Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Bonnie Dilworth Hill McGrath, 1877–1945
By Nancy Alexander Simmons, Fairfax Station, VA
Woman Suffrage Activist
Bonnie Dilworth Hill was born January 24, 1877, in Tennessee, to John Hill and Lelia "Lillie" May Haynie Hill. Her father died when she was about 3 years old and she and her mother and sister went to live with her maternal grandparents in Nashville, Tennessee, where her mother was a dressmaker and milliner. She received an A.B. degree from the Nashville School for Young Ladies in 1895. The following year, she accepted a position with the Danville Female College in Virginia, and she later joined the faculty of Whitworth College in Brookhaven, Mississippi. There she met James J. "Jim" McGrath, who, along with his father and brother, ran a successful mercantile company called John McGrath & Sons. On September 27, 1899, she married Jim McGrath in a Roman Catholic ceremony held at St. Mary's Cathedral in Nashville, after which the couple left on a trip before heading to their new home in Brookhaven. By 1910, McGrath was living in Canton, Mississippi, with her husband and seven children—three daughters and four sons.
McGrath's leadership and interest in civic duty are evidenced through her volunteer activities spanning three decades in Mississippi. For example, when the Red Cross state headquarters moved from Canton to Jackson, no one had volunteered to lead the organization. However, McGrath agreed to undertake its leadership until a further search in Jackson could identify leaders there. McGrath continued her involvement with the Red Cross on the Mississippi Anti-Tuberculosis Campaign Committee. During 1913 and 1914, this committee, with the support of the Red Cross, focused on educating people about the need to eradicate tuberculosis. It pushed for establishing county tuberculosis hospitals and employing local visiting nurses in rural communities that would care for the least fortunate people across the state. At the time, an estimated 12,000 Mississippians had the disease, which claimed 11 lives per day.
In 1915, McGrath was a member of the Mississippi Commission for Relief in Belgium, an organization that arranged for the supply of food to German-occupied Belgium and France during World War I. The commission appealed for food to be donated for the "hungry and distressed Belgians," emphasizing that a ship was at the Gulfport, Mississippi, pier ready to transport the donations to Belgium. Items requested included "sacks of cow or lady peas or shelled corn," flour, and cash.
From 1913 to 1917, McGrath was prominent in the Mississippi Federation of Women's Clubs (MFWC). At the 1913 MFWC annual meeting in Hattiesburg, Vice-President McGrath stated that the organization's purpose was to improve the "economic, industrial, moral, social, and civic life of the people." She also served on the Civics Committee. At the close of that meeting, elections were held for new officers. On the first ballot, McGrath received 52 of 96 votes for the office of president; however, before her election was announced, McGrath declined the honor, saying that the care of seven children made it impossible for her to accept the office of president. Three more ballots were taken before a new president was elected.
She did, however, continue as chair of the Civics Committee, whose efforts focused on fire prevention that year. After the MFWC endorsed the work of the Society for the Prevention of Fires, McGrath issued a letter informing the member clubs of efforts that could be undertaken to prevent fires. She also submitted articles that were published in newspapers around the state explaining the property loss in fires and that half of the fires were due to carelessness. Accompanying these articles was a pledge consisting of actions that could be undertaken in the home, such as keeping matches in metal boxes out of the reach of children, not using batting on Christmas trees, annually examining flues of stoves, and placing the list "conspicuously in the kitchen, laundry, and fire room." The same year, she spoke on civics at a district meeting of the club. A Jackson Daily News article described McGrath as an inspirational speaker, adding "To hear Mrs. McGrath talk on the need of an awakening along the lines of ‘Civic Improvement,' is to make one bow her head in shame; as, to listen as she talks of what might be, and of what should be, makes every hearer vow to start afresh and do at least what she can to make her city cleaner and better and more worth living in." McGrath continued in her roles as vice-president and chair of the civics committee in 1916; and she served as second vice-president in 1917.
McGrath was active in the suffrage movement concurrent with her involvement in MFWC. In October 1914, McGrath served on the Committee on Literature and worked with the state president to prepare for Suffrage Day at the State Fair, which was held on October 29. In November 1916, at the annual MFWC meeting in Greenwood, McGrath and others proposed a resolution for the MFWC to support suffrage; however, its opponents succeeded in having a vote on the resolution postponed. And in January 1920, McGrath attended a suffrage meeting in Jackson as a delegate from Canton. The Jackson Daily News reported that the women were all hopeful of getting the right to vote soon.
After the success of the suffrage movement, McGrath continued her civic involvement. In 1921, she was the Madison County chairman at a meeting in Jackson of a parent-teacher organization for the 8th congressional district of Mississippi. As chairman of the Mississippi League of Women Voters in 1922, McGrath made "an urgent appeal to the women voters of the county to pay their poll tax within the next few days before the time expires and the delinquent list of taxpayers is made." According to the circuit clerk, over 500 women had registered to vote in Madison County, whose total population was about 30,000. In 1925, McGrath helped plan the 15th anniversary of the Canton Literary and Civic Club. And in 1937, while president of the Twentieth Century Club, McGrath served on the committee on decorations for a celebration that was planned for the start of the construction of the Natchez Trace Parkway.
