Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Bertha G. Higgins, 1872-1944


By Elisa Miller
Associate Professor of History, Rhode Island College

Suffragist, African American Clubwoman, Political and Civil Rights Activist and Leader

Bertha Grant Dillard was born in Danville, VA to Horace and Barbara Stone Dillard, an African American couple employed as a farmworker and a housewife. Official records most often list her birthdate as November 18, 1872, although some official records also provide 1867, 1868, or 1874 as alternatives. In 1887, Dillard married Walker C. Thomas, an African American waiter, and they lived in Jersey City, New Jersey. Dillard was left a widow when Thomas died in 1897 and the following year she married Dr. William H. Higgins, an African American physician. The couple lived in Manhattan, New York while Dr. Higgins completed his residency and Mrs. Higgins worked as a self-employed seamstress. Higgins had previously studied clothing design, including in London and Paris. Early in her marriage, though, Higgins gave up her dressmaking business and became a housewife. William and Bertha Higgins moved to Providence, RI in 1903 and had one child, Prudence, who was born in 1913. Over the next several decades, the couple served as community leaders in Rhode Island. Dr. Higgins belonged to numerous professional, political, and social organizations and served as a Providence city councilman for several years. Mrs. Higgins devoted her life to extensive activism and leadership in causes and organizations related to African Americans and African American women in particular.

Bertha Higgins belonged to the Rhode Island Union of Colored Women's Clubs, part of a national movement of African American women who developed women's clubs to improve the social, political, and economic conditions facing African Americans during a period of extensive racial discrimination at the turn of the century. As part of her work with the colored women club movement, Higgins became actively involved with the woman suffrage campaign. Many Black club women viewed voting rights as especially critical for Black women as a way of fighting for racial equality in the United States and because Southern Black men had become disenfranchised for the most part by the end of the nineteenth century. Dr. Higgins, her husband, supported her in her suffrage activism. In 1914, he joined her at a Colored Woman's Club meeting and was scheduled to talk on the topic, "Why We Need Woman's Vote."

Higgins emerged as a leader in the Rhode Island suffrage campaign, attending and speaking at countless organization and community meetings. In 1913, at the 11th Conference of the Rhode Island Union of Colored Women's Clubs, Higgins led a debate on the topic of "Why the Rhode Island Union should endorse the Suffrage movement." Following this discussion, the Union of Colored Women's Clubs voted to endorse a statement of support for the woman suffrage movement. Sara Algeo, a white suffragist leader and the founder of the Woman Suffrage Party in Rhode Island, noted that this 1913 suffrage endorsement by the colored women's union was "only endorsement received from any large body of women in the State before ratification took place."

The Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association, an organization associated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), dominated the local Rhode Island suffrage movement. NAWSA had an ambivalent relationship with African American suffragists and was often hostile to the membership and participation of African American women in their organizations and movement. In Rhode Island, suffragists who were more open to racial integration in the suffrage movement founded the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party in 1913. Although white women made up the majority of Woman Suffrage Party membership, African American women were welcomed in the organization and played significant roles in it. Bertha Higgins became a founding member of the Providence Woman Suffrage Party organization and was a central figure in its suffrage activism.

Within the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party, Higgins led a committee for "colored women" in the suffrage movement. She spoke in the community, such as at Black churches, about the importance of woman suffrage to African American women and the African American community as a whole. She worked with another organization of Rhode Island African American women, the Twentieth Century Art and Literary Club, to put on a suffrage minstrel show of Black singers and music to raise awareness and funds for the woman suffrage campaign in Rhode Island. During World War I, many suffragists associated with NAWSA strongly supported the war effort and women's patriotic contributions within it, as a way to gain support for the woman suffrage cause. Similarly, Bertha Higgins saw important connections between the war and suffrage campaigns. She was active in leading fundraising efforts for the war and American soldiers, especially African American ones, and led efforts to celebrate returning solders at the end of the war. During the war, Higgins contributed to a performance of the play "War Brides" as a fundraising event to support NAWSA. After the war, as the campaign for the woman suffrage constitutional amendment heated up, woman suffragists attended a meeting at the statehouse with Governor Robert Livingston Beeckman where he pledged his support to getting the woman suffrage amendment passed in Rhode Island. Higgins attended this high-profile event in 1919 and was included in a photograph with the governor.

