Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Alice Wiley Seay, 1858-1937

 

By Thomas Dublin, Matt Saddlemire, undergraduate student, SUNY Potsdam, and Anne Slatin

Alice Baugh was born, most likely enslaved, in Giles, Amelia County, Va. in 1858, daughter of James and Dinah Baugh. She was the oldest of nine children born in the family. In 1870, twelve-year-old Alice was one of seven children in a household headed by James Baugh, a farm laborer. Little is known about Alice's level of education, but a 1930 NAACP meeting listed her among "the graduates present." By 1880 "Diannah" Baugh headed the household in Giles, and Alice no longer lived with her family. We do find Alice again, this time in Virginia records that show her June 1886 marriage to Pleasant Wiley, also of Giles. The couple moved to Brooklyn in 1888 where they resided on Clermont Ave. in 1894 and Fulton Street in 1900. They both became active in the Concord Baptist Church, notable for sending representatives of its women's group to the 1895 Boston conference that led to the founding of the National Federation of Afro-American Women. The following year the Federation met in Washington, D.C. and merged with other Black women's groups to found the National Association of Colored Women. It is very possible that Alice Wiley attended one or both of these formative conferences.

Brooklyn offered Alice Wiley a fertile field for activism. When Ida B. Wells was driven out of Memphis by the burning of her printing press and subsequent death threats for her outspoken opposition to lynching, Brooklyn residents held a benefit In November 1892 and raised $500 to aid Wells. Shortly thereafter they founded the Woman's Loyal Union (WLU), which by March 1893 had more than a hundred members. The Union focused on anti-lynching and aid to the families of its victims, but it also promised to oppose segregation on railroad cars. Newspaper accounts of the WLU note that Alice Wiley spoke to a New Bedford WLU meeting in June 1907 and other events in 1908, though she probably joined the group much earlier.[1]

Brooklyn records tell us a good deal about the Wiley couple in this period. Pleasant was recorded in an 1894 Brooklyn City Directory as a coachman and in 1902 as a janitor. As early as 1896 Alice was very involved with charitable work for the Dorcas Home Missionary Society of the Concord Baptist Church. In 1897 Alice Wiley was ordained as a Deaconess of the Concord Baptist Church. Both husband and wife were deacons. The 1900 census recorded the couple as Brooklyn residents, both able to read and write, and noted Pleasant as a blacksmith, a skilled occupation at that date, but that may have been his work in rural Virginia rather than in Brooklyn. Alice was recorded as a dressmaker in that census and an 1899 city directory. The couple remained in Brooklyn in 1905; at that date they had no children, but nine boarders—one a niece—in their household.

Alice Wiley was very active in Black women's clubs in these years. By 1894 she was president of the Dorcas Home Missionary Society of the Concord Baptist Church and "infused new life and vigor" into the Society, according to one account. She was also "directress" of the Church Sunday school and a "teacher of one of the largest classes in the adult department."

She also was an active clubwoman outside of her church. In 1902 she served as third vice-president of the Northeastern Federation of Women's Clubs and in August 1905 she was elected president of the Federation. In December 1905 several women's organizations in Brooklyn gave a testimonial dinner in honor of her election. Speakers included two notable suffragists, Rev. Florence Randolph and Roberta J. Dunbar. The minister of the Concord Baptist Church, Dr. W.T. Dixon, followed by reading a set of resolutions honoring Mrs. Wiley. Alice Wiley spoke in response:

"a very long time ago, I made up my mind to spend and be spent, to wear out and not rust out, for the cause of Christ, the good of humanity and my race in particular." She continued: "I am right in the midst of my work, in the thickest of the fight to stand by those who are striving to maintain the principles of our worthy institutions, the builders of homes and families and the builders of character." She would go on to work in Brooklyn along these lines for another decade before she returned to her native Virginia.

Pleasant Wiley died in 1906, and in 1910 the widowed Alice lodged on Montague Street in Brooklyn. She returned to her native Amelia County, Virginia, in December 1910—now 52—and married James Alfred Seay (c. 1860-1932), a tobacco farmer and a mulatto. The 1910 census of Giles in Amelia County, VA listed James as a widower and the 1900 and 1910 censuses indicate he had at least six children by his first marriage.

Alice continued to live in Brooklyn after this second marriage, though her husband remained on his Virginia farm. She was listed as Mrs. A.W. Seay in the 1912 Brooklyn City Directory, residing at 152 Montague St. In the 1915 New York state census she remained at 152 Montague St., in the household of a nephew and niece, Harry and Eliza Foster. Her husband was not listed in the household, though, and Alice seems not to have had any children.

