notable human rights advocates as James Forten, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and William Still. Her estate, valued at almost $12,000, was managed by lawyer Louis Lorenzo Redding, who in the early 1950s had prepared and argued three major court cases leading to university and public school desegregation in Delaware, and who, in his youth, had been her neighbor on “Teachers’ Row” and her student at Howard High School.

Photo: Howard High School Staff, c. 1930. Nellie B. Nicholson Taylor is second row, fifth from right.

Source: Pauline A. Young Papers, Special Collections Department University of Delaware Library. http://www2.lib.udel.edu/personnel/residency/gallery.html

Front Row: Robert Harris, Anna Brodnax, Helen Worley Webb, George Anderson Johnson [principal, 1924-59], Pauline Young (librarian), Sara Strickland Scott, Millard Naylor.

Second Row: Ethel Barner Harris, Charlotte Slowe, Josephine Weston, Caroline B. Williams, Nellie B. Taylor, Sadie Jones, Thelma Trice Young, Arleon C. Bowser, Gwendolyn Redding

Third Row: Arthur Wheeler, Marguerite Turner, M. Leila Young (mother of Pauline Young), Etta [Roach] Woodlen, James A. Gardiner, Lillian Spencer Mayo, George Oscar Carrington

Top Row: Emanuel Whitten, Pauline Coleman, Nathalie Anderson Cross, George Whitten.

Sources:

Biographical details on Nellie Nicholson Taylor and the Nicholson and Taylor families can be traced through decennial censuses, city directories, military service rolls, and vital records found on Ancestry.com and familysearch.org.

Obituaries appeared in the Wilmington Evening Journal, December 21, 1965, p. 26 (a photo accompanied the story); and Wilmington Morning News, December 22, 1965, p. 24. For information on Nellie B. Taylor’s estate, consult File #49852 at the New Castle County Register of Wills office, Wilmington, Delaware.

For her education and training, and background on her residence in Providence, see Catalogues of Brown University (Providence: Brown University, 1906-1912); 1910 Census of Providence; State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Industrial Statistics, Made to the General Assembly at its January Session, 1911 (Providence: n.p., 1911), 404; Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, Lifting as They Climb (Washington, DC: National Association of Colored Women, 1933), 391; Report of the Board of School Commissioners, Baltimore (Baltimore: n.p., 1911-1913); and “Alumnae of Pembroke College,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 28, 1943, p. 5. A copy of her 1931 Master’s thesis is at the University of Pennsylvania Library. Details on her teaching career can be found in the Educational Directories of the State of Delaware, including Reports Concerning the City of Wilmington Public Schools (Dover: State Department of Public Instruction, 1900-1934).

Articles describing her career and activities include “College Women Form Permanent Organization,” Chicago Defender, May 10, 1924, p. 5; The Mathematics Teacher, 18 (March 1925): 189; “Association of College Women Meet,” Chicago Defender, May 2, 1925, p. 4; “2nd Annual Convention of College Women Was Held in Baltimore, Md.,” Negro World, May 9, 1925, p. 7; “Atlantic City,” Inter-State Tattler, April 27, 1928, p. 14; “Executive Committee of College Women in Meet,” Chicago Defender, June 26, 1937, p. 14; “Church Mission Attracts Women,” Wilmington Morning News, September 24, 1957 p. 12; “Retiring Howard High Vice Principal Feted,” Wilmington Journal-Every Evening, June 3, 1958, p. 2.

For her involvement in the suffrage effort, see “Negro Women to Study Suffrage,” Wilmington Morning News, March 21, 1914, p. 2; and “Suffrage Study Club,” Wilmington Every Evening, March 21, 1914, p. 12.

For her activism in the NAACP, see NAACP Papers, microfilm edition, Part 12: Selected Branch Files, 1913-1939; Part B: The Northeast, Reel #1. See also Ebony 23 (November 1967): 46-48, 50-52, 54.

Important secondary sources include Annette Woolard-Provine, Integrating Delaware: The Reddings of Wilmington (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003); and Pauline A. Young, “The Negro in Delaware: Past and Present,” in Delaware: A History of the First State, ed. H. Clay Reed and Marion Björnson Reed (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1947): 592-94


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