Frances E. L. Preston

Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Frances E. L. Preston, 1844 - 1929

By Cassandra Cavness, Humanities Digital Archivist, Alabama State University and La-Kisha Emmanuel, Graduate Student, University of Alabama


Monroe Alpheus Majors, Noted Negro Women (1893), p. 96.

Frances E. L. Preston was born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia in 1844. Her father, John L. Martin, was a free black and her mother, Louisa Barber, was a slave. As an enslaved person, Preston was not afforded the opportunity for true education. It wasn't until her parents, now both free from bondage, moved the family to Detroit, Michigan in 1855 that she had the opportunity to attend school. However, this attempt at attending a school for colored girls was not long lasting due to the cruelty of the teachers and she received most of her education, including piano and organ, from her father.

During her early adult years, she taught piano and organ and she was the organist for the Second Baptist Church of Detroit. At the age of thirty-three Frances E.L. Preston decided to re-enter school and enrolled at the Detroit Training School in Elocution and English Literature. Despite being a widow and a single parent (she had one daughter named Lillian Preston,) Preston graduated at the top of her class on May 19, 1882. Her teacher, Mrs. Edna Chaffee Noble, was invested in her future and ensured that she had work after graduation with the Donivan Famous Tennesseeans. Preston stayed at this position for one year, after which she returned to Detroit and taught for eight years at the Detroit Training School in Elocution and English Literature.

During this time Preston also pursued several other opportunities. During 1884 she traveled throughout eastern Virginia and in 1888 she traveled to Augusta, GA teaching in all of these areas. She was distraught by the lack of education afforded African American girls in the south and decided to open a Baptist school. This venture was cut short when she returned home to Detroit to care for her ailing mother. However, in 1890 she was appointed by Dr. Derrick to raise funds for the foreign missionary board; she began working for the Woman's Christian Temperance Union the following year.

By the year 1899, Preston was often referred to as notable for her elocution and dialect readings. She was not only an accomplished performer of reading in dialect, she also was a Delsarte artist. She once gave a performance in Minneapolis in 1900 to a crowd of 200 people that helped raise around one hundred dollars for the Church of the Redeemer. She was giving programs and performances all over the country not only to raise funds, but also to raise awareness that colored women, if given the chance, could be valuable members of society. Preston was also an advocate against the lynching of African Americans.

In 1900 Preston became President of Michigan Federation of Colored Women's Clubs and served as president for four years, after which, she continued to work with the organization. During this time, she served as chairman of the entertainment committee for the National Association of Colored Women. Preston used her influence and money to create change. She was the general financial agent for Eckstein Norton University at Cane Spring, Kentucky and also bought real estate. Preston continued her work until her death in 1929. She is buried in Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation in Detroit, Michigan in Section O, Lot 61.


"A Talented Woman." Star Tribune (Minneapolis), February 11, 1900. Accessed July 24, 2018.

"In Behalf of the Negro." Star Tribune (Minneapolis), October 27, 1899. Accessed July 24, 2018.

"In Olden Days: Items of Interest Published 20 Years Ago Today." St. Joseph Daily Press (St. Joseph, MI), November 23, 1910. Accessed July 23, 2018.

Majors, Monroe A. Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities. Donohue & Henneberry, 1893. [LINK]

Michigan Freedmen's Progress Commission. Michigan Manual of Freedmen's Progress. Compiled by Francis Herbert Warren. MI: Commission, 1915.

"Social and Personal." Star Tribune (Minneapolis), February 14, 1900. Accessed August 14, 2018.

"Sunday's Corner." The Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis), May 31, 1902, In Social Circles sec. Accessed July 24, 2018.

"Weeks Record in Minnesota's Capitol." The Appeal (St, Paul), October 14, 1899. Accessed July 20, 2018.

Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, Lifting As They Climb (1933), p.236. [LINK]

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