Mary Cordelia Montgomery Booze

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Mary Cordelia Montgomery Booze, 1878-1955

By Shennette Garrett-Scott, associate professor of history and African American studies, University of Mississippi

It is no accident of history that the name Mary Cordelia Montgomery Booze (1878-1955) is not more widely known except within a narrow reference to being the first African American woman to sit on the Republican National Committee (RNC). The scion of a renowned father and grandfather and wife of a successful businessman, she is eclipsed in part by the accomplished men in her life. Narrow notions of politics, too, obscures much of her movement as a political power broker in the early to mid-20th century. Booze operated in both the formal and informal political spheres, one of a handful of African American women who counted both U.S. presidents and a vanguard of African American women reformers and activists within her sphere of influence. For three decades, Booze leveraged her political connections to benefit her beloved home town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and controlled the political futures of white Republicans and Democrats through her control of key patronage positions. After the Civil War, Mississippi wrote Jim Crow's primer, modeling for the rest of the country how to disenfranchise, segregate, and economically marginalize African Americans within the color of law, much of that manual written in the blood of African Americans who fell victim to campaigns of racial domestic terror and extralegal violence. That Booze exercised such political influence in a place like Mississippi attests to her political skill and personal ambition.

Neither was Booze's political education an accident of history. While many might point to her distinguished grandfather Benjamin and father Isaiah Montgomery as key influences, the Montgomery women who helped raise Booze were extraordinary by any standard. Her namesake and paternal grandmother Mary Montgomery ran a household, grew some of the finest cotton in Mississippi on land she owned, and managed a sizable agricultural workforce well into her fifties. Booze's grandaunt Rebecca Montgomery was a self-taught physician who helped care for the hundreds of enslaved people on the neighboring plantations of Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, and his brother Joseph. Booze's aunt Mary Virginia Montgomery was her first teacher. First educated at a plantation school alongside her enslavers' children, Virginia, as she was called, completed her education at Oberlin. Aunt Virginia was also an accomplished accountant who had worked in the family businesses on the Davis brothers' plantations and then in Vicksburg after the Civil War. Women worked side-by-side with men to carve Mound Bayou from the wilderness in the late 1880s. In this Black town, women owned extensive tracts of land and worked in a variety of roles, including many positions considered unconventional for women of the period, such as cotton buyers, mill and gin owners, and merchants. Thus, a circle of accomplished women in Booze's family and in her community circle greatly expanded, to borrow the words of historian Stephanie Shaw, what a Black woman ought to be and do in the period.

Booze fought and clawed her entire life. She came by it honestly. As an infant, whites' jealousy and betrayal forced her family to leave their vast plantation and carve out a new home in one of the most bountiful but unforgiving parts of the Mississippi Delta. As an African American and a woman, she faced discrimination because of race and gender, intimately knowledgeable of Jane Crow's entwined racial disenfranchisement, economic marginalization, segregation, and racial sexual violence. Despite these limitations, or perhaps because of them, Booze pursued power and wealth with an almost single-minded intensity that made her the target of both whites' and African Americans' envy and distrust. She had the great fortune to grow up in a prosperous all-Black town known around the country as a testament to African American ingenuity and self-help, yet provincial, small-town enmities dogged her throughout her life and internal family battles led to immense personal tragedy.

Mary Cordelia Montgomery was born at Brierfield Plantation on Davis Bend near Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1878 to formerly enslaved parents Isaiah T. and Martha Robb Montgomery. That same year, the Montgomerys suffered multiple losses: They lost the plantation on which they had been enslaved and that they had arranged to purchase in 1866 from Joseph and Jefferson Davis for a heavily mortgaged $300,000. They lost as well Booze's fraternal twin brother Benjamin, who died when he was only a few months old

The extended family left Davis Bend in the mid-1880s and lived a few years in Vicksburg before Isaiah had the vision to create the all-Black town of Mound Bayou. The town's early years were very difficult, but by 1907 about 800 Black families owned more than 30,000 acres in and around Mound Bayou. The town had about a dozen stores and shops, a railroad depot, and generated more than $650,000 in revenues (or about $18 million in 2019 dollars). It gained the reputation as "the jewel of the Delta" and prominent national leaders like Booker T. Washington, Andrew Carnegie, and President Teddy Roosevelt lauded it as a model of Negro achievement.

