Ada Sophia McKinley


Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Ada Sophia McKinley, 1868-1952


By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, SUNY Binghamton

Ada Dennison was born in 1868 in Galveston, TX to Joseph and Alice Dennison. In the 1880 census for Corpus Christi, her father was recorded as a hotel waiter and her mother as a laundress. Later she attended Prairie View College and Tillotson Missionary College and taught school briefly in Austin after graduation.

Ada married William McKinley in Nueces, TX in April 1887. The couple lost three young children to diphtheria and migrated to Chicago in the mid-1890s. In 1900 the couple resided at 3726 Dearborn St.; William worked as a railroad porter and Ada as a hairdresser. They had no children at this date, but the household did include a boarder, a black seamstress from Minnesota.

The couple appears next in the 1920 census for Chicago, living in ward 2, the black belt of the city. Ada worked as a hostess in a club and her husband was now a dentist. They rented their home, and their household now included a 10-year-old son and two lodgers. One tenant worked as a waiter in a railroad dining car, while his wife worked as a seamstress. Both were migrants in the city.

Steadily the McKinleys moved upward in Chicago's socio-economic structure. By 1930 William's dental practice was more established and Ada was employed as a social worker in the South Side Settlement House. They moved into the Settlement's building at 3201 Wabash Ave, where Ada lived for the rest of her life. Their 20-year-old son lived with his parents still but was not working, and they took in one lodger, a photographer from Tennessee. They had transitioned from a working-class home in their early years in Chicago to a solidly middle-class household.

By 1940 Ada, now widowed, was living still at 3201 Wabash Ave in the South Side Settlement House. where she worked as the head resident. She only retired from the position in 1949 at the age of eighty. The settlement was renamed the Ada McKinley Community house at her retirement, honoring her thirty years of service to the institution and the community.

The first indication I have found of her political engagement came in March 1915 when Ada McKinley stood in a receiving line to greet those who attended a public reception sponsored by the Alpha Suffrage Club to honor Congressman Martin Madden "for his splendid defense of Negro womanhood." Madden, leader of the Republican political machine in Chicago and Congressman for the district that included Ward 2 in the Black Belt, earned club members' appreciation for his stout opposition to legislation that would have prohibited interracial marriage. Then in 1916 Ada McKinley was active in support of the Republican presidential candidate, Charles Evans Hughes. This was the first presidential election in which Illinois women could vote and African Americans had good reason to oppose the Democratic incumbent, Woodrow Wilson, who had imposed segregation on black government workers during his first term as president. McKinley worked in the Chicago office of the Colored Women's National Republican Committee during that campaign. Then in 1922 she served on the Republican

Women's Cook County Campaign Committee. While supporting Republican candidates, McKinley also became active in the non-partisan Illinois League of Women Voters and served as a representative of the colored branch within Cook County, known as the Douglas League, to the statewide LWV conference held in November 1929.

Women's suffrage was only one of many causes that Ada McKinley took up in more than five decades of activism. She was active in the Circle of the King's Daughters, serving for a period as the fraternal organization's chairman. After the United States' entrance into World War I McKinley volunteered as a hostess for black soldiers at War Camp Community Services, providing recreation for black soldiers about to be sent to the European front. Her most public statement in these years came during the race riot that erupted in Chicago in July 1919. "Working to relieve racial tension," McKinley linked arms with three white women reformers--Jane Addams, Mary McDowell, and Harriet Vittum--and "courageously walked through hordes of angry mobs in a salient demonstration of peace and unity. Rioters were startled when they observed the ladies undauntedly sitting in a neighborhood restaurant, breaking the color line and enjoying the camaraderie of each other's company."

Ada McKinley's life was a fitting expression of the integration of a commitment to woman suffrage enmeshed in a much broader racial reform agenda that so characterized the activism of black women suffragists in the first decades of the twentieth century. Her life narrative reflected as well the importance of the Great Black Migration and of broader racial and community uplift that were such a part of the black women's club movement in this era.


Ada S. McKinley, in Rima Lunin Schultz and Adele Hast, eds., Women Building Chicago, 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), p. 571.


Federal manuscript censuses of Corpus Christi, TX, 1880; Chicago, 1900-1940, accessed via

Ancestry Library Edition, marriage record, William R. McKinley and Ada Dennison, 4 April 1887, Nueces, TX.

Find-a-Grave death record for Ada Sophia McKinley, 25 Aug. 1952, in Chicago.

"Illinois Women Voters to Hold Annual Session," Chicago Tribune, 17 Nov. 1929, p. 150.

Finding aid for papers of the League of Women Voters of Cook County. (Cook County, Ill.), Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Accessed online at

Catheryn Elaine Lampkin, bio sketch of Ada Sophia Dennison McKinley, in Rima Lunin Schultz and Adele Hast, eds., Women Building Chicago, 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), pp. 571-73. Includes the quote about McKinley and the 1919 race riot in Chicago.

"Alpha Suffrage Club," Chicago Defender, March 20, 1915, p. 3.


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