Rhode Island women achieved the right to vote in two stages: in 1917 they earned the right to vote in presidential elections and in 1920 the Rhode Island legislature approved full voting rights when it ratified the 19th amendment. Higgins proudly noted that when Rhode Island women could register to vote for the first time in 1919 that "Mrs. Parker, one of our race, was the second to register." As with many other suffragists, following the achievement of woman suffrage, Higgins shifted her activism to related causes. She became a founding member of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters, which served to educate women, as well as other citizens, on political and civic issues and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. The League of Women Voters was a non-partisan organization, but Higgins also formed a close relationship with the Republican Party in the 1920s.

Once women had achieved the right to vote, Higgins tried to mobilize Rhode Island African Americans, especially women, to register and vote for the Republican Party, viewing it as the party most sympathetic to African American voters and issues. In 1920, she founded the Julia Ward Howe Republican Women's Club, named after the noted local white woman author, reformer, and suffragist. The club's mission was to recruit Black women into the Republican Party, to support Republican candidates in local and national elections, and to lobby Republican politicians on issues important to African Americans, such as civil rights legislation, political and public jobs, and social services. In a 1920 letter, she urged Black women to register as Republicans because "as Fred Douglass has well said, the Republican Party is the ship for the Negroes, all else is sea." Higgins worked extensively to get Republican Warren Harding elected president in 1920 and Harding acknowledged her support with a personal letter thanking her for her efforts and an inauguration invitation in Washington D.C. for Higgins and her husband. Higgins shared this sentiment about the political influence of African American women. In 1924, she reported in the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs' National Notes that "I am sure that the work our colored women did during the last campaign helped materially to give the National ticket the large plurality it had in the Nation." Beyond her political activism in Rhode Island, Higgins also assumed high-profile leadership roles for the Republican Party nationally. By 1925, Higgins became the Vice President of the National Republican's Women Auxiliary, Colored, Eastern District. In her work for the Republican Party, Higgins collaborated with Mary Church Terrell, a prominent leader in the African American women's club movement.

Throughout the 1920s, though, political issues and struggles facing African Americans challenged Higgins's faith in the Republican Party. Higgins was a strong supporter of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in Congress, designed to provide important legal protections for African Americans against racial violence and intimidation. The bill had been first introduced in Congress in 1918 and was reintroduced several times in the 1920s without passing. Higgins expressed forcefully to the Rhode Island Republican Congressman and Senator that this bill was vital to their Black Republican supporters. She sent the politicians a telegram threatening to withdraw their endorsement from the Howe Club if they did not vote for the anti-lynching bill. When the bill ultimately failed, Higgins and many other African American activists blamed the Republican senators for its defeat. More broadly, by the late 1920s, the national Republican Party shied away from civil rights issues as it tried to court white southern voters away from the Democratic Party. Higgins also became frustrated by a lack of support for civil rights issues from the local Republican Party in Rhode Island. In 1930, Higgins chaired a campaign meeting with state political leaders. She emphasized the need for civil rights legislation in Rhode Island, that African Americans needed "laws giving them the same legal protections as other citizens in public." Higgins recounted an example from her personal experience when she had been denied access to a public bathing house at a Rhode Island beach due to her race.

Over time, Higgins's frustration and disillusionment with the Republican Party nationally and locally increased and, as with many other African American voters and activists across the country, she forged a new relationship with the Democratic Party. A reporter from the African American newspaper, The Boston Chronicle, interviewed Higgins about criticism she had made about the Republican Party in a speech in Cleveland in 1932. The journalist reported that Higgins explained that "she could no longer work for the Republican cause in [Providence] because the recognition for her people which she had sought, and which had been promised for twelve years had not materialized." In addition, she claimed that on a national level, "Negroes everywhere are deserting the Republican Party, and in the main, flocking to the Democratic standard." On a local level, she criticized Republican politicians serving on a Rhode Island school committee for their failure "to recognize the intellectual capabilities of Negro teachers, [which] had made her thoroughly disgusted with the G.O.P." Higgins strongly supported the 1932 Democratic candidate for President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and changed the name of her political organization to the Julia Ward Howe Democratic Women's Club. For her support, Higgins had the opportunity to welcome President Roosevelt to Rhode Island when he visited the state in 1936.

