Helen W. Anderson (Webb)

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Helen W. Anderson (Webb), 1877-1962

By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware

One of the founders of the Wilmington, Delaware, Equal Suffrage Study Club, Helen W. Anderson was born Helen Wormley on February 17, 1877, in the Tenleytown section of Washington, D.C. According to Tenleytown's historian, the Wormleys, a large free-born family, were "the best known and most prosperous Negroes in the District in the 19th century." Helen's father, William H. A. Wormley, like his father James, was a hotelier. The Wormley Hotel, which opened during the Reconstruction era at the corner of 15th and H Streets with patrons that included both black and white members of Congress and other movers and shakers, was the locale for significant political discussion and deal-making. Indeed, it was reputedly the spot where, in 1877, members of a special Congressional Electoral Commission settled the disputed election of 1876, essentially ending Reconstruction. At the time of Helen's birth, then, family members might have had reason to worry that the era's promise would remain unfulfilled. In later years, children of her older half-sister Eunice Wormley Dickey, took a drastic step: "most of them passed into the white race," reported the historian Carter B. Woodson in 1948.

Helen grew up along Pierce Mill Road (now Van Ness Avenue) in a Victorian country house that was part of the Wormley family's real estate holdings, including homes owned by her grandfather, her father, and her uncle Gerrit (or Garrett) Smith Wormley. Her mother, Adelaide Shadd Wormley, William's second wife and the mother of 10 children of whom Helen was the sixth, was a cousin of Delaware-born Mary Ann Shadd Cary [LINK], the abolitionist, newspaper editor, suffragist, and lawyer. In 1890, when Helen was thirteen years old, Adelaide Wormley died. Her father remarried in1892, but the change in the family dynamics did not alter Helen's educational trajectory. Like her Wormley and Shadd relations, whose ranks included physicians, school teachers, and principals (her nephew Stanton Wormley later became president of Howard University), she benefited from an excellent education in the District's "colored" schools. She attended the famed "Colored High School" (the M Street School) in Washington, D.C., at a time when the writer and feminist Anna Julia Cooper was on the teaching staff. When she graduated from the school's Scientific Course in 1897, the speaker was her family's friend, Robert H. Terrell, soon to become the school's principal. The Wormleys were frequent visitors to the Terrell family's summer home in Highland Beach, Maryland. There, Helen would have interacted with Mary Church Terrell, the noted suffragist and first president of the National Association of Colored Women (1896) and other key African American suffrage leaders, political appointees, and educational figures. After graduation, she accepted a teaching post at the Howard School in Wilmington, Delaware. She later advanced her schooling through summer courses at Harvard and New York Universities.

Helen Wormley's appointment as the first full-time teacher of "domestic arts" (cooking and sewing) at the Howard School appears to have resulted from a concerted effort by Edwina Kruse, the school's redoubtable principal, to introduce the subjects into its Manual Training Department. No doubt Kruse's choice of Helen for the new position owed something to her friendship with Helen's aunt, Marion P. Shadd, a teacher and later principal in the D.C. public schools. At Kruse's initiative, Howard, the only school in Delaware offering a full twelve-year primary, grammar, and high school curriculum for African American youth, provided both practical and classical tracks in order to prepare students for the small range of occupations available to them. In September, 1897, accompanied by her sister Jessie, a graduate of Myrtilla Mino's Normal School in Washington, D.C., and Carrie Syphax, who taught sewing in the District's schools, Helen Wormley began her teaching stint. Soon, a member of the Wilmington school board was offering a "resolution of appreciation" to the three women. In 1899, a local Republican newspaper highlighted the "remarkable degree of efficiency" and "surprising proficiency" attained by Helen's pupils in the new domestic arts program, and the New Century Club, a white Wilmington women's organization, sponsored a sewing prize. In 1908, Edwina Kruse's annual report on the Manual Training Department singled out the sewing classes for "splendid efficiency" and for enabling girls graduating from both the grammar and high school departments to make their own graduation dresses.

In Wilmington, Helen met Alonzo George B. Anderson, whose family members, like her own, were well-situated property-owners. George's father, Daniel B. Anderson (1809-1892), known for his anti-slavery activism in his youth, owned a grocery store and rental units in an area of Wilmington christened Andersonville, and held political posts under Republican administrations. George was a building contractor and Republican Party stalwart who had secured a post as ash collector for the city. His position as a charter member of the Monday Club, incorporated in 1893, signaled his leadership role among the city's middle-class African American men. The couple were married by the pastor of the Berean Baptist Church in February, 1900, at her family's home in Washington. Despite a blanket stipulation that women teachers surrender their positions upon marriage, there was no interruption in Helen's teaching career at the Howard School. By 1912, she was supervising all sewing in the city's African American schools, while also heading the domestic arts program at the Howard School.

At Howard, her colleagues came to include the writer Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar (later Dunbar-Nelson), who arrived in Wilmington in 1902 and quickly became renowned for her teaching and literary talents; pedagogy specialist Alice Gertrude Baldwin; math teacher Nellie B. Nicholson (later Taylor); and geography teacher and Washington, D.C. native Caroline B. Williams. Blanche Williams Stubbs, a friend of her sister Jessie Wormley, had taught at Howard until her marriage, and with her husband was becoming known for her commitment to local community concerns. With these women and others as co-workers in a variety of endeavors, and with her husband George immersed in partisan politics, Helen Wormley Anderson found her role within Wilmington's small African American middle class.

