Blanche Virginia Harris Brooks Jones

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Blanche Virginia Harris Brooks Jones, 1844-1918

By Carol Lasser, Professor Emerita, Oberlin College

Born in Monroe, Michigan, in 1844, Blanche moved to Oberlin as a child of 10. Her freeborn parents sought advanced education for their six children--and at least four of them attended Oberlin College, including Blanche, who received a diploma from the Literary Course in 1860.

Soon after graduation Blanche Harris became one the first teachers that the American Missionary Association sent to educate freed people in the South. Posted initially to Norfolk, Virginia, then to Natchez, Mississippi, and subsequently to Henderson, North Carolina, she finally settled in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she married fellow teacher William Lafayette Brooks in 1871. They had one child, Maude, born in 1872, and Blanche resumed her work. William died in 1887, but Blanche stayed on in Knoxville, becoming a school principal. In 1893, Noted Negro Women, a biographical compendium for outstanding women of color, praised Blanche's "natural endowment of taste, judgment, firmness and decision of character, softened and modified by a sweetness of temperament," commending especially her five years of service as president of the local chapter of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). That same year, Blanche left Knoxville for Oberlin, where her daughter enrolled in the Conservatory and Blanche married a childhood acquaintance, the distinguished Elias Toussaint Jones, who had earned the A.B. at Oberlin College in 1859.

On her return to Oberlin, Blanche rejoined First Congregational Church, in which she had grown up, and immersed herself in the work of predominantly white benevolent organizations. She took charge of the sewing school operated by the Oberlin Mutual Benefit Association, and joined the board of the Kindergarten Association. A member of the Oberlin WCTU, she testified to "a steady advance in the Purity department, and made a strong plea for reform on the subject of divorce." Nominated by a fellow African American in the Republican caucus, she ran unsuccessfully for the Oberlin School Board in 1899. The next year, she ran and lost again, this time nominated on the "Independent People's Ticket." In 1903 when she prepared to travel to see a new grandchild, the Mutual Benefit Association praised her as "a most faithful and enthusiastic work[er]" whose "place will be hard to fill."

Her colleagues were right. A relatively affluent well-educated woman of color long connected to Oberlin, Jones was uniquely positioned to work in both the black and white communities. She was respectability incarnated. Yet, despite her "respectability strategy," she could not halt the stigmatization of blackness. And, in her later years, she devoted targeted energy to the advancement of African Americans.

In 1908 she and her husband Elias boldly chose to welcome the Niagara Movement, a forerunner to the NAACP, to Oberlin for its annual meeting. When her own First Church would not lower its rental fee so that the organization could afford to hold its public gathering in its meeting house, the College provided a hall. Led by W.E. B. DuBois, the fledgling association pledged itself to provide leadership in "the greatest moral battle of modern times: the fight for the abolition of the color line." The closing declaration at its Oberlin meeting proclaimed:

"Obey the law,... but arm yourselves, and when the mob invades your home, shoot to kill." Many locals were stunned. But Blanche and Elias continued to support the Niagara Movement, and its successor, with Elias among the founders of Oberlin's local NAACP chapter.

At the same time, Blanche took a leadership role in Oberlin's all-Black Women's Mutual Improvement Society where she promoted woman suffrage and debated against the notion that Abraham Lincoln was "the colored man's best friend;" this last stance implied her sympathy for the African American radicals then urging a break with the Republicans, rupturing traditional ties to the political party many in Oberlin still revered for its work in emancipation two generations earlier.

Blanche Virginia Harris Brooks Jones died at her daughter's home in Henderson, North Carolina, in 1918, at a moment when even those who had been Oberlin's most distinguished leaders of color could see the encroachment of the community's color line, with their exclusion from local elected offices and newer neighborhoods. She was buried in Oberlin's Westwood Cemetery.


In addition to the biographical sketch and portrait in Monroe A. Majors, Noted Negro Women (Chicago: Donohue and Henneberry, 1893), information on Jones can be found at the Oberlin College Archives in her Alumna File as well as in the Lawson-Merrill Papers.

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