Ethel L. Cuff (Black)

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Ethel L. Cuff (Black), 1890-1977

By Anne M. Boylan, Professor Emerita, University of Delaware

Delta Sigma Theta Founder, Suffragist, Teacher

In 1913, Ethel Letitia Cuff participated in two notable events. In January, she helped found the Delta Sigma Theta sorority at Howard University, where she was a student. Then, on March 3, the Delta sisters marched as a group in the massive national woman suffrage procession held in Washington, D.C. on the eve of Woodrow Wilson's first inauguration. Ever after, her involvement in those activities would define the contours of her long life. As one of the twenty-two Delta Sigma Theta founders, she was a regular attendee at annual conventions and reunions, where she was honored as a pioneer. Her participation with a group of Black women in two notable 1913 events shaped her understanding of African American history, too; she became a history teacher and an advocate for teaching Black history to Black youth.

Born in Wilmington, Delaware, on October 17, 1890, Ethel Cuff was the daughter of Richard Cuff, listed in census reports as, variously, a day laborer and a school janitor, and Letitia Wilson, who in 1910 was running her own dressmaking establishment. It was a point of pride with the family that the Wilsons had been free for at least two generations and were property owners, and that Letitia Wilson's father, Moses Wilson, had served in the United States Colored Troops' infantry during the Civil War. Letitia Wilson's brief first marriage, to William E. Coxson, a head waiter at a Baltimore hotel, had been chronicled in local newspapers, with descriptions of her wedding finery and the feast that followed the ceremony, which was held at the Wilson family's Wilmington home.

By 1885, when Letitia married Richard Cuff, she was a widow. Ethel was the second of the couple's children; an older brother, Harlan, had been born two years earlier, in 1888. Their middle-class status did not, however, spare the family from the harsh health conditions that plagued Wilmington's Black residents during Ethel's formative years. Her childhood was marked by the loss of three siblings: a sister Bertie, born in 1895, died two weeks after birth; another sister Lena, born in 1897, died of whooping cough (pertussis) at age five; and yet another sister, Albertine, born in 1899, died at the age of fifteen months. Perhaps it was experiencing those losses that led Harlan to pursue a career as a physician, eventually practicing in Wilmington and in Maryland.

Richard and Letitia Cuff poured the family's resources into their two surviving children, cultivating Harlan's and Ethel's educational aspirations. Both attended Wilmington's Howard School, the only school for Black children in Delaware that offered a full kindergarten through high school program. Ethel excelled academically, winning a five-dollar gold prize upon graduation from eighth grade in 1903. She then enrolled in the Bordentown, New Jersey, Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth as a high school pupil, where she won "scholarship prizes" and graduated "with the highest scholastic average." By 1910, she had matriculated at Howard University, expecting to graduate with the class of 1914. An illness impeded her progress, and she graduated cum laude with the class of 1915, having earned a B.A. degree with teaching certification.

At Howard University, as historian Paula Giddings has noted, academic excellence was emphasized and expected. It became a cornerstone value of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, whose founders sought to avoid any suggestion that sororities were frivolous or purely social undertakings. As one of the group's founders and as vice-president of the Alpha chapter, Ethel Cuff supported its commitment to personal intellectual growth and community involvement. The sorority also cultivated women's leadership skills. In addition to pursuing her studies and regularly making the honor roll, she sang in the Howard choir and was active in the local Black division of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). Upon graduation, she won a prize from the NAACP's college chapter for one of her essays.

The Deltas' participation in the 1913 suffrage procession required courage in the face of potential danger, doubly so because the sight of Black women marching might provoke spectator violence in the nation's segregated capital. Nor was their involvement without controversy within suffrage circles. Some parade organizers actively discouraged Black suffragists' engagement; others sought to relegate Black women to a "colored" section. But the Deltas, joined by honorary member Mary Church Terrell, marched with the college section, thereby making what historian Cathleen Cahill has described as "a powerful statement" by their "refusal to accept segregation" and their insistence on being accorded the same respect as their white counterparts. Terrell's presence joined their interests to the other causes that Terrell's organization, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) championed, all of which together constituted a broad platform of racial and gender justice.

