Mary Eleanora McCoy


Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Mary Eleanora McCoy, 1846-1923


By Karren Yurgalite and Liette Gidlow, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI

Club woman, suffragist, African American pioneer

Mary Eleanora Delaney Brownlow McCoy was born at an underground railroad stop in Lawrenceburg, Indiana on January 26, 1846. Her birth preceded the Civil War by fifteen years and the Emancipation Proclamation by seventeen years. As an African American woman, the daughter of Jacob C. and Eliza Ann (Montgomery) Delaney, perhaps escaped slaves, she charted a remarkable life of service to the less fortunate and became an active leader for woman suffrage.

Educated at home and in private freedman's schools in Missouri, she married Henry Brownlow in 1869. It is unclear how that marriage ended, but she was married for a second time to Elijah McCoy on February 25, 1873 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. She next appears in the historical record in the 1880 census, which reports that she lived in a boarding house in St. Louis, Missouri and worked as a hair dresser.

McCoy's new husband Elijah McCoy, a Canadian-born son of escaped slaves and renowned inventor, is credited with seventy-two inventions, including the ironing board and the lawn sprinkler. The invention that brought him the most fame and generated the phrase, “the Real McCoy,” was a lubricating device for railroad locomotives and steam engines. The device was

often copied by other companies, but none worked as well as his did, thus engineers would ask if the lubrication device on their machines was “The Real McCoy.”

By 1882, the McCoys moved to Detroit and in the 1890s Mary McCoy began her prodigious work with the charities and clubs of the burgeoning city. In 1894, she was a charter member and the only African American member of the prestigious Twentieth Century Club. The Twentieth Century Club of Detroit, formed to pursue literary and cultural interests, included some of the most prominent women in Detroit and pushed for woman suffrage. In 1895, she founded the first African American woman's club, named “In As Much Circle of Kings Daughters and Sons Club.” In 1897, McCoy called the first meeting for the establishment of the Phyllis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Women in Detroit. In 1898, after attending a meeting of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), McCoy and Lucy Thurman, another prominent African American club organizer, founded a Michigan NACW chapter. She was also active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Lydian Association of Detroit, the Willing Workers, and the Guiding Star Chapter Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic organization. Like so many women's clubs of these times, these groups helped young women and families, stressing, in historian Victoria Wolcott's words, “motherhood, cleanliness, and home life as central to uplift.” Because of her extensive work in these organizations, some said Mary McCoy was the best-known woman of Detroit.

McCoy's activities promoted civic engagement and suffrage work. In May of 1898, as a member of the Independent Women Voters, a national suffrage organization, she joined in protesting cuts to school arts programs. In 1900 she chaired NACW meetings in Detroit, featuring prominent guests Mrs. Booker T. Washington and Mrs. Mary Church Terrell. By 1901, she was elected to the board of directors of the Phyllis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Women. She was appointed financial collector of this home in 1904, prompting her to publicly ask for financial support for the mortgage and other necessities. In 1903, on behalf of the State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, she attended a meeting in Ann Arbor as one of fifty delegates from ten clubs statewide.

McCoy suffered some challenges as well. She never raised a child of her own: the 1900 census reported that although she had given birth to a baby, the child was no longer living. McCoy also dealt with spousal abuse, according to a Detroit Free Press story dated December 24, 1905. According to the report, she charged her husband with abuse, but he was cleared of it, although one of the doctors who examined him believed him to be “delusional, abusive, violent and dangerous.” A few years later, a charitable home she opened and ran risked foreclosure. The McCoy Home for Children was open from 1909-1911; the children were often not orphans, but children of women who worked, often because husbands had left them or been kicked out, and who had no one to care for them. In 1910, newspapers reported McCoy faced the possibility of closure of this home due to nonpayment of back rent.

