Jennie Johnson Shaw Mays


Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Jennie Johnson Shaw Mays, 1890-1937


By Danielle Hoskins, PhD Candidate, University of Iowa

Jennie Johnson, listed variously as "Johnie", "Johnnie", "Jonney", or "Jonnie" Johnson, Shaw, Mays, and Mayse, was born Jennie Madeline Story in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1890, to parents John and Adaline (Humburd) Story. She became a schoolteacher by age 19, living with her mother and stepfather after her father's death. She then moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where on July 3, 1911, she married Gibbs Lamar Johnson, a recent transplant from New Orleans. In Des Moines, Jennie was an active member of many women's clubs and was involved in many of the city's civic activities, contributing to charities and relief organizations, working fundraising drives for the YWCA, and pursuing community service projects with the Home Makers League and other groups. She served as a block sergeant for the Des Moines public welfare board and became the corresponding secretary for the Iowa State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. It was through her club work in Des Moines that Jennie met fellow Black clubwomen Sue M. Wilson Brown and Gertrude Rush, and became, like them, an ardent suffragist. She joined the Des Moines Suffrage Club, one of the largest Black women's suffrage clubs in the state, as well as the Mary Church Terrell Club and the Mary B. Talbert Club, both of which met at times in her home. In those groups, she and other leading Black clubwomen of Des Moines would discuss Iowa's limited suffrage bill in early 1919, and the question of national equal suffrage. She served at least one two-year term as president of the Mary Church Terrell Club (from 1920-1922).

After her first husband's untimely death in January of 1916 at just twenty-seven years old, the young widow threw herself into her club and suffrage work. She wrote passionate articles and poems in favor of suffrage, which were published in theBystander, Iowa's oldest and largest Black newspaper, and endorsed by the Des Moines Suffrage Club. Like many fellow Black suffragists, she saw it as a chance to elevate the race and become better citizens. In May 1916, her piece in the Bystander, "Why the Negro Woman Should Vote" exhorted men to get behind women's suffrage,

because women could help improve government and catch "things that are overlooked by men." "We women are handicapped --we have no vote...are our men so blind that they can't see how the suffrage bill can help us?" Very much aware of the double discrimination Black women faced in the fight for the right to vote, she wrote,

"The reason the southern states could not come to a national settlement on the question of suffrage was because they knew that if they asked for 'woman suffrage,' that would include the Negro woman--that the voting white southerner did not want...they haven't decided how they could manage to grant the white woman the vote and exclude the Negro woman at the same time."

In June of 1916, she read her poem, "An Appeal to Woman," to the state convention of the Iowa Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, in which she urged women to "get yourself ready, and fight with all your might" for the cause of suffrage. She frequently engaged in public debates and gave speeches on the topic of equal suffrage, speaking before crowds at churches, club meetings, conventions, and community centers on the issue. Following Iowa's ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1919, she joined the newly-formed Des Moines Colored Women's League of Women Voters, becoming chairman of its membership committee and serving as a delegate to the state meeting of the Colored League of Women Voters in September 1920.

In September of 1916, she married policeman Harry Shaw in Des Moines, though they divorced before 1922. In 1923, Jennie remarried to Marion R. Mays and relocated to Newton, Iowa, where they raised their family before her death at the age of 46 on January 3, 1937, of uterine cancer.


Jennie Johnson with her third husband, Marion R. Mays, and four stepchildren, circa 1925. Online at


"Club Notes," Bystander (Des Moines, IA), Jan. 9, 1920.

"Colored Women of City Help Put Over $165,000 Drive," Bystander (Des Moines, IA), Feb. 13, 1920.

"Equal Suffrage Debate Proves Interesting," Bystander (Des Moines, IA), April 4, 1919.

Iowa, Death Records, 1920-1967 [Database online]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2017.

Iowa, Select Marriages Index, 1758-1996[Database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014.

Johnson, Johnie [Jennie]. "An Appeal to Woman," Bystander (Des Moines, IA), May 5, 1916.

Johnson, Mrs. G. L. [Jennie]. "Why the Negro Woman Should Vote," Bystander (Des Moines, IA), May 12, 1916.

Mazyck Sundaramoorthy, Robin, and Jinx Coleman Broussard. "Writing and 'Righting': African American Women Seek the Vote," in Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women's Suffrage, edited by Linda Steiner, Carolyn Kitch, and Brooke Kroeger, 78-97. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2020.

"Obituary--Gibbs Lamar Johnson," Iowa State Bystander (Des Moines, IA), Jan. 14, 1916.

"Suffrage Debate at Union Congregational Church," Bystander (Des Moines, IA), March 28, 1919.

"Who's Who in Des Moines Locals," Bystander (Des Moines, IA), Sep. 9, 1920.

"YWCA," Bystander (Des Moines, IA), Feb. 13, 1920.


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