Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Lucy J. Sprague, 1851-1903

By Aimee Loiselle, Ph.D. candidate, University of Connecticut, with research support by Kevin Finefrock

Lucy Earle was born to Mary Ann and William Earle in Rochester, New York. Although census records list various birth years, 1851 appears to be reliable. Her parents were black working people, a laundress and a whitewasher, and members of the AME Zion Church. That formal church emerged in the 1850s from a strong if small African-American community committed to anti-slavery activism. Her father died in the early 1860s, and Mary Ann Earle remained a widow who lived with her only child, Lucy.

In 1878, Lucy Earle married James Alfred Sprague, a general service worker. James Alfred was originally from Washington, D.C., with parents from Virginia. He worked as a waiter, janitor, and later as a porter at the Traders' National Bank. They had children, but only one son, Robert Elliot Sprague, survived. Robert Elliot was born in 1879, and Herman D. Sprague was born in 1880 but died soon after birth. Robert Elliot grew to adulthood and worked as a janitor at a Rochester bank.

Sprague was very active in the AME Zion Church in Rochester throughout her life. The church was an important space for women to build networks for promoting black advancement, addressing the needs of the black community in the city, and coordinating for woman suffrage. At the turn of the century, AME Zion Church was "the institutional voice for the African American people in Rochester." Sprague was superintendent of the infant department of the Sunday School, president of the Christian Endeavor Society, and secretary of the Quarterly Conference. Sprague was also treasurer for the Sunday School and the Household of Ruth. In 1893, the AME Zion Church called a mass meeting to protest a wave of lynching in the South. Sprague, who was 42 years old at the time, was most likely present at the event. Men from the church attended a conference of the Afro-American Republican League in Saratoga in 1895, where one of them was named to the New York state committee. The pastor of the church at that time preached that "American Negroes [had proven] the folly of slavery" and achieved its abolition, but now needed to show how a people could "rise from ignorance and moral degradation," which slavery had imposed upon them. He said they would achieve this goal with education, religion, industry, and political activity. Sprague would have heard this message and carried it into her work for the AME Zion Church.

In 1902, the prominent activist Hester Jeffrey organized the Susan B. Anthony Club for Colored Women in Rochester and served as its first president. The club drew many members from the AME Zion Church, including Sprague. She and Jeffrey were colleagues and supporters in their church work as well as in their suffrage and civil rights activism. They both sought to bridge the divide between black and white suffrage activists. At the 1903 celebration of Susan B. Anthony's birthday, club members joined other special guests in presenting Anthony with an enamel green and white pin in the shape of a four-leaf clover bearing the initials of their club. In general, the Susan B. Anthony Club for Colored Women met to discuss the importance of obtaining woman suffrage, but the members also sought to get young black women admitted to the University of Rochester. The first young black man had graduated from the university in 1891. When Sprague died in 1903, she was still fulfilling her duties for both the church and the club.

After Sprague passed away at home in October 1903, the obituary in the local newspaper, Democrat and Chronicle, announced "the death of one of Rochester's most prominent colored residents." She was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery, the oldest municipally owned Victorian cemetery in America. The gravestone apparently has her dates as 1852-1906. Her husband, James A. Sprague, was buried next to her in 1916. Susan B. Anthony was interred in the same cemetery in 1906, and Frederick Douglass had also been buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in 1895. Douglass's grave lies within a few city blocks of where he once lived. The forested Seneca Indian trails through the hills of the cemetery had often been escape routes for runaway slaves.

The AME Zion Church dedicated one of eight specially designed stained-glass windows to Sprague in a memorial ceremony in 1907. The church commemorated Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Susan B. Anthony at the same time. The church relocated these memorial windows when it moved to a new building during the urban renewal movement of the 1970s.


"Dedication to Occupy a Week: Exercises at Zion Church to Begin Tonight." Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, New York, August 19, 1907.

"Douglass, Frederick, Burial Site of." Oxford African American Studies Center.

Finn, Michelle. "The Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church." Retrofitting Rochester Series. Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, New York, no date,

Goodler, Susan and Karen Pastorello. Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State. Ithaca: Three Hills/Cornell University Press, 2017.

McKelvey, Blake, city historian. "Lights and Shadows in Local Negro History." Rochester History. Volume 21, October 1959.

"Mrs. Lucy J. Sprague: Death of One of Rochester's Most Prominent Colored Residents." Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, New York, October 1, 1903.

Overacker, Ingrid. The African-American Church Community in Rochester, New York, 1900-1940. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1998.

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

Special thanks to Kevin Finefrock for his guidance on family and ancestry research.

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