Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Laura Beasley (Ford), 1873-1928

By Barbara Dobschuetz, Independent Scholar, Chicago, Illinois

Suffragist and settlement worker, Laura Beasley was actively engaged in the efforts to improve the social and political lives of African Americans living in Chicago during the Progressive Era. She was born in 1873 in Trousdale County, Tennessee, outside of Nashville, to Isaac and Amanda Beasley. Isaac worked a small farm valued in 1880 at seven hundred dollars that included livestock, poultry and almost one hundred acres of land. The farm produced tobacco and sugar cane. Laura had three other siblings in 1880: William, an older brother, and two younger sisters, Odell and Lucy. By the time Laura was twelve, her mother, Amanda, had died and her father had remarried. The family left Tennessee around 1885 and settled near Wyandotte, Kansas, a river town noted for its sizable migration of African Americans fleeing the South for better economic and social conditions. Federal Reconstruction ended in 1877 and throughout the South legal and illegal measures created an oppressive political and economic situation that reinforced conditions similar to slavery. Tenant farmers like Isaac, who did not own their own land, joined the more than 21,000 blacks who migrated from the former Confederacy to Kansas. The "Exoduster Movement," as it was popularly called, marked the beginning of southern migration of blacks in large numbers to states in the North and Midwest.

Laura Beasley left the family farm in Kansas at an unknown date and moved to Chicago. In 1900 we find her boarding in a household of sixteen at 2215 Prairie Ave. in the Second Ward with the city's largest concentration of black residents. The household is headed by a 62-year old white baker and includes 10 white and 5 black boarders. Nine of the white boarders are males: 2 are also bakers, 2 are teamsters, 2 are students, and 1 is a day laborer; 4 of the black boarders are women, all servants; the lone male is a porter. All the black boarders were southern-born, migrants to Chicago, like Laura Beasley.

Beasley may have worked in her landlord's bakery for a period, because a Laura Beasley "started a bakery at 276 East 30th street" in October of 1901. This brief notice in 1907 said "she is now one of the leading colored bakers of the city." If that is our suffragist, Beasley did not stick with the bakery much longer, because by 1910 she owned a lodging house at 3245 Forest Ave. (less than a mile from the bakery's address) and supported herself through the income she received from four women boarders, all black migrants to Chicago. Beasley taught domestic science in 1912 at the Frederick Douglass Center, one of the few settlement houses for African Americans. Founded in 1904, it sought to improve relations between the white and African American races through educational and cultural uplift programs. Its two founders, African American reformer, Ida B. Wells, and white Unitarian minister, Celia Parker Woolley, were leaders in Chicago clubwomen's political networks. Women's reform alliances between 1890 and 1915 in the Midwest city were remarkably hospitable to interracial activism.

In 1920 Laura continued to own her house on Forest Ave., but her household now included a younger brother, Henry. She no longer took in boarders and worked as a government clerk. Her brother was a government laborer.

Beasley also became an active member of the Alpha Suffrage Club. Founded in 1913 by prominent activist Ida B. Wells Barnett and white Illinois suffragist Belle Squire, in response to Illinois giving municipal and presidential suffrage to women, the club had one hundred members by the end of the first year. Laura Beasley became such an integral part of the organization that she was elected treasurer and often hosted meetings at her home on Forest Avenue.

One of the most significant events in the club's early history centered on sending its President, Ida B. Wells Barnett, to Washington, D. C. to march in a national woman's suffrage parade the day before President Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated in early March 1913. Controversy surrounded the parade as parade organizers, pressured by of white southern women suffragists, discouraged Wells-Barnett from marching with the Illinois chapter. They insisted that she march at the end of the parade with other African American women. Wells- Barnett responded by first declining to march altogether and then on the day of the parade, as the marchers lined up, she suddenly disappeared in the crowd of onlookers. When the parade began, Wells reappeared just as the Illinois delegation began to march and joined them. The Illinois leadership surrounded her and they all continued to march without further incident.

The Alpha Suffrage Club became a political force to be reckoned with in local elections before 1920. Members like Beasley canvassed neighborhoods, met candidates seeking office and registered African American women in Chicago black wards after women won limited suffrage in the state in 1913. The Republican party quickly took notice of black women's political prowess and struck a deal with them to support a black aldermanic candidate in the next election if the women would join them in supporting the party. This grass roots movement and organization eventually led to the election of the first black alderman to the Chicago City Council, Oscar De Priest, in 1915. He became the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress since Reconstruction in 1929.

In November 1921 Laura married Robert Ford, a factory laborer born in Alabama. Before their marriage Ford boarded in the second ward, Laura's neighborhood and the heart of Chicago's black belt. Laura died in Chicago in 1928 and was listed as a housewife at the time of her passing.


U.S. Selected Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880. Schedule 2 Production of Agriculture, Second Civil District, Trousdale County, Tennessee, June 14, 1880. Reprinted in (2010).

Kansas State Historical Society; Topeka, Kansas; 1885 Kansas Territory Census; Roll KS1885 144; Line: 7. Reprinted in (2009).

Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (New York: Knopf, 1976).

Federal manuscript censuses, Chicago, 1900-1920; Marriage record, Laura Beasley and Robert Ford, 7 Nov. 1921; Death record, Laura Bell Ford, Chicago, 15 Nov. 1928. Accessed online via Ancestry Library Edition.

Find-a-Grave death record for Laura Bell Beasley Ford, 15 Nov. 1928. Accessed online via Ancestry Library Edition.

“Alpha Suffrage Club,” Broad Ax, p. 2. March 29, 1913 accessed online via Library of Congress, Chronicling America Historical Newspapers.

“Religious News,” Chicago Defender, June 29, 1912 p. 3, accessed through Pro Quest Historical Newspapers.

“Women to Show Loyalty by Casting First Ballot for Cowan for Alderman.” Chicago Defender, February 21, 1914, p.1. Accessed through Pro Quest Historical Newspapers.

“Alpha Suffrage,” Chicago Defender January 29, 1916, p. 8. Accessed through Pro Quest Historical Newspapers.

“Illinois Women Feature Parade. . . “ Chicago Tribune March 4, 1913; p. 3. Accessed through Pro Quest Newspapers.

Maureen A. Flanagan, Seeing with Their Hearts: Chicago Women and the Vision of the Good City, 1871-1933 (Princeton University Press, 2002).

Anne Meis Knupfer, Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood (New York: New York University Press, 1996), p. 44.

Katherine E. Williams, "The Alpha Suffrage Club" Half Century Magazine (September 1916), p.1.

Daniel Dana Buck, The Progression of the Race in the United States and Canada (Chicago: Atwell Printing, 1907), p. 72.

Wanda A. Hendricks, Gender, Race, and Politics in the Midwest: Black Club Women in Illinois (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 89-95, 100-11.

________, "Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago," chap. 14 in One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement, Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, ed. (Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995).


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