While at Howard, Ethel Cuff roomed with Naomi Sewell (later Richardson) and both marched in the 1913 suffrage parade. According to Richardson's biography, the two remained close friends until Cuff's passing in 1977.

After her graduation from Howard University, Ethel Cuff briefly taught domestic science in Sedalia, Missouri, and English in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. By 1924, she had returned to Delaware and was teaching history at the State College for Colored Students in Dover (now Delaware State University), first during the summer session and then as a regular member of the faculty. In 1930, she accepted a position with the New York City public school system, becoming the first Black teacher at Public School #108 in Richmond Hill, Queens, and teaching in Queens until her retirement in 1957.

In 1924, while teaching at the State College for Colored Students, Ethel Cuff contributed an essay to The Messenger, a periodical founded by labor activist and socialist A. Philip Randolph in 1917. The Delaware suffragist and political activist Alice Dunbar-Nelson, whom Ethel Cuff knew from Wilmington, had recently published a significant two-part report on Delaware as part of The Messenger's series "These Colored United States." Cuff's essay, entitled "On Race Pride," made an unapologetic argument for teaching African history to Black students as a means of means of instilling racial pride and providing "a solution to the Negro problem." African Americans, she argued, had been so "segregated, jim-crowed, lynched, and otherwise intimidated," that they were "ashamed of [their] African blood." If pupils learned "history from the viewpoint of the Negro, not the viewpoint of some other race," they would realize that "they have everything to be proud of because of their African blood." She followed up on her argument through observations of Negro History Week. In 1927, for instance, she took charge of a full week's events at a Trenton school that featured talks on Black women "who had achieved fame in education, letters, art and the professions" and on "prominent Negroes."

During her career, Ethel Cuff maintained her connections to Wilmington and to Delaware. While teaching in Dover, she boarded at a college dormitory but her main residence remained the Wilmington home in which her parents lived. In 1925, she purchased a house at 1318 Walnut Street, to which her parents moved. The family lived there together until Letitia's death in 1927 and Richard's in 1935. By then, her brother Harlan and his wife Blanche Russ Cuff had joined the household, with Harlan maintaining his physician's office at the residence as well. Ethel sold the house to Harlan and Blanche in 1942 for a nominal amount. (Blanche Russ Cuff, a Howard School graduate like her husband and sister-in-law, taught in several venues, including a stint as head of the day school at the Delaware Industrial School for Colored Girls.)

After moving to New York City in 1930, and especially after her father's death, Ethel Cuff gradually shifted the locus of her life to Jamaica, Queens, where she purchased a home and where, in 1940, she married David Horton Black, a Georgia-born sales manager at the real estate firm of Hugo R. Heydorn, an immigrant from Guyana. Heydorn led the firm in championing home-owning by Black New Yorkers and challenging restrictive covenants that kept them out of white neighborhoods. Horton Black served as the agent for one such transaction in St. Albans, Queens, where white neighbors attempted to drive a Black couple out of their recently purchased home. Ethel and D. Horton Black's own "well-appointed home" became the center of regular meetings of Delta Sigma Theta members, with the couple's hospitality often noted in newspaper reports. As the sorority grew in numbers and prestige, Ethel Cuff Black's role as a founding member meant that she was regularly honored at commemorative events, including at the 1954 dedication of the group's Washington, D.C. headquarters.

