Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Nettie Langston Napier, 1861-1938

By Jewel Parker
Graduate, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Nettie DeElla Langston was born in Oberlin, Ohio, in January 1860, to John Mercer and Caroline Wall Langston. John was a lawyer and Caroline a housekeeper. Nettie had three brothers and a sister. On April 2, 1855, John Langston became the first African American man to be voted into public office in the United States, elected clerk of rural Brownhelm Township, near Oberlin. He also served on Oberlin's Board of Education, worked to desegregate churches, and recruited black soldiers to fight for the Union Army during the Civil War. Inspired by her father's legacy of working to ensure civil rights for all people, Nettie Langston began to fight for African American rights.

When Nettie became older, she enrolled in Howard University where she stayed for a year before returning to Ohio. She then attended Oberlin College to further her passion for music and graduated in 1878. That same year, at the age of 18, she married lawyer, James Carroll Napier. The couple had one child, an adopted daughter, Carrie (1894). The couple lived in Nashville, James's hometown, until 1910. In 1911, President William Howard Taft appointed James Register of the Treasury and the Napier family moved to Washington, D.C. Following the next presidential election, they decided to return to Nashville in protest of President Woodrow Wilson's segregation policies.

The Napiers were a leading black family in Nashville. James was a lawyer and the leading Black republican in the city. Nettie was concerned about working black mothers finding childcare. Mothers were forced to leave their children at home where they did not receive schooling or meals. On January 14, 1907, Nettie started the Day Home Club, an organization for black women to discuss community and black mothers' issues. The Day Home Club founded Porter Homestead for children to attend while their mothers worked. The Club also discussed ways to improve education, healthcare, and temperance in their community. Despite her efforts to maintain the Homestead, the Club could not financially support the utilities, food supply, and caretakers needed for the children.

In addition to this project, Nettie turned to the National Association for Colored Women (NACW) to make a positive difference in the lives of black women and their families. Her activism in the NACW dated as early as 1901, when she attending the Association's national meeting in Buffalo. She held positions in the NACW as late as 1933. In 1916, as an NACW member, Nettie advocated for the restoration of Frederick Douglass's home in Washington, D.C. Nettie wanted children to visit Douglass's home and learn of his work as an abolitionist and supporter of women's rights. Eventually, Nettie became president of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, Inc. and handled all financial transactions for the restoration of the home. Before her death, she would donate these records to the Library of Congress. Furthermore, in 1917, Nettie organized a group of women who registered black men to fight in the first World War. She was involved in her local Colored Women's Chapter of the Red Cross and boxed supplies for black soldiers.

Finally, Nettie was a suffragist. She worked at Republican polls to register voters and advised other women who volunteered to do the same. Following the ratification of the nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (August 1920) guaranteeing the right for women to vote, she continued to raise awareness about the importance of going to the polls. Because of her contributions, an overwhelming number of black women cast their vote in the next election.

Nettie died from congestive heart failure on September 27, 1938 at the age of 67 years old. Her obituary can be found in several historically black newspapers. At her funeral at the Howard Congregational Church, mourners sang her favorite hymn, “God be With You Till We Meet Again,” a song written by Jeremiah Rankin, the same man who officiated her marriage to James Napier. She was buried in Nashville and remains a legacy.


Brundage, William Fitzhugh. The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Cheek, William and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996, p. 260.

Finley, Randy and Tom Deblack. The Southern Elite and Social Change: Essays in Honor of William B. Gatewood, Jr. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002.

Langston, John Mercer. From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capital. New York: Arno Press, 1969; originally published in 1894.

Lovett, Bobby L. The African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930: Elites and Dilemmas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.

Napier, Mrs. N. L. Page 10 of Caretaker's House and Maintenance, 1927-1928. Frederick Douglass Papers: Financial Papers. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Library of Congress.

Napier, Mrs. N. L. Page 19 ofCaretaker's House and Maintenance, 1927-1928. Frederick Douglass Papers: Financial Papers. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Library of Congress.

"Nettie Langston Napier." Notable Black American Women, Gale: Biography In Context, Accessed October 13, 2018. Also available in printed edition of this work (Detroit: Gale, 1992), pp. 793-96.

Nettie Langston Napier telegram to Mary Church Terrell, October 19, 1932, Mary Church Terrell Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress,,0.236,0.807,0.327,0.

Neverdon-Morton, Cynthia. Afro-American Women of the South and the Advancement of the Race, 1895-1925. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

Taylor, Rebecca Stiles. “Death Takes Mrs. Nettie L. Napier in Nashville,” The Chicago Defender, October 8, 1938.

Wilkerson-Freeman, Sarah, Beverly G. Bond, and Laura Helper-Ferris, eds. Tennessee Women: Their Lives and Times. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015.

Links to Additional Biographical Sketches

Who's Who in Colored America
Lifting as They Climb


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