The Concord Baptist Church was the central focus for Alice Wiley Seay, who served for twenty-five years as president of its Dorcas Home Mission Society. A 1909 publication notes the Society had 200 members, "good earnest working women under the leadership of Mrs. Alice Wiley." Her sister, Lottie Henderson, also a suffragist, was an active member of the Dorcas Society at this time. Newspaper accounts often named Alice along with Rev. William T. Dixon as leaders of church activities. Annually between 1905 and 1909 Alice Wiley presided over ecumenical Women's Day services at the church, sponsored by the Society. She invited outside speakers, who included Ella Boole of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and fellow suffragists Victoria Matthews of the White Rose Industrial Mission, and Rev. Florence Randolph of Jersey City. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in March 1909 noted the participation of "prominent white women" in that year's Women's Day and added, with some surprise, "The women of the church under leadership of Mrs. Wiley . . . were in full charge, and the men only took part in the giving of money."

Wiley also had her hand in national events linked to the Black women's club movement. In August 1908 the Dorcas Home Mission Society hosted the five-day biennial meeting of the National Association of Colored Women, with an attendance of almost 200 delegates from some thirty states. Alice Wiley had responsibility for the meeting's complex arrangements at multiple locations and gave an introductory speech. In March 1909 Wiley spoke at a meeting of the Woman's Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn that honored Ida. B. Wells-Barnett. Wells-Barnett spoke on the topic, "Women's Clubs and their Possibilities." The newspaper account of the speech noted that Wells-Barnett "was cheered to the echo."

Wiley's leadership in the Black women's club movement lead her well beyond the boundaries of New York City. She served as president of the Northeastern Federation of Women's Clubs for five years, 1905-1910. Wiley presided at the August 1906 meeting of the Federation in Providence and gave her presidential address. The speech reflected the overall goals of the Black women's club movement: "The great fulcrum upon which our work must rise or fall is the home. Every club member represents a home, and every club represents many homes—so that the secret of success for us lies here." Her treatment of education emphasized the importance of various trades with a much more modest bow to mathematics and science. While her perspective was closer to that of Booker T. Washington than to that of W.E.B. Du Bois, she nevertheless struck a strong stance against the "treachery and unconstitutional enactments . . . in the South" which have "robbed [our brethren] of their manhood rights." She looked forward to serving up "a monster blow" that "will also wipe this wickedness out of existence."

Wiley's leadership ability lead to invitations to speak outside of her Brooklyn home turf. In December 1907 she joined two other speakers who addressed the Susan B. Anthony Association at the A.M.E. Zion church in Yonkers on the work of women's clubs.

Alice was a founder of the Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs (ESFWC) in 1908, a "coalition of various New York State-based black women's clubs," which was an important organization advocating both civil rights and women's rights. The ESFWC not only fought against injustices, but sought to help young African American girls who were marginalized to give them a voice. Seay also served as president of the Northeastern Region of the National Association of Colored Women, and led the Dorcas Home Missionary Society, which undertook charity work in Brooklyn's African-American community.

The Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs served as the home base for much of Seay's activism. It was set up in a settlement house, the White Rose Home, to perform "uplift work among girls and young women" as well as to take care of Harriet Tubman in her old age. Living in Auburn, New York, Harriet Tubman passed away five years after the group was founded, so Seay and the ESFWC turned their efforts elsewhere. The group then took up preserving African-American historical sites. For example, after Tubman's death the ESFWC honored her by placing a memorial plaque on Tubman's grave. In July 1913 Alice Seay served as a delegate from Brooklyn to the statewide meeting of the ESFWC held in Buffalo. It was at this meeting that the Federation first approved a formal resolution in favor of woman suffrage. In 1914 the ESFWC statewide annual meeting was held in Brooklyn at the Concord Baptist Church. Seay and her sister, Lottie Henderson, were noted in a newspaper account as president and secretary respectively of the local affiliate. The Federation at this date had some 7,000 members in twenty branches across New York state.

The Federation also donated to many different charities to help African Americans (especially African American girls and women), and continued to do this throughout the group's existence. These charitable actions included scholarship funds and beauty pageants. The ESFWC helped create the Empire State Federation of Girls' Clubs, to help young women who were in potentially bad environments, and to give them a voice. It was also connected with the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC), as both groups were important in the movement for the advancement of African American culture, history, education. The ESFWC was, and continues to be, committed to helping the African American community, children, and society as a whole. It is summed up well in the statement "Throughout its history, the group's efforts to aid African-American girls have been rooted in larger goals: ensuring the physical, intellectual and spiritual well-being of children and adolescents of both sexes and improving the conditions in which African-Americans and people of all races live, learn, and labor." The civil rights group constantly fought against racial injustice, and showed support throughout the years to the NAACP as well as the National Urban League.

