Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Helen M. Curtis, 1874- ?

By Annemarie Kearns, Susan B. Anthony Center, University of Rochester

There is a second sketch for Curtis in this database. Click here. [Link to Dublin sketch for Helen Curtis.]

Helen Curtis was born October 10, 1874 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Helen Curtis attended Southern University in Louisiana and graduated in 1900. During her time in University, Curtis spent a year in Paris taking dressmaking classes. These practical trade skills later became key components of her work with the Young Women's Christian Association's (YWCA) in Harlem before the U.S. entry into World War 1. From 1907 to 1915 Curtis served as head of the Camp Fire Girls organization, which emphasized youth outdoor activities for young girls. In 1909 she chaired the Lecture Committee of the New York YWCA and in 1912, served as Vice-President of the YWCA's Harlem Branch.

Curtis left these positions behind when her husband, James L. Curtis, was appointed by president Woodrow Wilson in 1915 as American consul to Liberia. Shortly after, in 1917, James Curtis passed away in Sierra Leone. After her husband's death, Helen applied to work with Black troops at a hostess house in Camp Upton on Long Island as a canteen worker of the National War Work Council of the YMCA. In the spring of 1918 she was sent abroad to serve black soldiers stationed in France. While working in France, Curtis both experienced and observed racist military policies, which inspired her to write political commentary that was published by the New York Age, The Crisis, and the Chicago Defender upon her return to the United States. Her criticism of camp practices led to conflict with higher ups in the YMCA and with the military. She was called "the wrong type of negro" and an investigation ensued into her loyalty. She was eventually exonerated. After the war, Curtis attended a Pan-African Congress organized by W.E. B. Du Bois that met in Paris during the Versailles peace conference. Fellow war worker and woman suffrage advocate, Addie Hunton, also attended the Congress.

Her international exposure to white supremacy in the U.S. treatment of Black troops in France led Curtis to a renewed resolve to fight racism in the United States. On her return in August 1919, Curtis gave lectures and wrote newspaper accounts of her experience in France. Mobilizing against the growing racism she encountered in the postwar U.S., Curtis and two other former YMCA canteen workers picketed a showing of the film, "Birth of a Nation," for which the three protestors were promptly arrested. In 1922 she joined with fellow Black suffragist Mary B. Talbert to launch the Anti-Lynching Crusaders under the auspices of the NAACP. They lobbied the federal government to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, though the bill died in the Senate at the hands of a Southern filibuster.

International issues came increasingly to be the focus of Curtis's efforts.

Curtis returned to Liberia where she spent nearly a decade in the West African nation engaged in missionary work. After returning to New York she made multiple voyages back to both Africa and Europe. While her exact date of passing is unknown, she lived until at least 1947 and seems to have settled in Brooklyn, New York.


Blume, K. J. (2016). Historical Dictionary of US Diplomacy from the Civil War to World War I. Rowman & Littlefield.

Brown, N. (2006). Private politics and public voices: Black women's activism from World War I to the New Deal. Indiana University Press.

Curtis, Helen M. (1927). New York, NY: Who's Who in Colored America. [LINK]

Moore, L. (2018). "The fighting had ceased but... democracy had not won": Helen Noble Curtis and the Rise of a Black International Feminism in World War I France. Journal of Women's History, 30(4), 109-133.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #: 1659; Volume #: Roll 1659 - Certificates: 53626-53999, 15 Jun 1921-15 Jun 1921

The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1903-1945; NAI Number: 4492741; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; Record Group Number: 85

Weisenfeld, J. (1997). African American Women and Christian Activism: New York's Black YWCA, 1905-1945. Harvard University Press.

Year: 1947; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 7459; Line: 13; Page Number: 268

Biographical Sketch of Helen M. Curtis, 1875- ?

By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University

There is a second sketch for Curtis in this database. Click here.

Helen M. Curtis was an active Black clubwoman, born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1875. We have no information on her childhood, but she graduated from Southern University and studied dressmaking for a year in Paris. On her return to the United States, she was active in the Harlem branch of the YWCA between 1909 and 1915, teaching dressmaking and heading up the Camp Fire Girls program. She also directed the Hostess House for Black soldiers in Upton, Long Island during World War 1 and was one of the first three YMCA workers among Black troops in France.

She married James L. Curtis and accompanied him to Liberia 1915-1917, when he was appointed U.S. ambassador and Consul General to Liberia. He died in Sierra Leone in October 1917 and Helen Curtis returned to the U.S. and took up her work with Black soldiers. According to a brief sketch in Who's Who in Colored America (1927) after the war she took up missionary work in Africa and in the mid-1920s she taught at Monrovia College in Liberia.

The 1920 federal manuscript census found Curtis living as a widowed lodger in Harlem and in 1930 she resided in Brooklyn and owned her home valued at $1500. She lived with two adopted children, a niece, and a boarder. We have not found birth, marriage, or death records for Curtis, nor any census listings for 1940 or 1950.


Federal manuscript censuses, Manhattan, 1920; Brooklyn, 1930. Accessed online through Ancestry Library Edition\

Who's Who in Colored America (New York, 1927).

"James L. Curtis," Wikipedia sketch, accessed at

"James L. Curtis Dies in Africa," New York Age, 1 Nov. 1917, p. 1.

Judith Weisenfeld, African American Women and Christian Activism: New York's Black YWCA, 1905-1945 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997), 60-61.

Links to Additional Biographical Sketches

Who's Who in Colored America


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