Mary Montgomery attended the high school program at Straight University (present-day Dillard University) in New Orleans with her older sister Addie and then completed a two-year business course at Straight. In addition to managing her own plantation, she continued working for her father but also worked as a stenographer for white attorneys in and around Bolivar County. She married Eugene P. Booze on August 7, 1901. The couple had two children; one daughter survived to adulthood. Booze, who had grown up working as a bookkeeper and secretary for her father, accompanied her father and husband around the country on their business and political trips, working as their secretary but also solidifying her own connections to influential white and African American men and women. For example, when the couple lived briefly in Colorado Springs, Colorado, because of Eugene's health, her personal connections helped secure a $100,000 donation for Tuskegee from a white businessman and a separate, sizable donation for Margaret Murray Washington, Lady Principal of Tuskegee, wife of Booker T. Washington, and president of the Southeast Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, specifically for work with Black girls in Alabama. The couple returned to Mound Bayou in 1909. Booze served as town postmaster for nearly a decade, from 1911 to 1920. In addition to overseeing stamp and money-order payments and sales, which exceeded half a million dollars in her first term (about $11.9 million in 2019 dollars), Booze administered postal savings bank accounts for hundreds of customers.

It would not be wholly accurate to describe Booze as a suffragist. Like thousands of other Black women across the country, she participated in a vibrant women's political culture outside of the formal ballot but did not openly campaign for woman suffrage. Within the repressive political culture of Mississippi, Black women did not participate even tangentially in what was essentially a white women's movement. White Mississippi women suffragists made clear that they intended to consolidate rather than undermine white supremacy. Unlike some of her colleagues in other states, such as Adelle Hunt Logan of Tuskegee, Alabama, Booze did not join segregated branches of suffrage leagues or form stand-alone colored women's suffrage clubs. Booze knew firsthand that Black women who asserted their political rights did not escape lynching, sexual violence, whitecapping, and other forms of extralegal violence and harassment. It may also have been that she was used to participating actively in the formal electoral process. She lived in an all-Black town that conducted elections for key municipal offices. The archival record is not clear if women in Mound Bayou could cast votes before 1920, but they participated actively in political activities such as campaigning for candidates and staffing polls.

Local politics could get as contentious as any national contest, which reflects not only the seriousness with which Mound Bayou residents embraced political rights but also disaffection among certain segments of the community in a town riven by deep class divisions. Booze learned from her father how to leverage high-level outside political influence. In 1917, Isaiah petitioned Governor Theodore Bilbo to oust the town's mayor, board of aldermen, and marshal. Bilbo ordered a special election in which loyal Montgomery acolytes replaced the incumbent faction, which had been headed by local businessman Charles Banks. Booze's husband Eugene became mayor.

With passage of the 19th Amendment, Booze stepped boldly and independently into the political fray. She drew inspiration and strength from Black women's vibrant and expansive political culture, a culture committed to racial pride and self-respect, economic autonomy, social justice, and vital social services for Black communities. As a young woman, Booze had been active in the temperance movement and joined with other Mound Bayou women in a wide variety of social and cultural community activities centered on the church, home, and school. She was also active in Mound Bayou's business affairs at the local, state, and national levels. For example, she had participated actively in the Mississippi Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (MSFCWC), formed in 1903. In their early years, the MSFCWC met in conjunction with the Mississippi Negro Business League, which her father helped found in 1908. Booze helped reorganize the MSFCWC in 1920, and she led one of its newly created departments: the Civics Department. Over decades of travels throughout the United States, she cultivated extensive networks of prominent women and men of both races.