Alice was active beyond the Black women's club movement. She contributed to the reorganization of the Brooklyn branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1914 and a year later was elected chair of the branch. That same year she joined to protest lynching at a meeting at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Manhattan. The New York Age article on the meeting noted that Florence Kelley spoke, discussing the work of the NAACP, and noting that Alice Wiley Seay served on the executive committee of the Northeastern Federation of Women's Clubs, the sponsor of the meeting. In late September the NAACP sponsored a "Meeting to Oppose Segregation" at the Nazarene Congregational Church in Brooklyn, and Alice Wiley Seay was noted as chairman of the NAACP committee that organized the meeting to address "Discrimination, segregation, peonage, lack of industrial opportunity and other questions of vital importance." In addition, Seay served as chairman of the NAACP Membership Committee, as recorded in The Crisis for April 1915.

Alice Wiley Seay was active in other Brooklyn organizations, including the Auxilium Club, the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn, and the Mortgage Relief Club of the Concord Baptist Church. Back in Brooklyn, Seay spoke in January 1919 at a meeting of the Society of the Sons of Virginia, a group founded in New York in 1897 to lend support to Virginians who had migrated to other states. Seay served as vice president of the Equal Suffrage League in 1912. She was also a member of the Household of Ruth and Order of Tents. In 1906 she was a cofounder along with fellow suffragist, Irene L Moorman, of the Metropolitan Women's Business Club of Brooklyn. The group set as its goal to raise $10,000 toward the erection of a "modern hall in Brooklyn" for the public meetings of community organizations. In 1907 Alice was serving as one of three vice-presidents of the club. She also supported the work of the Lincoln Settlement Association, a black settlement house in Brooklyn, directed by another Black suffragist, Dr. Verina Morton-Jones. Projects at the settlement included a free kindergarten, a day nursey, and a clinic. Seay chaired the committee of arrangements for the annual dinner of the Lincoln Settlement Association in March 1916.

Newspaper notices enable us to follow Seay's living arrangements in this period., In October 1915 she returned to Brooklyn "[a]fter visiting her husband's farm at Mattaux, Va." In December 1916 the New York Age reported that the Dorcas Home Missionary Society of the Concord Baptist Church held a farewell reception for Alice Seay as she prepared to move permanently to "her husband's farm." As a parting gift the group gave Mrs. Seay "a handsome Victrola" and provided an "elaborate supper" at the event. The 1920 census recorded James and Alice Seay living together in Giles, Virginia, in a home they owned free of a mortgage.

Seay maintained her networks in Brooklyn even after her move. In February 1917 Lincoln Settlement elected Seay to its board of directors. In November 1918 she returned to Brooklyn "for an indefinite stay on business." The newspaper account noted that her husband, James A. Seay, would be joining her for the holidays. The story also noted that Seay was continuing as "president of the Dorcas Home Missionary Society . . . [a] position she has held for more than twenty-five years." Finally, an August 1926 story noted that Alice Seay had been visiting her sister, Mrs. E.L. Henderson, for two weeks at her Brooklyn home. During that visit Mrs. Seay was honored with a place on the platform for the annual meeting of the Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs, an organization she had founded 18 years earlier. Clearly, Seay continued to have institutional and personal connections to her Brooklyn community

At the time of the 1930 census, the couple continued to live in Giles, Amelia County, Virginia, and her husband was listed as a tobacco farmer. The census recorded Alice as a fieldworker. James was said not to be able to read and write, while Alice could do both. James Alfred Seay died in Virginia in 1932. At Alice Wiley Seay's 1937 death in Mattoax, Amelia County in south-central Virginia, she was recorded as a social worker, an appropriate occupation for an active Black clubwoman. She was buried in the Flower Hill Baptist Church cemetery in Giles along with her second husband.

More than 300 attended a memorial service for Seay held in Brooklyn in February 1938. Her obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted, "She lived practically all her life in Brooklyn and held an executive office in many Negro women's clubs in Brooklyn."

 

Alice Wiley Seay, ca. 1905.
New York Age, 14 Dec. 1905, p. 8.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Wiley_Seay

 

Alice Wiley in The Colored
American Magazine
, Nov.
1901, p. 57.

