Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Ella G. Berry, 1876-1939

By Lisa G. Materson, Associate Professor, University of California at Davis

Along with many other southern transplants, Ella G. Berry made Chicago a key site of black political power in the early twentieth century. From the 1910s until the mid-1930s, she was a leading clubwoman, fraternal association organizer, and Republican Party organizer in the city. She harnessed her ties to overlapping social and political networks to mobilize black voters in Chicago and other parts of Illinois. Her efforts and those of the many black women activists with whom she worked led candidates for local and federal offices to court black voters if they hoped to win office.

Born Ella Tucker in 1876 in Stanford, Kentucky, her childhood was marked by economic challenges that likely placed her outside the state's small black middle class. She was the child of emancipated people. Little is known about her father, Dave Tucker. The historical record indicates that her mother Matilda Portman had only herself and her children to rely upon for income. In 1870, Matilda Portman was working as a live-in domestic for a white family, but by the 1880s, she had managed to purchase a small piece of property and temporarily avoid working in white households. During this time, Portman cared for her two daughters, Ella and Maggie, while her four sons contributed to the household economy as laborers. Around 1884, Portman began relocating her family to Louisville in stages. There, Matilda worked variously as a laundress, a domestic, and a cook, while her two daughters attended school and her sons found employment as porters.

Ella was part of a generation African American youth in Kentucky and a handful of other southern states who witnessed their communities clash with white supremacists but retain black men's voting rights, even as legislatures across the South were stripping black men of the franchise. Against the backdrop of such disfranchisement battles and escalating racial violence, she navigated toward adulthood. In Louisville, she completed high school, became involved in the city's black fraternal movement, and found employment as a domestic. Around 1896, she married William Berry, and they had a daughter Tillie. By 1900, Ella was seeking a divorce, and she and Tillie were living in her mother's household.

Facing ongoing white supremacy and personal setbacks, Berry became part of the Great Migration of southern blacks to the Midwest in the early twentieth century. It was sometime after her mother's death in 1902 that Berry undertook a two-stage migration, first to Cincinnati and then, by 1907, to Chicago. Whether Tillie died or remained in Kentucky with family is not known. She stops appearing in the historical record. In Chicago, Berry presented herself as married or widowed, but not divorced. Avoiding the stigma of divorce may have helped her integrate into middle-class associational life in her new community in the Midwest.

Berry's heavy involvement in partisan politics in Chicago becomes particularly evident in the historical record during and after the 1914 Republican primary for Second Ward alderman (city council member), a year after women in Illinois gained the right to vote in this election. Berry canvassed on behalf of the Political Equality League of the Second Ward which had recently formed as an alternative Republican organization to the regular Republican machine. The league supported William Cowan, who was challenging the machine-backed white incumbent Hugh Norris, to become Chicago's first black alderman. Though Norris defeated Cowan, the show of strength of black women's organizing prompted the regular Republican machine to strike a deal with Ida B. Wells-Barnett's Alpha Suffrage Club, which had also canvassed extensively for Cowan in the primary. It is unclear whether Berry was a member of the Alpha Suffrage Club. According to the deal, the club would canvass for Norris in the general election if the Second Ward machine would back a black aldermanic candidate when a vacancy next became available. Party leaders kept this promise, and in 1915 Oscar DePriest became Chicago's first black alderman.

Berry also canvassed in multiple federal elections for Republican candidates. Berry, like the majority of black voters who could cast a ballot prior to the mid-1930s, favored the Republican Party, in large part, because it had been the party of anti-slavery and the Reconstruction Amendments. During the 1916 presidential contest between Charles Evans Hughes and Democrat Woodrow Wilson, the first election in which women in Illinois could vote for president, Berry worked as an organizer at the Colored Women's Hughes Republican Headquarters of the Republican National Committee in Chicago. In 1918, Berry served on the interracial Republican Women's Loyalty Campaign Committee that helped Medill McCormick in his successful campaign for U.S. Senate. In addition to helping to lay the groundwork for DePriest's rise to the city council, she supported DePriest in 1928 during his successful campaign to become the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress since 1901. She also canvassed for U.S. Representative Ruth Hanna McCormick in her unsuccessful run for the Senate during 1929 and 1930.

In these various campaigns, Berry drew not only on her canvassing experience in Chicago's predominantly black Second and Third Wards, where she resided consecutively, but also her commitment to black associational life, which extended from local women's clubs to national fraternal organizations. By 1916, she was president of the Cornell Charity Club, and she was also parliamentarian of the Illinois Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. She was active in several fraternal organizations, including the United Brothers of Friendship and Sisters of the Mysterious Ten, the Order of the Eastern Star, and the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks of the World. She occupied the highest office available to women in the latter organization.

Alongside her activism, Berry held several government jobs in Chicago. She was an investigator for the Chicago Commission on Race Relations after the 1919 race riot, an enumerator for the 1920 federal census, and, beginning in 1922, a home visitor in the Department of Public Welfare.

In the mid-1930s, Berry was part of the voting realignment of African Americans from the Republican to the Democratic party, canvassing in 1935 for Chicago Democratic mayor Edward Kelly's reelection bid. Ella Berry died in Chicago in 1939. The multiple community leaders who eulogized her and the 5,000 who attended her funeral rites were testaments to her many contributions to early twentieth-century civic and political life in Chicago.


Credit: Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, The Story of the Illinois Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (Chicago: Privately printed, 1922), p. 76.


Lisa G. Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Wanda Hendricks, Gender, Race, and Politics in the Midwest: Black Club Women in Illinois (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1998).

"Ella G. Berry, Former Elk Leader, Dies" Chicago Defender, September 16, 1939.


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