Josephine Pinyon Holmes

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Josephine Pinyon Holmes, 1888-1943

By Jacob Kempton, Nitya Madan, and Renalda Mucollari, students, University of Michigan-Dearborn

Josephine Pinyon was born January 10, 1888 in Newport, Rhode Island. She received her early education in Washington D.C. and Atlantic City. Eventually, she graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture. Afterwards, she took postgraduate courses at Boston University. She married VanBuren S. Holmes in Philadelphia in 1918.

She served as the National Secretary of Equal Suffrage League and her name appears on ESL letterhead on a 1908 petition to the U.S. Congress calling for enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments. The ESL had been founded by Sarah J.S. Garnet in the late 1880's and was headquartered in Brooklyn. How long she remained active in the ESL is not clear.

By 1912 she was employed as the student secretary of the National Board of the YWCA, with a focus on building programs among African American students. She worked in New York City and held this position until 1916.

Her involvement in supporting the female workforce continued throughout her career. In August 1917 she organized the first “girls reserve and recreation center” in Petersburg, Virginia. The objective of this project was to give girls skills and ideals which would make them responsible, capable women that would emphasize America's best hopes and traditions. During this time her activism overlapped with the war efforts of WWI. Josephine took a position with the YWCA as a special field worker on the organization's War Work Council. This organization provided a progressive environment for Josephine to continue advancing the interests of her community.

It was soon after in October 1917 that she traveled to Houston to evaluate the feasibility of establishing a hostess house for African American soldiers at Camp Logan. After her visit, she felt it necessary that a united group of white YWCA women and African American community leaders cooperate in order to staff a hostess house and develop programs to aid African American women. Her presence in the initial planning stage provided leadership that advanced the cooperation between African American and white women and helped in offering broader access to social programs for all Houston women.

After her initial success in Houston, Josephine Holmes continued to develop and improve educational opportunities for the African American community. She was instrumental in the 1918 organization of the Blue Triangle Branch of the YWCA in Houston, Texas. This organization sought to provide a safe environment for women of color to meet, learn, and create. The project eventually evolved into a much more diverse offering of deeply needed community services. Soon housing initiatives for women of color were a central part of the organization's model.

Subsequently she was appointed as a staff member in the New York Department of Employment Services where she assisted women and girls with selecting, finding, and preparing for jobs. By 1928 Holmes was working for the Brooklyn YWCA. In September of 1930 Josephine Holmes became secretary of the YWCA's New York branch. During this time she continued to follow her interests in vocational guidance and workforce education. In the later years of her career she attended Harvard summer school and enrolled for courses in guidance and occupational studies.

In addition to her leadership and field work, Josephine Holmes also was an activist through her writing. Her article, “Youth Cannot Wait,” published in the July 1924 issue of The Crisis, compared a YWCA conference she attended in New York in 1915 with her first YWCA conference in Los Angeles nine years later. In her article she praised the progress of the YWCA since 1915. She described how she had formerly been the “lone representative of colored women” within the organization and how she was proud to see “one hundred and fifty colored girls” present in the later conference. Her writing also appeared in the July 1932 issue of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. Here she voiced her opinion about public schools and the importance of vocational training and vocational guidance for African American workers.

Josephine Holmes's efforts to organize the provision of assistance to local Black associations “promoted racial pride for African Americans” and helped gain the support from the broader white community. She connected the issues of foreign mission work, which were prioritized by the YWCA and many other religious organizations, and the domestic situation of African Americans. Her ability to align race work with the issues concerning her white colleagues helped to both evolve the YWCA and promote the interests of African Americans. For the last 30 years of her life she resided in New York. During this time she remained active and continued to be a positive influence on her community. She passed away on November 26, 1943.


Petition from the Equal Suffrage League, March 17, 1908, accessible online at

BROOKLYN YWCA (1930, Sep 06). The Pittsburgh Courier (1911-1950)Retrieved from

Josephine Virginia Pinyon. (2018, February 10). Retrieved from surname:Pinyon~

May, Vanessa H., Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), p. 152.

Mrs. J. Pinyon Holmes, Renown Worker, Dies. (1943, December 11). New York Amsterdam News.

Neverdon-Morton, C. (1989). Afro-American women of the South and the advancement of the race, 1895-1925. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Pinyon-Holmes, J. (1924). “Youth Cannot Wait.?” The Crisis,128-31.

Pinyon-Holmes, J. (1932). “From the Urban League Conference at Pittsburgh, 1932.” Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, July 1932, p. 226

Robertson, N. M. (2010). Christian sisterhood, race relations, and the YWCA, 1906-46. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

The Horizon. (1918). The Crisis,15(5), 141.

Wille, P. F. (2005). "More than classes in swimming and making hats": The YWCA and social reform in Houston, Texas, 1907-1977. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University.

YWCA - History - HERStory. (2014). Retrieved from

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