Endnotes

1. "The Woman's Loyal Union," New York Age, 31 Dec. 1914, p. 7; "The Woman's Loyal Union," New York Age, 6 June 1907, p. 2.
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SOURCES:

Ancestry.com for marriage and death records; Brooklyn City Directory, 1894, 1899, 1902, and 1912; 1915 New York state census for Brooklyn, N.Y. All accessed via Ancestry Library Edition.

1870, 1880, 1910, 1920 and 1930 Federal Manuscript Censuses for Amelia Co., Virginia; 1900, 1910, and 1920 censuses for Brooklyn, N.Y.—accessed through HeritageQuest Online.

"Afro-American Women," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 19 March 1893, p. 3.

"A Half Century," The Standard Union (Brooklyn, NY), 17 May 1897, p. 3.

"Here and There," The Colored American Magazine, Nov. 1901, pp. 57-58.

"Empire Federation Convenes," New York Age, 22 July 1909, p. 2, accessed online at Newspapers.com.

"Women Ask for Trades," New York Age, 23 August 1906, p. 1.

"Borough of Brooklyn," New York Age, Oct. 25, 1906, p. 7 has notice of death of Pleasant W. Wiley.

"Afro-American Notes," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 17 March 1909, p. 14.

"Female Smokers Are Criticised," New York Age (New York, NY), July 10, 1913, p. 1.

Eisenstadt, Peter, ed. (2005). "Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs," in The Encyclopedia of New York State (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005). pp. 503-04.

Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs Records: 1938-1991. M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections & Archives, SUNY Albany. http://meg.library.albany.edu:8080/archive/view?docId=apap041.xml

Charles H. Wesley, The History of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Inc. (n.p.: Xlibris Corporation, 2012; originally published in 1933). Reprint edition prepared by LaVonne Leslie.

Payne, Stephen. "The Info List - Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs." Empire State Federation of Women. Accessed online October 2017 at http://www.theinfolist.com/php/SummaryGet.php?FindGo=Empire State Federation Of Women's Clubs. A search of this page for "Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs" will provide a useful paragraph description of this organization.

"Honor Mrs. Alice W. Wiley," New York Age, Dec. 14, 1905, p. 3.

"Brooklyn," New York Age, 17 Oct. 1907, p. 7.

"Business Women's Club," New York Age, Dec. 12, 1907, p. 2.

"Yonkers Ladies Entertained," New York Age, Dec. 26, 1907, p. 6.

Untitled, New York Age, 9 July 1908, p. 7.

"Sixth Bi-ennial Convention Held in Brooklyn Ends with Great Enthusiasm," New York Age, 3 Sept. 1908, p. 3.

"Womans' [sic] Loyal Union Give Reception," New York Age, 25 March 1909, p. 5.

"Brooklyn Notes," New York Age, 14 October 1909, p. 7.

"Colored Clubwomen," New York Tribune, 25 Aug. 1908, p. 8.

"Efforts for social betterment among Negro Americans: Report of a Social Study Made by Atlanta University under the patronage of the Trustees of the John F. Slater Fund . . . May the 24th, 1909," Atlanta University Publications, No. 14, 1909, p. 62.

"Colored Women to Meet," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 28 June 1914, p. 12.

"Alice Wiley Seay's Memory Honored," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb. 28, 1938, p. 12.

New York Age articles mentioning Alice Wiley Seay, 1905-1930:

Mar. 23, 1905, p. 1; Nov. 8, 1906, p. 7; Mar. 7, 1907, p. 7; Oct. 10, 1907, p. 6; Feb. 4, 1915, p. 8; May 6, 1915, p. 8; Sep. 30, 1915, p. 8; March 2, 1916, p. 8; Oct. 21, 1915, p. 8; March 30, 1916, p. 7; Dec. 28, 1916, p. 8; Feb. 15, 1917, p. 8; Nov. 23, 1918, p. 8; April 10, 1926, p. 7; Aug. 7, 1926, p. 10; July 23, 1927, p. 2; April 19, 1930, p. 3; June 28, 1930, p. 8.

"Sons of Virginia Hold First Session of the New Year," Richmond (VA) Planet, Feb. 1, 1919, p. 8.

Opportunity, vol. 4 (August 1926), p. 266.

Hattie W. Brown, "Society Scenario," New York Age, 20 Nov. 1937, p. 7, has notice of Seay's death.

Craig Steven Wilder. In the Company of Black Men: The African Influence on African American Culture in New York City (New York: New York University Press, 2001).

Dorothy C. Salem, "To Better Our World: Black Women in Organized Reform, 1890-1920 (Unpub. Ph.D. dissertation, Kent State University, 1986).

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