Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Viola E. Hill, 1892-?

By Emma Maxwell, undergraduate student, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD

Viola Hill's activism was driven by her sense of community membership: she was committed to causes and institutions that would raise up those around her. For Hill, this community took different forms: black folks in Chicago, members of the AME Church, black musicians, and of course, women. Throughout her involvement, Hill was committed not only to breaking down systems of oppression but also to actively supporting and building up sources of strength.

Viola E. Hill was born in September 1892 to Carey J. and Mattie Hill. They lived in Athens, Georgia, in 1900. Carey Hill worked as a day laborer; Mattie Hill was a laundress. At some point in that decade, the family moved to Chicago. On June 22, 1910, Viola Hill graduated from Wendell Phillips High School. Hill never married and did not have children.

Her formal engagement in the women's rights movement is reflected in her service to Chicago's Alpha Suffrage Club, the first black women's suffrage club in Illinois. The club, under the leadership of Ida Wells-Barnett, aspired "to get hold of every Colored woman in the city of Chicago." In November 1913, Viola Hill spoke before the Alpha Suffrage Club on its celebration of its inaugural year. In December 1913 she was selected to serve as an elections clerk for Ward 30 for the Progressive party. Reporting in the Chicago Defender, Hill described Chicago's suffrage parade in May 1914, and she highlighted the significant presence of black women, including Wells-Barnett. Hill served as second vice president in 1915. As a leading member of the suffrage club, she contributed to the election of the first black alderman in Chicago, and organized, attended, and presented at local events.

Hill's work in the suffrage movement was complemented by her leadership experience in the AME Church, where she was part of a national wave of demands for expanded authority for women. Hill held several leadership positions in the Allen Christian Endeavor League, where she collaborated with other leaders in the African American community. Indeed, within the Chicago AME community, when Hill spoke at conventions or was elected to advisory committees, she was surrounded by a roster of other women leaders. In 1915, she served as the district vice president with the Hyde Park AME Church, and in 1919, she served as superintendent of the Sunday school at New St. Mary's A.M.E. Church.

Viola Hill also found inspiration in her musical involvement. Hill performed a piano piece in 1911 at a Negro Fellowship League event hosted by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, connecting her music and suffrage endeavors through community events. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, she performed, led community choirs, and she served on the advisory board for the National Association of Negro Musicians. Her artistic interest and talent was a way for Hill to connect to others in her community, whether they be children, colleagues, musician, or political leaders.

Our last view of Viola Hill comes in the 1930 Federal manuscript census for Chicago. She remained single, heading her household on Wabash Ave. and living with her 70-year-old widowed father and a roomer from Louisiana who worked as a porter. She continued to work as a music teacher in a public school. Viola Hill's death date and place are unknown. Her activism was centered on her local community. Her commitment to her community's church, youth, musical scene, and political activism allowed Hill to contribute in a way that produced perceptible change in her life and the lives of those around her. Driven by her commitment, Viola Hill managed to work as a music and Sunday school teacher, and she found time to lead ambitious, transformational efforts for the AME Church, for black women, and for her Chicago community. It is precisely this local dedication that, when multiplied, forms the indispensable foundation for any social movement.

SOURCES:

"Allen Christian Endeavor League." Chicago Defender. June 20, 1914. Black Studies Center.

"Allen Christian Endeavor League Elects Officers for 1918-19." Chicago Defender. October 26, 1918. Black Studies Center.

"Alpha Suffrage Club." Chicago Defender. February 6, 1915. Black Studies Center.

"The Alpha Suffrage Club to Give a Banquet." Broad Ax (Chicago). November 15, 1913. Newspapers.com.

"The Alpha Suffrage Club Will Give a Big Entertainment." Broad Ax (Chicago). March 29, 1913. Newspapers.com.

Angell, Stephen Ward, and Anthony B. Pinn. "Women's Identities within the A.M.E. Church." In Social Protest Thought In the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1862-1939, 267-309. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000.

"Chicago Schools at Year's End." Chicago Tribune. June 23, 1910. Newspapers.com.

"The Fifth Annual Convention of the National Association of Negro Musicians." Broad Ax (Chicago). July 21, 1923. Newspapers.com.

George, Maude Roberts. News of the Music World. Chicago Defender. April 5, 1930; March 4, 1933; June 3, 1933; July 8, 1933.

Hill, Viola E. "Race Women Make Good Showing at Suffrage Parade." Chicago Defender. May 9, 1914. Black Studies Center.

Hill, Viola E. "S.S. Convention Closes." Chicago Defender. August 5, 1916. Black Studies Center.

"The Institutional Church." Chicago Defender. February 28, 1914. Black Studies Center.

Knupfer, Anne Meis. "‘Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood': African-American Women's Clubs in Chicago, 1890 to 1920." Journal of Women's History 7, no. 3 (1995): 68.

"More Women Election Officials Appointed," Chicago Tribune, Dec. 24, 1913, p. 7.

"News of the Churches: St. Mary's A.M.E. Church." Chicago Defender. June 5, 1915. Black Studies Center.

Smiley, J. Hockley. "Women Voters." Broad Ax (Chicago). November 22, 1913. Newspapers.com.

"Tanner Speaks at the Negro Fellowship League." Chicago Defender. February 11, 1911. Black Studies Center.

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998, p.99

Tompkins, Grace W. "Music News." Chicago Defender, December 14, 1940. Black Studies Center.

United States Census 1900, s.v. "Viola Hill, Athens Ward 3, Clarke, GA," Ancestry Library.

United States Census 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940, s.v. "Viola Hill, Chicago, Cook, IL," Ancestry Library.


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