Her involvement in the woman suffrage movement occurred in conjunction with colleagues and political activists. Not long after beginning her career at the Howard School, Helen W. Anderson joined Edwina Kruse and Alice Baldwin in donating to the Sarah Ann White Home for Aged Colored Persons. In 1913, when Blanche Stubbs, her husband Dr. J. B. Stubbs, Alice M. Dunbar, and other Wilmington African American leaders, with the support of a white advisory board, undertook a fund-raising effort designed to provide a permanent home for the Garrett Settlement House, Helen Anderson served on the fund-raising committee. The Settlement House was soon dedicated and incorporated. When local activists, led by Alice M. Dunbar, formed the Wilmington chapter of the NAACP in November 1914, Helen became a member. In March of that year, when she attended the founding meeting of the Equal Suffrage Study Club, many of the women in her professional and personal networks were in the room. In May, led by Blanche Stubbs, the club members marched in Wilmington's first big suffrage parade. Although during the lead-up to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, several of her colleagues, particularly Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Alice G. Baldwin, remained active in both suffrage and NAACP activism, Helen W. Anderson devoted time primarily to the NAACP, serving on its Executive Committee in 1919.

After 1920, although Helen continued to support the Wilmington NAACP, there is no record of other forms of public activism. She remained close to her Wormley family in Washington, D.C. and Maryland, and enjoyed a reputation as an independent and fearless woman (she treasured a photo of herself on horseback, taken around 1900 to mark a ride from Washington to Wilmington). The Anderson marriage appears to have become troubled. George was twenty years her senior; the couple had no children; and records suggest that they lived apart at various times between 1917 and 1923. In 1915, there was gossip in the Washington Bee, an African American newspaper, about Helen's involvement in a traffic accident near Laurel, Maryland, in which she and her sisters Jessie Wormley and Miriam Lewis were injured. The car's driver, Roscoe Conkling Bruce, son of the Reconstruction-Era African American senator Blanche K. Bruce, was the assistant superintendent of "colored schools" in the District of Columbia and a married man; the paper insinuated that there was something improper about his driving around with three female teachers in his automobile. In actuality, the paper sought to enmesh Helen and her sisters in bitter in-fighting among the district's educators over the value of industrial as opposed to academic schooling (Bruce aligned himself with Booker T. Washington against W.E.B. DuBois in the argument).

In 1926, George sued Helen for divorce on the grounds of desertion, claiming that she had left him in 1923. In 1927, he remarried a widow, Julia E. Jones Robinson. In 1934, Helen also remarried; her second husband, W. Basil Webb, was prominent in Philadelphia's African American political and real estate circles. He was secretary of the city's Berean Building and Loan Association and long-time employee in the mayor's office. That marriage, too, was marked by discord, as Basil Webb apparently took umbrage at Helen's continuing her career by commuting daily to her teaching job and occasionally remaining overnight in Wilmington. He filed for divorce in 1937 on grounds of desertion.

Despite personal troubles, Helen Wormley Anderson Webb devoted time and energy to her profession, while also enjoying an active social life in both Wilmington and the Washington, D.C. region, where much of her Wormley family resided. Sometime after her retirement in 1942, she moved permanently to her sister Miriam's home on Ardwick Road, Landover Hills, Maryland, where she spent her final years. Upon her death in 1962, she bequeathed her entire estate to her beloved sisters Jessie A. Wormley and Miriam Wormley Lewis. Her remains were buried in the Trustees Section of the National Harmony Memorial Park in Maryland, the final resting place of many family members, including her mother's cousin Mary Ann Shadd Cary.

Photo: Howard High School Staff, c. 1930. Helen Wormley Anderson Webb is front row, third from left.


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 Wormley 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.


The Wormley Family Papers at the Library of Virginia include a wealth of information on Helen's birth family, including her birth and death certificates, photographs, and her will. Sincere thanks are due to Claire Johnson of Virginia Commonwealth University for her assistance in researching the papers. The finding aid can be accessed here: http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=lva/vi01270.xml;query=;

Additional biographical and genealogical information on the Wormley and Anderson families can be found in decennial censuses, vital records, and city directories found on ancestry.com. See also Carter G. Woodson, "The Wormley Family," Negro History Bulletin (January 1948): 79-84, which includes numerous family photographs. Obituaries for Daniel P. Anderson and Alonzo George B. Anderson appeared, respectively, in the Wilmington Daily Republican, January 14, 1892, p. 4, and Wilmington Morning News, July 19, 1940, p. 2. There are scattered references to A.G. B. Anderson (affectionately termed "Alphabetical George") in Alice Dunbar-Nelson's diary, Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, ed. Gloria Hull (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984). For Helen's teaching career, see City of Wilmington and State of Delaware Educational Directories, 1900 through 1942-43. African American newspapers, particularly the Washington Bee, the Washington Globe, the New York Age, and the Philadelphia Tribune provide coverage of the Wormley family and of Helen’s professional and social life. Evidence for her activism can be found in local Wilmington newspapers and in the NAACP Papers, microfilm edition, Part 12: Selected Branch Files, 1913-1939; Part B: The Northeast, Reel #1. See, for example, "For Negro Settlement," [Wilmington] Evening Journal, April 12, 1913, p. 8; "Negro Women to Study Suffrage," [Wilmington] Morning News, March 21, 1914, p. 2.

Important secondary works include; Judith Beck Helm, Tenleytown, D.C.: Country Village into City Neighborhood (Washington, D.C.: Tennally Press, 1981); the Carter Woodson essay cited above; John Ingham, "James Wormley," African-American National Biography, ed. Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008): 8: 443-444; and Annette Woolard-Provine, Integrating Delaware: The Reddings of Wilmington (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003).


Related Writings in Database

View works about


back to top