In 1924, Booze helped orchestrate a coup by the Black-and-Tan Republicans that secured control of the party under Black lawyer Perry W. Howard and Booze, who became a Republican national committeewoman. Booze is often cited as being the first African American national committeewoman, but at least two credible sources note that Mary Miller Williams of Georgia, whom Booze served alongside for many years, had been appointed shortly before or at around the same time as Booze. In Private Politics and Private Voices, historian Nikki Brown notes that white Republicans objected to Williams "sit[ting] as a representative of the white women of Georgia" (152). It is likely that Southern whites on both sides of the aisles bristled at the appointment of two Black women in highly visible, if not necessarily politically influential, positions in the Republican Party. In the more than two decades Booze served as committeewoman; her service to the party included work on the Committee for Negro Activities and an appointment as assistant to Grace Reynolds, the Western Director of the Women's Division of the RNC. Booze's main responsibility in the position was organizing activities for Black women in the division's twenty-nine states.

Booze, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and a group of about a dozen other women met in Chicago in 1924 to form the National League of Republican Colored Women (NLRCW). The NLRCW sent hundreds of questionnaires to prospective members and other politically active women to gather information about the numbers of Black women registering to vote, any difficulties they faced registering, and their civic education activities. Leaders of the NLRCW hoped to rally African American women around elements of the Republican Party platform, such as creating an interracial commission on Black migration and child labor legislation, despite criticism of the party's continued support of segregation and other racist policies. The NLCRW continued to lobby uncompromisingly for passage of antilynching legislation.

As Booze flexed her political muscles, she sometimes attracted public censure. Whites, both Democrats and Republicans, wrote her for endorsements and used her letters to secure appointments and offices. In 1924, a Senate committee investigated Booze for patronage corruption. Booze controlled federal postmaster appointments in and around Bolivar County--partly through political connections and partly through old-fashioned graft. Booze allegedly extorted incumbent and aspiring postmasters for political contributions ranging from $5 to as much as $1,000. Other politically motivated attacks mined racist and sexist stereotypes. In 1927, Theodore Bilbo accused then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover of dancing with Booze at a Republican Party fete arranged for the future president when he visited the state to inspect flood damage. Booze remained cryptic in her public denials in the press, offering little grist for Democrats' and Lily-White Republicans' mill. She certainly understood, however, that Bilbo's charge tapped into stereotypes about Black women luring white men into illicit sexual relationships. Bilbo tapped into whites' resentment of politically active, visible Black women in formal electoral politics and beliefs that they represented transgressions of social and racial hierarchies.

Booze was not so quiet about a similar incident a few years later. In 1931, Lily-White Republican William Robert "BB" Montgomery of Clarksdale, Mississippi, sought a U.S. marshal appointment. During the state convention, BB had refused admittance of Black party members to meetings. He refused to sit on committees with Booze and told other white party members that he believed no chaste or respectable Black women existed. Booze sprang into action. She wrote personal letters to possible allies, including Mary Church Terrell and President Herbert Hoover, and she enlisted the National Association of Colored Women, NAACP, white Mississippi powerbrokers, and U.S. senators in her campaign to block BB's appointment. A barrage of letters from Black clubwomen in the states represented by members of the Senate subcommittee that recommended marshal appointees combined with direct appeals and telegrams from other Booze supporters to the heads of the Senate Judiciary Committee succeeded in blocking BB's appointment. Booze was especially appreciative of the role Black women played in her vindication. She wrote Terrell, "Our women have played an important part in this matter, and I appreciate their support beyond expression."

As the country sank into the Great Depression, Mound Bayou suffered severe losses. Both Mary and Eugene Booze used their county and state political connections to help the town--or to bypass local officials altogether to make appeals for federal assistance from Hoover and later, as the economic crisis deepened, Roosevelt's New Deal agencies. The Boozes convinced the State Welfare Board, with the help of the governor and Bolivar County officials, to send additional relief funds to Mound Bayou in early 1933. In 1932, the Boozes sought major development loans from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) and Resettlement Administration. While they did not succeed in securing the federal loans, they did secure aid from the Federal Security Administration for seventy-five farm families. They may also have sought assistance from other agricultural programs, such as the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and the Farmers Home Administration, which other Black landlords utilized.