Despite these difficulties, McCoy's work for suffrage continued. In 1913, she marched in the Woman Suffrage Parade in Washington D.C. as a flag bearer for the state of Michigan. As part of the state's delegation in the seventh section, she rode along with seven other Michigan women. Her suffrage fight continued in 1914 at the NACW convention in Wilberforce, Ohio, where McCoy donated a gavel which had been carved from wood cut from a cherry tree from John Brown's home. This convention promoted the efforts for woman suffrage, among other charitable projects. Mrs. Harriet Upton of Warren, Ohio, president of the Ohio Woman Suffrage Association spoke and, as reported by the Washington Bee, asked “why is the colored race so much like woman suffrage? Because their greatest enemy is prejudice.”

In 1915, McCoy took part in a celebration of the half centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in Chicago. The Half Century Anniversary Celebration of Negro Freedom ran August 22nd through September 16th, 1915 at the Coliseum in Chicago. Both McCoy and her husband had major parts in this celebration: she was nominated as a delegate by the governor of Michigan and her husband exhibited his inventions.

McCoy represented the Michigan State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs at a meeting in Chicago in June 1916. This organization, like so many of the African American women's clubs of the period, did not often collaborate with the white women's clubs in Detroit. So, even though Mary McCoy had a distinguished career working for suffrage and other social causes, there is no evidence that white club women reached out for her help. In Detroit, as elsewhere in the nation,

historian Jayne Morris-Crowther noted, African American women “waged separate but parallel struggles for suffrage.”

Suffrage was achieved in Michigan in 1918, and on June 10th, 1919 Michigan became the second state to ratify the National Suffrage amendment, with the amendment's complete ratification on August 18, 1920. By this time, McCoy's public activities had slowed down. One of her last recorded public appearances was at the National American Woman Suffrage Association's “Victory Convention” in 1920 in Chicago. The Chicago Defender noted that McCoy “made a few remarks which were very pleasing.”

Around 1920, the McCoys' financial circumstances appear to have deteriorated. Although his inventions made millions, Elijah had signed over the rights to many of his patents, receiving only modest funding to continue working on new inventions. They had moved from their previous neighborhood to 810 St. Antoine at the edge of what was called “Black Bottom,” a neighborhood that was home to working-class African Americans and immigrants.

McCoy died on November 17, 1923 at age 76 in Detroit. Her cause of death was listed as injuries from a fall, though other reports say she died of injuries sustained in a car accident with her husband, injuries which took also eventually took his life. The Cleveland Gazette mourned her passing, remarking that some of the older readers will fondly “remember Mary after a lifetime of active service.”


“A Great Meeting." Washington Bee (Washington, D.C.), August 15, 1914.

Carney Smith, Jesse. Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.

Clark Hine, Darlene. Black Women in America, Vol II. New York: Carlson Publishing, 1993.

"Cleveland Social and Personal." Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, OH), December 8, 1923.

“Clubs and Societies.” Chicago Defender (Chicago, IL), June 17, 1916.

“Congressman Loud and Eight Michigan Women Were in Parade,” Detroit News (Detroit MI), March 4, 1913

Death Certificate: Mary McCoy, website.

“Elijah McCoy Insane.” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), December 24, 1905.

“Function at the White House.” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), Jan 3, 1901.

“In the Dominion.” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), July 12, 1900.

"In the Sight of his Wife." Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), Jul 22, 1903.

“Local Brevities.” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), October 15, 1904.

Lynch, LaRisa. “The Real Deal on the Real McCoy.” Hyde Park Citizen (Chicago, IL), Feb 20, 2003.

Mather, Frank, ed. Who's who of the Colored Race: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent. Detroit: Gale, 1915.

“McCoy Home May Wind Up.” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), April 29, 1910.

Michigan Freedmen's Progress Commission. Michigan Manual of Freedmen's Progress. Edited by Frances H. Warren. Act 47, Public Acts 1915, Detroit, 1915.

Morris-Crowther, Jayne. The Political Activities of Detroit clubwomen in the 1920s: a challenge and a promise. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013.

“Prominent Men Speak at Movement.” Chicago Defender (Chicago IL), February 28, 1920.

“They Will Protest.” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), May 7, 1898.

U.S. Bureau of the Census: 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920.

Wolcott, Victoria. Remaking Respectability: African American women in interwar Detroit. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.


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