After Horton Black's death in 1951 and her retirement in 1957, the Queens Alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta cherished Ethel Cuff Black as a pioneer and helped care for her in her final years. After her death on September 18, 1977, the Wilmington, Delaware, Alumnae Chapter named a local Kiwanis Club library in her honor. She was buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Sources:

Genealogical information on the Wilson, Cuff, and Black families can be traced through the censuses, city directories, vital and military records, and property transfers found on Ancestry.com as well as the sources listed below. The following articles provided useful details:

"Colored Nuptials," Wilmington Daily Republican, June 29, 1883, p. 1.
"Mrs. Letitia Cuff Succumbs," Wilmington Every Evening, December 6, 1927, p. 20.
"Richard Cuff Dead," Wilmington Journal-Every Evening, October 26, 1935, p. 7.
"Pedagogues in Formal Dinner, Amsterdam News, Nov. 16, 1940, p. 14.
"Dr. Harlan A. Cuff," Wilmington Morning News, September 15, 1950, p. 4.
"Jamaica Notes," Amsterdam News, February 24, 1951, p. B4
"Mrs. Cuff, Ex-Teacher Dead at 86," Wilmington Morning News, July 12, 1972, p. 9.
"Ethel C. Black," New York Daily News, September 21, 1977.
"Ethel Black Dies at 86; Retired Queens Teacher," Amsterdam News, September 24, 1977, p. B6.

For information on Ethel Cuff Black's education, career, and activism, consult the following sources:

"Colored Graduates Receive Diplomas," Wilmington Evening Journal, June 24, 1903, p. 2.
"Report of the Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth, Bordentown," in Annual Report of the State Board of Education, and of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of New Jersey (Trenton, N.J.: n. p., 1905-06), p. 280
"Howard University Commencement," New York Age, June 10, 1915, p. 2.
"Wilmington Jottings," Philadelphia Tribune, October 2, 1915, p. 4.
"Our Schools," Black Dispatch, Oklahoma City, 28 September 1917 p. 4.
"Howard School Oratorical Contest," Wilmington Morning News, June 15, 1920, p. 6.
"Summer School for Colored Students," Wilmington Evening Journal, June 18, 1920, p. 11.
"Trenton, N.J.," New York Age, February 26, 1927, p. 8.
"State College to Open September 12," Wilmington Every Evening, August 31, 1927, p. 2.
"Mordecai Johnson Arouses Wilmingt[o]n at a Meeting Sponsoring the Y.M.C.A," Philadelphia Tribune, February13, 1930, p. 3.
"Jamaica News and Social Notes, Amsterdam News, September 17, 1930, p. 14.
"Deltas Hold Meeting," Amsterdam News, October 3, 1936, p. 11.
"Delta Sorority NY Chapter Will Entertain," Chicago Defender, August 5, 1939, p. 18.
"Pedagogues in Formal Dinner, Amsterdam News, Nov. 16, 1940, p. 14.
"Jim Crow Rocking St. Albans as Whites Attack Negro Home," Amsterdam News, October 2, 1943, p. 15
"Deltas Dedicate Headquarters in D.C.," Chicago Defender, February 20, 1954, p. 14.
"Four Delta Founders at Nat'l Meet." Chicago Defender, August 30, 1958, p. 15.

For her 1924 article, see Ethel L. Cuff, "On Race Pride," The Messenger 6, no. 12 (December 1924): 383-84.

These secondary works provide key contexts for Ethel Cuff Black's involvement in the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the 1913 suffrage procession:

Paula Giddings, In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Sorority Movement (New York: William Morrow, 1988).
Jessica Harris, Black Greek-Letter Organizations in the Twenty-First Century: Our Fight has Just Begun (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2008).
Cathleen D. Cahill, Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).
Alison Parker, Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

Alice Jefferson Marshall et al., A Life of Quiet Dignity: Naomi Sewell Richardson (New York: Red Elephant Publishers, 1995).

Photos:

A photo of the founders of Delta Sigma Theta sorority can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta_Sigma_Theta#/media/File:Deltasigmathetafounders.jpg

Ethel L. Cuff is second from the right in the front row.

A later photo appears in "Deltas Dedicate Headquarters in D.C.," Chicago Defender, February 20, 1954, p. 14.


Related Writings in Database

View works by

View works about

 

 

 

Back to List of Black Woman Suffragists
back to top