Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Lyda, Newman, 1885-?

By Megan Lounsberry, Electronic Resources Librarian, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Suffragist, inventor, community organizer, African American woman

Born in Ohio between 1865 and 1885, Lyda Newman was an African American suffragist and inventor. Though census records reveal she was born in Ohio, she spent her adult years living in the Manhattan borough of New York City. Specific details about her personal life are sparse since so little was recorded about the lives of African American women in the early 20th century, but much can be ascertained about her in census and voter records, newspapers, and a study of the neighborhood in which she lived.

Most of the existing information on the internet about Lyda states that she was born in 1885; however, census records ranging from 1905-1925 show an inconsistency in her age. For example, in 1905, she's listed as 40 years old, and in the 1925 census, she's listed as 35. Over the years, Lyda's race alternated between mulatto and black. Both terms were often used interchangeably for persons of mixed race heritage on censuses of the time, so it's likely that she was biracial. Her lifelong occupation was hair care as she listed “hair specialist” or “hairdresser” as her profession for each census obtained. This is no surprise since a patent was issued for her in 1898 for the invention of a hairbrush made specifically for African hair. Lastly, Lyda's marriage status was listed as single from 1905-1925, so it appears she never married, which was uncommon for a woman in the early 1900's. Unfortunately, no records containing Lyda's date of death or names for her parents were found.

In 1915, New York held its first vote on the issue of women's suffrage. Lyda played a vital role in organizing her community and canvassing the neighborhood to rally support for the cause. The New York Times reported that Lyda Newman was in charge of the newly opened Negro Suffrage Headquarters and that “many colored women have been asked to play hostess at the new headquarters while Miss Newman goes canvassing among voters in the neighborhood.” Lyda even arranged to close down the street so that mothers could attend meetings at the suffrage center with their children and see them playing outside from the windows. While the vote ultimately failed that year, women's suffrage was finally achieved two years later in 1917, and Lyda appears on the 1924 voter list for the 51st Election District of New York City.

Census records show that Lyda lived in a historically black neighborhood known as San Juan Hill. The neighborhood was made up mostly of Caribbean immigrants and American-born black migrants from the South. The 1905 census shows that Lyda lived with a family from Barbados, and by 1910, she was living with the Episcopal missionary and priest, John W. Johnson, who founded St. Cyprian Church, a church that served the needs of the immigrant community and worked towards the racial uplift of the black community. The chapel of St. Cyprian was constructed as part of the tenement that Lyda lived in on West 63rd St., so it's likely she was an active member of the church and a participant in church events and causes.

San Juan Hill saw dark times at the beginning of the 20th century. A race riot was set off in 1900 after a white police officer was killed by a black man defending his wife. The police officer had been harassing

her for standing outside a bar while waiting for her husband. The officer tried to arrest her for prostitution, and a scuffle ensued with the woman's husband killing the police officer. Violence and unrest took hold of San Juan Hill for the next two decades as a result. Residents of San Juan Hill could not trust law enforcement, because the all-white police force treated blacks as aggressors. This contentious relationship gave way to violence and vice for many years to come, and Lyda lived in the thick of it.

The San Juan Hill community was also impacted by the economic hardships of the time. White European immigrants were favored over blacks when it came to employment in most manufacturing industries, so black women were often forced to work long ten-hour days as domestic servants for very little pay. In addition to limited job opportunities and low wages, white tenement owners actively engaged in efforts to force black tenants out of San Juan Hill by raising rents so high that black families often took on lodgers in order to share housing costs. There's no question that Lyda lived this experience since she appears as a lodger on all but one census record from 1905-1925.

Ultimately, crumbling tenements, soaring rent prices, racism, and widespread crime precipitated a large migration of blacks out of San Juan Hill into Harlem. A black real estate agent by the name of Philip Payton persuaded property owners in Harlem to allow black tenants, so the more affluent African Americans and immigrants moved on to Harlem. By 1924, San Juan Hill was made up mostly of Caribbean immigrants and poor American-born blacks. Lyda appears to have remained in San Juan Hill. According to the 1925 New York State Census, she resided in the same tenement she had been living in since 1910 on West 63rd St. It is unclear why she chose to remain, but perhaps she refused to give up on the community which she spent decades serving.


Goodier, Susan & Karen Pastorello. Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017.

Foner, Nancy, Ed. Islands in the City: West Indian Migration to New York City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Newman, Lyda. “Brush.” Patent 614,335. 15 November, 1898.

Sacks, M.S. Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City before World War I. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Accessed 23 June 2018.

Watkins-Owens, Irma. Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and the Harlem Community, 1900-1930. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Whyte, William. The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers' Project Guide to 1930s New York. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.

“Among the Churches: St. Cyprian P.E. Church.” New York Age [New York, NY], 21 Jan. 1909, p. 3.

“Female Suffrage Notes.” New York Age [New York, NY], 11 Oct. 1917, p. 8. .

“Negro suffrage headquarters.” New York Times, 2 Sept. 1915, p. 5.

“Rev. Dr. J.W. Johnson, Missionary, Dies: Vicar of St. Cyprian Colored Chapel Honored at Recent Church Convention.” New York Times, 1930, May 18. p. N5,

“Suffrage Center for Negroes.” New York Times. 29 Aug. 1915, p. 6

1905 State Census, population schedule. New York. New York County. Digital images. 21 Aug. 2018. Accessed 5 Apr. 2018.

1910 U.S. Census, population schedule. New York. New York County. Digital images. 21 Aug. 2018. Accessed 5 Apr. 2018.

1920 U.S. Census, population schedule. New York. New York County. Digital images. 21 Aug. 2018. Accessed 5 Apr. 2018.

1924 Voter List. New York. New York County. Digital images. 21 Aug. 2018. Accessed 5 Apr. 2018.

1925 State Census, population schedule. New York. New York County. Digital images. 21 Aug. 2018. Accessed 5 Apr. 2018.

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