Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Harriett Barfield Coulson Kells, 1842–1913
By CathyAnn Holt Sampson, Woodbridge, VA
Woman Suffrage Activist
Harriett Barfield Coulson was born April 19, 1842, in Natchez, Mississippi, to John Samuel Coulson and Elizabeth Jane Barfield. Little is known about Harriett's early years, but her father was a very wealthy merchant and sent his sons and daughters to school.
Harriett Coulson married former Confederate soldier, Private William H. Kells on January 5, 1864. William had joined the Confederate Army in Mississippi on May 24, 1861, and was discharged on March 24, 1863, due to an injury. William Kells' discharge papers indicate that he was born in Hudson, New York, and had been a student before joining the Confederate Army. Harriett and William had one son, John Coulson Kells.
In the late 1860s, Mrs. Kells and her friend Mrs. Maria Yerger established a large school for young ladies in Jackson, Mississippi. Believing that the young girls would fare better in the Tennessee weather, they moved their school to Grundy County, Tennessee, in 1872 and it became known as Fairmount College. By this time Kells, a divorced single mother, had earned the reputation of being a brilliant scholar and an extraordinary educator. Kells wrote “The deepest satisfaction life has brought the writer is seeing Fairmount girls nobly serving their day and generation as leading Christian women wherever they are found—and there's no greater sweetness than in the bonds formed in those early days of loving service between teacher and taught.”
Due to failing health, Kells left Tennessee in 1882 and moved back to Mississippi. There she helped found and organize the school of the Diocese of Mississippi, a high grade school for young women. She presided as principal of the school for two years. Later she occupied the chair of physiology and zoology at the Mississippi State College for Girls, which had over 400 students.
Kells also began making an impact in other ways in Mississippi. She established the first chapter of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and served as editor of its magazine Mississippi White Ribbon. Because of her effectiveness, she was called to Chicago to join the editorial staff of the Union Signal, which was the official periodical of the National WCTU. In December 1894, the Union Signal announced that Kells had resigned her position as editor and moved to Fort Worth, Texas, in hopes that the Southern climate would be more conducive to her health and where it was hoped she would continue the fight for temperance.
Again hoping for improved health, Kells moved to Roswell, New Mexico, and started another school. And in 1896 she sought the position of School Superintendent of Chaves County, New Mexico. The territorial Superintendent of schools stated that he could find nothing in the law that prohibited a woman from holding this office.
In 1898, Kells attended the Biennial meeting of the General Federation of Women's Clubs in Denver, Colorado, and was listed among the journalists being hosted by the Women's Press Club of Denver. By the 1900 census, Kells had returned to Mississippi and was living in Jefferson County. In 1903, Kells turned her attention to the child labor laws and joined with the King's Daughters—an organization dedicated to the wellbeing of children—to introduce a child labor bill in Mississippi.
Kells condemned alcohol for destroying home lives. She spoke idealistically of the ways women could uplift male society and believed that prohibition would solve problems of crime and racial conflict. In March 1910, Kells, who is referred to as a leading White Ribboner and a persistent worker for the cause of temperance and prohibition, attended the World Convention of WCTU in Glasgow, Scotland. Like many of the WCTU leaders, Kells also supported the goal of suffrage for women. Fellow temperance and women's rights advocate Belle Kearney called Kells “one of the brainiest, most cultured and advanced women in the South.”
In 1908, Kells was Second Vice President of the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association and attended its fourth annual convention, which was held at the Governor's mansion in Jackson. In 1911, she had paid dues to the MWSA. Before her death, Kells joined other women in the Jackson Equity League in signing a card that stated
“I believe in the right of suffrage for women, and I hereby enroll myself as a member of the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association.”
Kells died on December 23, 1913, in Starkville, Mississippi, and was buried in the Fayette Cemetery in Jackson, Mississippi, next to her brother Willie. In 1920, almost seven years after her death, the Starkville public schools observed the first temperance day. At the event, Belle Kearney paid tribute to Kells, stating that she had a profound effect on the WCTU.
Photo from The Fairmount Book (1902)
1850 U.S. Census, Mississippi. Natchez, Adams County, p1A. Digital images. Ancestry.com
1870 U.S. Census, Mississippi, Jackson, Hinds County, p38. Digital images. Ancestry.com
1900 U.S. Census, Mississippi. Jefferson County, p. 15. Digital images. Ancestry.com
“A Hard Worker.” The Trenton Times, September 8, 1898, p8. Digital image, Ancestry.com
Bond, Beverly Green, et al, eds. Tennessee Women, Their Lives and Times, Vol. 2, pp. 194-95.
Certificate of Disability for Discharge, Confederate, Mississippi, William H Kells, digital image, Fold3.com
Equity League Minutes 1914 – 1915, MWSA, Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections, Lily Thompson Collection http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/suffrage/id/286
Kansas City Journal, May 1, 1898, p. 11. Available through https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
“King's Daughters Become Active.” The Port Gibson Reveille, December 24, 1906, p. 6. Available through https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
Linder, Marc. Inherently Bad, and Bad Only, A History of State-Level Regulation of Cigarettes and Smoking in the Unites States Since the 1880's, Vol 1. Pp. 24-25.
Mississippi, Compiled Marriage index, 1776-1935. Digital images. Ancestry.com
Mississippi, Wills and Probate Records, 1780-1982. Digital Images. Ancestry.com.
“Mrs. Harriet B Kells.” The Los Angeles Herald, December 2, 1894, p. 5. Available through https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
Santa Fe Daily New Mexican, August 31, 1896, p. 1. Available through https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
The Fairmount Book, Grundy County History, circa 1902. Available online at https://www.grundycountyhistory.org/s/Fairmount_Book_1902.pdf.
Kells, Harriett B. “The Open Letter Again,” The Starkville News, September 20, 1912. Available through https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
Seventh Annual Meeting, Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, Cleveland, Mississippi, April 11-12, 1911. University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections, Lily Thompson Collection http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/suffrage/id/92/rec/14.
The Neshoba Democrat, May 26, 1910, p. 6. Available through https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
The Starkville News, December 17, 1920, p. 10. Available through https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
“W.C.T.U. Leader Gone.” The Hattiesburg News, December 29, 1913, p.2. Available through https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
“Woman Suffrage Convention in Governor's Mansion.” The Starkville News, April 17, 1908. Available through https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.