Rosetta E. Coakley Lawson

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Rosetta E. Coakley Lawson, 1854-1936

By Janira Teague, Assistant Professor, Norfolk State University

On Election Day in 1913, a Tuesday, the 4th of November, Rosetta E. Coakley Lawson appealed to fellow members of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) during a franchise demonstration at their national convention in Asbury, New Jersey. Representatives from each franchise state or state with a franchise campaign participated. Lawson resided in Washington, DC, at the time. Although suffrage was a controversial platform, the WCTU had a franchise department, and the demonstration participants reflected that commitment. Seven years after the conference, and in part because of the WCTU's efforts, women gained the right to vote with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. At this time in the United States, racist suppression laws were keeping many African Americans, especially in the South, from the ballot box; in the nation's capital, all residents, no matter their race, remained disenfranchised. Washingtonians, such as Lawson, were not represented by elected officials and did not vote in presidential elections. Instead, the president selected a board of commissioners to run the city, a form of local governance that persisted until the passage of the Home Rule Act in 1973, well after Lawson's death. While the WCTU's franchise department in D.C. distributed materials and held meetings in 1915 according to incomplete meeting records, Lawson's support of suffrage for African Americans and/or Washingtonians, especially after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, was not abundantly clear in public records. Lawson, however, embraced family and education, excelled in her career, and committed herself to the service of others throughout her remarkable life.

Family and education were sacred institutions for African Americans during the post-emancipation era, and Rosetta—a daughter, wife, and mother—valued both. She was born about 1854 in King George County, Virginia, to a free black mother, Margaret (surname unknown), and an enslaved father. Rosetta presumably inherited a "free" legal status because of Virginia's matrilineal descent laws. (The legal policies concerning a child born to a free mother and a father in bondage were contested, amended, and sometimes ignored throughout the pre-emancipation era, of ten making the child's status ambiguous.) Her father escaped enslavement when Rosetta

was two years old, and she and her mother moved to Washington, DC, in 1862, when slavery was abolished there. Taking advantage of the learning opportunities the city provided, they enrolled Rosetta, a bright young girl, in private school before she attended the public high school. By 1870, they lived in the Georgetown community of Washington, DC, with Rosetta's younger brother, Nelson, and extended family. In 1873 Rosetta began working in the office of the Superintendent of Colored Schools of Washington and Georgetown—including a notable eleven-year stint as the assistant superintendent for the district. Rosetta helped to support her family financially; to do this, she delayed the pursuit of higher education because of the financial burden it would have placed on her household, which by then included her grandmother and her mother, who occasionally worked as a midwife. Rosetta's ambition, ingenuity, and commitment to education, however, eventually led her to enroll in the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) in 1880. The CLSC program, a correspondence course associated with the Chautauqua Institution in New York, was designed for people who had neither the time nor money to attend a traditional four-year degree institution. Rosetta traveled to Chautauqua to receive her diploma in 1884, a milestone year in her personal life.

In 1884 Rosetta married Jesse Lawson (b. 1856), an intellectual from Nanjemoy, Maryland. (It is interesting to note that he attended the Republican National Convention, also in 1884, as a delegate, indicating his political engagement.) Jesse, a graduate of Howard Law School, worked as a legal examiner for the US Bureau of Pensions before transitioning to an academic career, with a goal of addressing racial injustice through scholarly activities. While focused on race work, he published articles, lectured for the Bethel Literary and Historical Association, edited the DC newspaper The Colored American (from 1893 to 1897), and founded the short-lived National Sociological Society (1903). He was well respected and much of his work was well received. As such, in 1904, World Today requested essays on "the race problem" from Jesse Lawson and other leading experts, including noted Howard sociologist Kelly Miller, W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Combining his academic work with practical organizing, he and Rosetta founded academic institutions to educate African Americans.

The union between Jesse and Rosetta enabled the temperance advocate to further contribute to her community with impressive personal and professional accomplishments. The year after their nuptials she settled into home life, choosing to resign from her position as the assistant superintendent and focus on their four children: James, Josephine, Edward, and Wilfred. While they raised their brood, the Lawsons devoted significant time and effort to educating African Americans. In 1906, inside their family home, located at 2011 Vermont Avenue NW, the Lawsons and other prominent Washingtonians organized a branch of the Bible Educational Association to provide bible study, social services, and academic classes. They held courses in various locations throughout the city in addition to the Lawson household. The endeavor grew and exceeded their expectations. As a result of their efforts, in February 1917, the Lawsons and the noted sociologist Kelly Miller expanded their school, founding Frelinghuysen University. It was named after US Senator Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, known for his support of civil rights during Reconstruction. Jesse became its inaugural president; he drew from his prior experience as president of the Interdenominational Bible College. Under his leadership, the university served nontraditional students, especially working-class African American adults, and became a well-respected learning institution for some time. It incorporated Booker T. Washington's philosophy of vocational training and W. E. B. Du Bois's philosophy of professional education. Following Jesse's death on November 8, 1927, Anna Julia Cooper became the second president of Frelinghuysen University. of course, Rosetta contributed to the venture beyond being a founder. She graduated from the School of Chiropractic and Allied Sciences and became a member of the faculty, teaching anatomy and allied sciences, adding another noteworthy accomplishment to her distinguished career. It could not have been easy for African Americans to have attained such achievements during the early twentieth century, but with grit, a strong work ethic, passion, and perseverance, the Lawsons progressed in their careers while creating opportunities for African Americans.