Higgins's husband, Dr. William Higgins, became ill in the mid 1930s and died in 1938, of a suspected suicide. Higgins withdrew from public activism for a year and a half following his death, returning to her political and social activism in the early 1940s on a more limited level due to health issues of her own. Higgins participated in civil rights activism by African Americans during World War II, referred to as the "Double V" campaign-victory over fascism overseas and victory over racism at home in the United States. She belonged to the Providence Urban League and was appointed by the governor to the state's Commission on the Employment Problem of the Negro, which examined and made recommendations about racial discrimination in education and employment in Rhode Island. As she had during World War I, Higgins worked on efforts to celebrate and support returning African American soldiers at the end of World War II. She also maintained her support for the Democratic Party. At the 1942 Rhode Island Democratic Party Convention, Higgins gave a speech praising the efforts of the Democratic Party on behalf of African Americans, claiming that, "Negro people never had any recognition until the Democratic party came into power." As in her earlier relationship with the Republican Party, though, her support for the Democratic Party and its candidates was contingent on their support for African Americans and their interests. In 1944, Higgins indicated that there were some Democratic candidates that she would support in that election cycle and others that she would not due to their votes on an "anti-race prejudice bill."

Bertha Higgins died on December 30, 1944 from the effects of heart disease and a stroke. She devoted forty years of her life to social and political activism on behalf of African Americans and African American women in Rhode Island. Her daughter, Prudence Irving, continued this family tradition of public service. Irving was a founding member and official of the Providence Urban League, served alongside her mother on the Rhode Island Commission on the Employment Problem of the Negro, became the first African American social worker in the Rhode Island Department of Public Welfare, and later worked for the U.S. Children's Bureau in Boston.


"Colored Players in Suffrage Minstrels," Providence Journal, May 14, 1916, 10.

Secondary Sources:

Norma Lasalle Daoust, "Building the Democratic Party: Black Voting in Providence in the 1930s," Rhode Island History 44, No. 3 (August 1985): 81-88.

Karen Garner, "Julia Ward Howe Republican Women's Club," in Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations, ed. Nina Mjagkij (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2001), 254.

Donna L. Halper, "Higgins, Bertha Grant DeLard," in African American National Biography, eds. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Oxford African American Studies Center.

Ellen Liberman, "Black Women Then and Now Part II. Playing Politics, Lives Dedicated to Activism. Bertha Higgins: Marshaling the Black Vote," Providence Journal, March 6, 1997, p. H-06.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, "Higgins, Bertha G. (1872-1944)," in Black Women in American: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark Hine (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1993), 558-59.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, "African-American Women's Networks in the Anti-Lynching Crusade," in Gender, Class, Race and Reform in the Progressive Era, eds. Noralee Frankel and Nancy S. Dye (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991), 148-61.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women and the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, "African Feminism: A Theoretical Approach to the History of Women in the African Diaspora," in Women in Africa and the African Diaspora: A Reader, eds. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Andrea Benton Rushing (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1996), 23-42.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, "Suffrage," Black Women in America, Second Edition, ed. Darlene Clark Hine. Oxford African American Studies Center.

Primary Sources:

Acts and Resolves passed by the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations at the January Session, A.D. 1920 (Providence, RI: E.L. Freeman Company, Printers, 1920), 911.

Sara M. Algeo, The Story of a Sub-pioneer (Providence, RI: Snow and Farnham Co., 1925). Federal and State Censuses, Marriage License, Death Record.

Bertha G. Higgins Papers, Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, Providence, Rhode Island.

Bertha G. Higgins, "Rhode Island," National Notes 27, no. 3 (Dec. 1924): 7.

Bertha G. Higgins, "The Colored Vote," Providence Sunday Journal, February 10, 1907, 5.

Bertha G. Higgins, "Brave but Misguided," Providence Sunday Journal, February 7, 1909, 5.

"Campaign Urged on Registration," Providence Journal, March 24, 1944, 10.

"Case Says Gerry is Ally of South," Providence Journal, October 28, 1930, 2.

"Commission Asks Equality in Jobs," Providence Journal, August 12, 1943, 15.

"Colored Players in Suffrage Minstrels," Providence Journal, May 14, 1916, 10. Death Record.

"G.W. Parks Defines Mayoralty Duties," Providence Journal, October 27, 1914, 5.

"Mrs. Bertha G. Higgins," Providence Journal, January 3, 1945, 10.

"Political Speech Causes Big Stir," Boston Chronicle, September 10, 1932, 2. Newspaper Collection, Providence College, Phillips Memorial Library, Special and Archival Collections.

"Sullivan Praises Green as Senator," Providence Journal, September 29, 1942, 9.

"Urban League Gets $50 Gift," Providence Journal, January 27, 1941, 11.


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