Charlotte Washington Dett

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Charlotte Washington Dett, 1862-1937

By Briana Royster, graduate student, New York University

Charlotte Dett was born in Drummondsville, Ontario, Canada (near Niagara Falls) in March 1862. Her mother, Harriett Washington was born in the United States, presumably enslaved, and escaped to Drummondsville at some point prior to Charlotte's birth. Charlotte was educated and could read and write. In 1880 she married Robert Dett, who was over 15 years her senior. She had four children: Samuel, Robert Nathaniel, Arthur, and Harriet. Only Samuel and Robert lived to be adults. Robert Nathaniel would go on to become a famous composer of African American spirituals, and Samuel was employed until his retirement as the first African American post office worker in Niagara Falls, NY. In 1893, the Detts moved to Niagara Falls, NY, and by 1900, she and her husband were listed as hotel proprietors/boardinghouse operators. By 1900 they had separated and operated separate establishments.

Charlotte joined the black women's club movement probably very shortly after arriving in Niagara Falls. She was a founder and president of the Niagara Falls branch of the Phyllis Wheatley Club for more than two decades. She was also active in the Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs (ESFWC), founded in 1908, in which she was elected vice-president in 1913, the year that the Federation formally supported woman suffrage. She also served at least two terms as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Through these organizations she championed women's suffrage, honored Harriet Tubman, and preserved the home of Frederick Douglass. Dett worked with Mary Talbert of Buffalo a fellow officer in the ESFWC and the NACW. Talbert was a very well-known African American suffrage activist and orator. Through her work with the Empire State Federation, and her friendship with Mary Talbert, Dett came to host well-known African American public officials, such as Robert Moton, president of Tuskegee Institute following the death of Booker T. Washington, William Pickens of the NAACP, and educator Mary McLeod Bethune. Her activism in the NACW led her to participate in many of the Association's national meetings, such as ones in Tuskegee in 1920 and Richmond in 1922.

Dett's community activism continued well after the passage of the 19th Amendment. As president of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, Dett was among the organizers of the Niagara Community Center that opened to serve the African American community in March 1929. She continued to direct programming at the Center for many years until health issues led to a curtailing of her activities.

Charlotte Dett was representative of the quintessential African American clubwoman of her time. She held memberships with several social, political, and fraternal organizations, including the National Association of Women's Clubs, Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs, the Phyllis Wheatley Club (1932 President), Women's Republican Club (Executive Board member), Order of Eastern Star (officer), Bison City Court of Calanthe, Knights of Pythias, the Queen Esther Household of Ruth (officer), and The Niagara Political Club, among many others during her lifetime. From the 1910s through her death, Mrs. Dett was a regular feature in the Black Press for her various club activities or the entertaining of society friends in her home, which she shared with her son Samuel in Niagara Falls, NY.

She proved a strong supporter of the Republican party. She founded a Coolidge and Dawes Club to aid Coolidge's 1924 campaign and she served as a Republican committeewoman between 1928 and 1933. In 1928 she hosted a local campaign rally that featured noted black suffragist, Addie Hunton from Brooklyn.

During the period of her intense club activity she ran a boardinghouse with 17 rooms within walking distance of Niagara Falls, catering to the growing number of African American tourists as well as black migrants to the area.

In 1908 her son Nathaniel graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Beginning in 1913 he taught at Hampton Institute, eventually directing the Music Department there. By 1930, Nathaniel had become a famous composer and Mrs. Dett traveled with her son and the Hampton Choir touring several European countries. She also owned her own 17-room boardinghouse at this time, with an assessed value of $3500. In 1932 the Junior League Auxiliary of the ESFWC was established at her home.

Dett continued to run a boardinghouse all her life. Her son Samuel lived with her and in 1920 and 1930 the census recorded her as having 3 boarders living with her each year. She probably had a fuller house in tourist season. She experienced repeated bouts of illness in the 1930s and died on April 8, 1937 at the age of 75. At the time of her death, she also had two granddaughters, Helen and Josephine Dett, both children of Robert Nathaniel Dett. She is buried at Fairview cemetery, in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. A tree was planted in her memory in Rochester, NY following her passing.

Michael Boston, the historian who has written the most compellingly about Charlotte Dett, summarized her life in these terms: "Her philosophical outlook incorporated Du Bois's Talented Tenth concept and Booker T. Washington's Captains of Industry vision, along with the Colored Women's Club notion of Lifting as We Climb. . . . Her motto seems to be have been, 'enjoy the world and its many treasures but attempt to leave it a better place than you inherited.'"

Sources:

1881, 1891 Censuses of Canada

1900-1930 United States Federal Censuses, Niagara Falls

1905 New York State Census

"Lively Interest is Shown in Work of Women's Clubs: Empire State Federation to Hold Annual Meeting in Brooklyn," Baltimore Afro-American, January 31, 1914

"Noted Soloist to Appear in Buffalo," The Chicago Defender, November 27, 1915

The Chicago Defender, April 1, 1916

"Steady Advance of Women's Clubs," Denver Star, July 14, 1917

"News From Niagara Falls," The Chicago Defender, July 6, 1918

"New York State: Buffalo," The Chicago Defender, May 3, 1930

"Niagara Falls, NY," The Chicago Defender, October 4, 1930

"Niagara Falls," The Chicago Defender, February 27, 1932

"Niagara Falls," Baltimore Afro-American, July 9, 1932

"Niagara Falls, NY," Pittsburgh Courier, October 29, 1932

"Mrs. Charlotte Dett" The Niagara Falls Gazette, April 9, 1937

"Mourn Death of Mother of Dr. R. N. Dett," The Chicago Defender, April 24, 1937

Michael B. Boston. "Charlotte Dett: Influential Niagaran Mother, Entrepreneur, Local and National Leader and Socialite," New York History Review (Nov. 30, 2019), accessed online at http://newyorkhistoryreviewarticles.blogspot.com/2019/11/charlotte-dett-influential-niagaran.html

Regennia N. Williams. "Robert Nathanial Dett and African America's Christian Kingdom of Culture, 1926-1932," in The African Diaspora and the Study of Religion, Theodore Louis Trost, ed. (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007).


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