Mary Elizabeth Edwards (Nemard)

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Mary Elizabeth Edwards (Nemard), 1899-1957

By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware, Emerita

Appearing only as "Miss Edwards" on the list of suffrage supporters who attended the founding meeting of the Wilmington, Delaware, Equal Suffrage Study Club, in March, 1914, Mary Elizabeth Edwards was a few months shy of her fifteenth birthday at the time. Born in Philadelphia in July, 1899, she was the daughter of George E. Edwards, a barber, and Pauline Gatling Edwards. George was originally from Maryland, Pauline from Murfreesboro, North Carolina. The couple had married in Philadelphia in 1897. By 1910, Pauline and Mary were living in Wilmington, boarding with the Perry family at 213 West 11th Street while Pauline worked in domestic service and Mary attended school. The Perrys were strivers. Originally from South Carolina, Thomas J. Perry worked as an insurance agent while Anna E. Perry, also a South Carolinian, was a dressmaker. Their older daughter, Celestine, a 1906 graduate of the Howard School, taught at Wilmington's "colored school #29," an elementary school. The younger girl, Edna, along with Mary Edwards, attended the Howard School, the only school in the state offering a full K-12 curriculum for African American students, including a pedagogy program training pupils to become teachers.

Through their connections to the Perry family and the Howard School, Pauline and Mary Edwards were involved with Wilmington's African American community institutions and acquainted with the individuals who sustained them. Thomas Perry belonged to the Odd Fellows Lodge, founded before the Civil War, and was a lay leader in the city's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, known to everyone as "Big Bethel." Its pastor, Rev. H. Y. Arnett, helped lead the Wilmington chapter of the NAACP, chartered in 1915.

In 1912, George Edwards died in Philadelphia at the age of fifty-seven. The same year, Pauline took a position at matron at the Sarah Ann White Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons, a community care facility where mother and daughter now lived. Located at 822 French Street, the home had a solid roster of boosters, fund-raisers, and donors, including Edwina Kruse, the much-admired principal of both the Howard School and school #29, and white allies. Alice Moore Dunbar (later Dunbar-Nelson), who lived nearby on French Street, was a supporter, as were several other Howard School teachers.

Given these contexts, Mary Edwards's attendance at the initial suffrage club meeting comes into clearer focus. The meeting, held at Emma Gibson Sykes's home on East 10th Street, brought together neighbors, Howard School teachers, supporters of the Sarah Ann White Home, and incorporators of the Garrett Settlement House, which opened in January 1914 as a community center for black Wilmingtonians. She may have attended with Sarah E. Tate, with whom she participated in a musical program at Shiloh Baptist Church in 1913, or with Caroline B. Williams, the Howard School's geography teacher and a key figure in Shiloh Baptist's musical programming.

After the initial meeting of the suffrage organization, Mary Edwards gave her support to the cause through her participation in the Phillis Wheatley Club at the Garrett Settlement. As the club's vice-president, not long before its first annual meeting in 1915 she took the pro-suffrage side in a debate on women's voting rights. Although two members took the part of the opposition, Wheatley club members evinced little anti-suffrage sentiment.

Mary Edwards finished her education at the Howard School at the 8th grade level. Perhaps because the Sarah Ann White Home was changing locations in 1915 and the building on French Street was sold, it appears that Pauline and Mary Edwards left Wilmington. By 1923, mother and daughter were living in New York City, doing domestic labor including, for Mary, working as a cook in one of the city's private schools. That year, Mary Elizabeth Edwards married Harold Nemard, a West Indian immigrant who had been born in Jamaica and lived in Panama before taking up residence in Manhattan in 1919. He worked variously as a chauffeur and a factory worker. When Harold applied for U.S. citizenship in 1931, Pauline Edwards served as one of his witnesses. Although he had three children from a previous relationship, it seems Harold and Mary had no children together.

The 1930 and 1940 censuses found Pauline Edwards, Mary Nemard, and her husband Harold living together on West 129th Street in Harlem. Pauline died in 1945 and was buried in the historic Eden Cemetery in Darby, Pennsylvania. Mary died in New York in 1957.


Biographical details on Mary Elizabeth Edwards and her family were difficult to come by, but some can be traced in the decennial censuses and city directories available through Pauline Edwards's 1945 death certificate and Harold Nemard's naturalization application, both found on, were sources of key leads. So, too, were local newspapers from Delaware, Philadelphia, and New York, available on African American newspapers, particularly the Philadelphia Tribune, New York Age and the Amsterdam News were crucial for tracing her later years. For her presence at the founding meeting of the Equal Suffrage Study Club, see "Colored Women Want the Ballot," Wilmington Evening Journal, March 21, 1914, p. 12.

Other useful newspaper articles include:
"Christmas in the Public Schools," Wilmington Every Evening, December 21, 1910, p. 3.
"Christmas in the Wilmington Schools," Wilmington Every Evening, December 20, 1912, p. 14.
"Wilmington Juttings [sic]," Philadelphia Tribune, February 28, 1914, p. 4.
"Debate on Suffrage," Wilmington Morning News, April 2, 1915, p. 7.
"Settlement Class Elects," Wilmington Evening Journal, May 25, 1915, p. 7
"Edwards -- Nemard, New York Amsterdam News, June 27, 1923, p. 8.

For context on Wilmington's African American community and on the Equal Suffrage Study Club, see Annette Woolard-Provine, Integrating Delaware: The Reddings of Wilmington (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003); Pauline A. Young, "The Negro in Delaware: Past and Present," in Delaware: A History of the First State, ed. H. Clay Reed and Marjorie Bjornson Reed (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1947), II, 581-606; and Anne M. Boylan, "Delaware's African American Suffragists: Introduction," Delaware History 35, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2019-2020): 106-16.

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