Rosetta Lawson was steadfast in her commitment to the service of others, leading successful local and national efforts that greatly benefited African American women in particular. In 1895, she and Josephine Beall Bruce, a women's rights activist and the wife of former US Senator Blanche K. Bruce, called for the Atlanta Congress of Colored Women to presumably advocate for social purity, healthier home life,

and improved child culture, which were causes that they already supported. (It was the second national conference for African American women.) They planned the meeting to coincide with the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, where Booker T. Washington gave his "Atlanta Compromise" speech that was perceived as anti-black suffrage. Without Bruce, Rosetta led the conference gathering, which involved notable women (and woman suffrage supporters) such as Mrs. Margaret Murray Washington, Lucy Thurman, and Victoria Earle Matthews. At the second national Atlanta Congress of Colored Women in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1897, the attendants suspended further gatherings to avoid the appearance of competition with similar national organizations. Rosetta also hosted the final meeting of the National Federation of Afro-American Women in Washington, DC, in 1896, before the organization joined with the National League of Colored Women to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which became a large and influential black women's organization. NACW supported equality for African American women, including suffrage, and Rosetta served on its executive committee. In addition to organizing and attending national meetings, she backed local charitable efforts. Most notably, Lawson cofounded a branch of the Young Women's Christian Association to help provide affordable housing to African American women and girls. (It is currently the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, the first and only independent black YWCA in the nation.) In addition to these charitable activities supporting African American girls and women, Lawson also advocated for affordable housing in general, supported animal rights, championed Bonds of Mercy, served as a financial agent at a home for the elderly, and led a Booklovers Club.

There was one organization and one cause more dear to Rosetta's heart than any other: the WCTU and temperance. She held the position of lecturer and national organizer with the association for nearly thirty years. Locally, she represented the DC Department of Work among Colored People and was the president of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church branch. With these roles, she proudly, fiercely, and diligently promoted the organization's many causes, even traveling to France, England, and Scotland as a representative. She never, throughout her entire life, relented in support of temperance.

Rosetta E. Coakley Lawson passed away on April 19, 1936, in Washington, DC. Services were held for her at her home church, Nineteenth Street Baptist, and she was laid to rest at Woodlawn Cemetery.

She left behind her four children who led impressive lives of their own. James joined the military and rose to the rank of major, while his three siblings worked in educational institutions. Josephine (Harley) and Edward worked in the nation's capital, as an English specialist at Dunbar High School and as an educator at Shaw Junior High School, respectively. Lieutenant Wilfred W. Lawson held the position of registrar at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College before becoming the director of agriculture for the state of Tennessee. They truly honored their mother's legacy of valuing family, education, and service to others.


Death info, Rosetta Evelyn Lawson, April 19, 1936. U.S., Find a Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, 2012.

"District of Columbia and the 19th Amendment (U.S. National Park Service)." National Park Service. US Department of the Interior. Accessed August 1, 2020.

"Frelinghuysen University Pamphlet." Frelinghuysen Memorabilia, p. 3, 1906.

Lambeth, Helena Carney. "Rosetta E. Coakley Lawson (c. 1854-1936): Educator, Religious Worker, Reformer, Club Leader, Temperance Leader." In Notable Black American Women Book II, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, pp. 398-400. Michigan: Gale Research, 1996.

Miller, Richard E. "Frelinghuysen University/Jesse Lawson and Rosetta C. Lawson: African American Heritage Trail, Washington DC, 1800 Vermont Avenue, NW." The Historical Marker Database. Accessed May 20, 2020.

"Mrs. Rosetta E. Lawson." In Lifting as They Climb, edited by Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, pp. 215-218. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996. [LINK]

"Mrs. Rosetta Lawson, May 24, 1936." In the Works of Frances J. Grimke, edited by Carter G. Woodson, pp. 218-220. Washington DC: Associated Publishers, 1942.

"Our History." Chautauqua Institution. Accessed August 1, 2020.

"Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, African American Heritage Trail" Cultural Tourism DC. Accessed August 1, 2020.

Scruggs, L. A. Women of Distinction: Remarkable in Works and Invincible in Character. North Carolina: L. A. Scruggs, 1893.

Woman's Christian Temperance Movement. "Report of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union: The Fortieth Annual Convention." Wisconsin: Woman's Temperance Publishing Ass'n., 1913.

Michael R. Hill, "Jesse Lawson and the National Sociological Society of 1903," a chapter in Diverse Histories of American Sociology, ed. by Anthony J. Blasi (Leiden: Brill, 2005), pp. 127-40. Accessible onlineat

Archivist Janet Olson at the Frances Willard House and Archives, Evanston, IL provided personal information on Rosetta's Lawson's work with the WCTU.

Frances Willard House Archives:
Annual Leaflets of the National WTCU, 1897-1908

"Report of the Franchise Department," Annual Meeting Minutes of the [National] Woman's Christian Temperance Union, 1915 (Seattle, WA), p 342, Frances Willard Memorial Library and WCTU Archives, Evanston IL

"Organizers' Reports," Annual Meeting Minutes of the [National] Woman's Christian Temperance Union, 1910 (Baltimore, MD), pp 191-2, Frances Willard Memorial Library and WCTU Archives, Evanston IL

"[DC] Unions as of Sept 30, 1900," Woman's Christian Temperance Union of the District of Columbia Records of Quarterly Work Beginning Oct 1st 1897-July 1901 (handwritten ledger, unpaged) in Box 1, Records of the WCTU of the District of Columbia, Frances Willard Memorial Library and WCTU Archives, Evanston IL

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