In 1935, McGrath's husband died in Chicago, Illinois, where he had gone for medical treatment. A few years later McGrath moved to Queens, New York, where she lived with three of her unmarried children at the time of the 1940 census. She died there on January 10, 1945. She and her husband are buried in Canton City Cemetery in Canton, Mississippi.
1880 U.S. Census, Tennessee. Nashville, Davidson County, p 46A; Enumeration District: 037. Digital images. Ancestry.com.
1900 U.S. Census, Mississippi. Brookhaven, Lincoln County, p 10; Enumeration District: 0094. Digital images. Ancestry.com.
1910 U.S. Census, Mississippi. Canton East Ward, Madison County, p 11A; Enumeration District: 0028. Digital images. Ancestry.com.
1940 U.S. Census, New York. New York, Queens County, p. 9B; Enumeration District: 41-1752A. Digital images. Ancestry.com.
"Another Good Position Secured." The Tennessean, August 30, 1896, p. 8. Available through newspapers.com.
"Are Fighting Tuberculosis." Vicksburg Evening Post, September 12, 1913, p. 2. Available through newspapers.com.
"Civic Club Has Birthday Party." Clarion-Ledger, March 27, 1925, p. 19. Available through newspapers.com
Clarion-Ledger, September 30, 1899, p 1. Available through newspapers.com.
"District Meeting of Federated Clubs." The Hattiesburg News, February 25, 1914, p. 3. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87065167/1914-02-25/ed-1/seq-3/.
"Establish Hospitals For Tuberculosis." Jackson Daily News, January 12, 1914, p.5. Available through newspapers.com.
"Fair Girl Graduates." The Tennessean, June 6, 1895, p. 8. Available through newspapers.com.
"Give Appeal for Relief in Belgium." Natchez Democrat, April 25, 1915, p. 11. Available through newspapers.com.
Harper, Ida Husted, et al., eds. History of Woman Suffrage. Vol. VI (1900-1920). N.p.: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922, p. 334.
Jackson Daily News, March 3, 1914, p. 3. Available through newspapers.com.
"M.F.W.C. Convention Gets Down to Work This Morning." The Daily Commonwealth, November 15, 1916, p. 1. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87065132/1916-11-15/ed-1/seq-1/.
"Mississippi Clubs. The Lexington Advertiser, April 4, 1913, p.6. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024271/1913-04-04/ed-1/seq-6.
"Mrs. J. H. Price Elected President Federation." The Hattiesburg News, November 21, 1913, p. 1. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87065167/1913-11-21/ed-1/seq-1/.
Nash, George H. "An American Epic: Herbert Hoover and Belgian Relief in World War I." Prologue Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 1989. https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1989/spring/hoover-belgium.html.
"New York, New York Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949," database, FHL microfilm 2,194,201, 2018. https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2WGK-345.
"McGrath-Hill." The Tennessean, September 30, 1899, p. 5. Available through newspapers.com.
"Mrs. J. J. McGrath Dies at Canton." Lincoln County Times, January 10, 1945, p. 4.
"Parent-Teacher Body Names County Heads." Jackson Daily News, September 15, 1921, p. 4. Available through newspapers.com
"Program for Convention Members Women's Clubs." Jackson Daily News, November 9, 1914, p. 4. Available through newspapers.com.
"Red Cross Office Moved to Jackson." The Hattiesburg News, November 21, 1911, p. 2. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87065167/1911-11-21/ed-1/seq-2.
"Start of Trace Parkway to Be Marked By Program." Clarion-Ledger, September 8, 1937, p. 14. Available through newspapers.com.
"Suffrage Workers at State Fair." Yazoo Herald, October 16, 1914, p. 2. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87065709/1914-10-16/ed-1/seq-2/
"Tuberculosis War is to be Actively Waged." Jackson Daily News, December 5, 1914, p. 8. Available through newspapers.com.
"Urge Women Register." Jackson Daily News, January 28, 1922, p. 2. Available through newspapers.com.
U.S. Department of Commerce, Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, Vol. I. 1931, p. 583.
"Useful Life Closes." Lincoln County Times, May 4, 1935, p. 8.
"Wednesday Evening Session." The Hattiesburg News, November 20, 1913, p. 5.
"Will You Be a Fire Warden and Saver of Life?" The Star-Herald, November 27, 1914, p. 5. Available through newspapers.com.
"Women Favor Fire Prevention." The Tallahatchie Herald, January 29, 1914, p. 6. Available through newspapers.com.