Lethia Cousins Fleming


Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Lethia Cousins Fleming, 1876-1963

By Carol Lasser, Professor Emerita, Oberlin College

Suffragist, Republican Party organizer, Civic Leader

Born in Tazewell County, Virginia, to James Archibald Cousins, a skilled builder and mason, and Fannie Taylor Cousins, Lethia attended high school in Ironton, Virginia, and studied education at Morristown College in Tennessee. She returned to Virginia where she taught for one year, then spent twenty years teaching in West Virginia. Although little is known about Cousins during this time, she lived in communities where people of color actively worked for racial progress, and exerted influence within the local Republican party.

In 1912, Lethia married Thomas "Tom" Wallace Fleming (1874-1948), a Republican party political operative from Cleveland, who had recently served one term as the first African American on the City Council, elected to the at-large position with the backing of the local predominantly white political bosses. It was his second marriage, and Lethia helped raise the three sons born to his first union, though she had no children of her own. On arriving in her husband's city, Lethia immersed herself in the growing Black community through club work, philanthropic service, and politics. A talented fundraiser, she led major efforts to expand the Phillis Wheatley Association's home for young female migrants and the Cleveland Home for Aged Colored People. With Tom, she was a founding member of Cleveland's Negro Welfare, seeking to ease the way for new arrivals to the city. Establishing her reputation and status in Cleveland, Lethia joined aspiring African Americans at Mount Zion Congregational Church and worked with elite women's clubs to convince the female membership to endorse woman suffrage. Among the few women of color in the Woman Suffrage Party of Greater Cleveland, she pushed both the local and the statewide organizations to reject the National American Woman Suffrage Association's "Southern Strategy" that proposed accepting regional racial disenfranchisement in order to secure support from formerly Confederate states.

Even before her own enfranchisement, Lethia worked eagerly with Cleveland's Republican machine to elect her husband in 1915 to the Cleveland City Council from Ward 11, where the Black population was increasingly concentrated. Closely associated with Republican ward heeler Albert "Starlight" Boyd whose shady enterprises included saloons, prostitution and gambling, Tom turned to Lethia whose ability to organize women supporters helped him project a more wholesome image. Serving until 1929, Tom delivered to his ward a public bathhouse, playground, gymnasium, street paving and lighting, and patronage jobs, including appointments as sanitation workers, custodians, building inspectors, clerks and police. The local Republican machine recognized Lethia's contribution to Tom's "little Black Tammany" by recognizing her as "ward leader," and rewarding her with appointments as Precinct Committeeman [sic] and membership on their state Advisory Committee and their County Executive Committee. In 1920, after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Lethia's operations moved from local to national politics when presidential candidate and Ohio native Warren G. Harding charged her with mobilizing women of color on behalf of his campaign. Working under her supervision were Mary Church Terrell and Hallie Q. Brown.

Despite Prohibition which drove underground some sources of Tom's financial support, the Flemings lived well in the 1920s. Lethia served as chair of the Entertainment Committee when the Republican National Convention was held in Cleveland in 1924. In 1927, the Flemings visited Josephine Baker in Paris. The next year, Lethia again headed efforts to organize the support of African American women for the Republican presidential candidate, this time Herbert Hoover. During these years Lethia joined the women's auxiliaries for the Elks and Odd Fellows organizations in which Tom enrolled, and, in 1928, she was elected to the presidency of the Ohio Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, a position she held until 1933.

But the Flemings' rise halted abruptly in 1929 when Tom was convicted for accepting a bribe, ultimately spending 27 months in prison. On his release, he secured reinstatement in the bar, but was unwell until his death in 1948. Meanwhile, Lethia had considered running for his City Council seat, but instead disengaged from the local partisan organization, becoming instead a social worker with the Cleveland Child Welfare Agency. She remained active in national-level politics, and was appointed by Alfred Landon to organize Republican women of color in 1936; she also made an unsuccessful effort in 1939 to launch a national monthly journal targeted at African American women. She sought and won other, non-partisan offices: in 1935, she was chosen to chair the Executive Board of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, and in 1940 she secured election as Grand Daughter Ruler of the Elks. In 1948, she used her position in the Elks to lobby for justice for Rosa Ingram, a Georgia sharecropper, and Ingram's sons who had killed a neighboring farmer after he attacked their mother.

Always a joiner, Lethia became active in the National Negro History Association, the National Council of Negro Women, the Cleveland Council on World Affairs and the N.A.A.C.P. Retiring from social work in 1951, she returned to an interest in the Baha'i faith, which she had first cultivated in 1912. Survived by her three stepsons, she died in Cleveland in 1963, and was buried next to Tom in the city's Lakeview Cemetery.


Lethia Cousins Fleming Papers, MS 3525, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio
Container 9, Folder 118

Thomas Wallace Fleming, "My Rise and Persecution," Container 9, Folder 120 in Western Reserve Manuscripts, MS 5362, Western Reserve Historical Society

Claude A. Barnett Papers, Box 357, Folder 1, Chicago Historical Museum Research Center

Cleveland Gazette

Karla Y. E. Frye, "Lethia C. Fleming," Notable Black American Women (Detroit: Gale Research, 1992):349-50

Dorothy Salem, "Lethia C. Fleming," Oxford African American Study Center online (password protected)

Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, articles accessed online at
"Lethia Cousins Fleming" http://case.edu/ech/articles/f/fleming-lethia-cousins/
"Thomas W. Fleming" http://case.edu/ech/articles/f/fleming-thomas-w/


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