Beyond Booze's professional and political achievements, she faced deep personal tragedies. After her father passed away in 1924, Booze and her husband Eugene served as executors of Isaiah's estate. They evicted from the family home Booze's two unmarried sisters, Lillie Belle, who was physically impaired, and Estelle, a divorcee raising a son. Isaiah Montgomery did not leave a will, but Estelle claimed her parents meant for all of the sisters to share in the family home. Estelle had moved to St. Louis after she married, but she returned to Mound Bayou to file a series of lawsuits against her sister and brother-in-law and to respond to lawsuits they levied against her. In 1927, she succeeded in having the Boozes arrested after she claimed they murdered Isaiah by poisoning him. A local court exonerated the Boozes. Estelle did not give up. In October 1939 during a visit to Mound Bayou, Estelle locked herself in a room of the home. Eugene called two white state police officers to arrest her. The officers broke down the door and shot Estelle four times, claiming they feared for their lives when she allegedly attacked them with a butcher knife. She died at the scene. Most town residents railed against the Boozes, deeply critical of how they had dealt with Estelle.

Booze's difficult personal trials were not over. Six weeks after her sister's murder, a hail of bullets claimed her husband Eugene's life. One early November evening as he left his office, twenty-six shots rang out from the darkness: four mortally wounded Eugene and one hit his chauffeur Andrew Polk. Before Eugene lost consciousness, he said that "unidentified persons" connected to local feuds and motivated by "political jealousy" were responsible. County authorities detained and questioned one man, but they never charged or prosecuted anyone for the crime. In 1940, Booze sold the family home and moved to Harlem to live with her daughter Eugenia.

Despite her best efforts, by the early 1940s Mound Bayou was fast becoming a shadow of its former substance. A fire decimated the town's central business district in 1941. Many of the town's young men and women left to join the war effort. The rebirth of a town once known as the "Black Metropolis of the South" and "Dixie Harlem" lay in plans for its new modern hospital: an effort driven largely by working-class women and a generation of new leaders in Mound Bayou. Dr. Theodore R. M. Howard, described in the Black press as a leader of the "young," "militant," "new" leadership, openly criticized Booze in the pages of the Pittsburgh Courier as having "lost her political usefulness." Dr. Howard was not alone in his criticism of either Booze or Perry W. Howard, both of whom, critics claimed, had lost touch with more militantly assertive post-World War II Black activists. Booze remained politically active in the twilight of her life, fulfilling her RNC duties for Mississippi from New York City. Edna Redmond succeeded Booze as committeewoman in 1948. Booze passed away in New York City on May 23, 1955.


Booze was exceptional and typical. She escaped some of the tactics used to suppress African American women's political expression by living in the confines of Mound Bayou. The scion of the town founders, her considerable land holdings and family's independent business interests spared her from the literacy test and similar provisions in the 1890 Mississippi Constitution that her father, as one of the last-remaining elected Black legislators, helped craft. She was also insulated from extralegal tactics such as racial sexual violence and economic repression used to control Black women voters. White politicians' attacks on her sexual morality, the federal investigation of patronage corruption, and criticisms lobbed by Black activists, however, reveal that she faced personal character attacks typical for women in the public sphere as well as unique kinds of state and bureaucratic harassment aimed at silencing Black women's critiques of the lack of citizenship rights and economic opportunity. She remained committed to the possibilities of formal electoral politics as a path forward despite numerous disappointments by the both major national parties to make women's and Black Americans' rights a priority. The decades she spent within the national and state Republican Party infrastructure helped lay the groundwork for the post-WWII generation of elected legislators and grassroots activists.


Mary C. Booze, ca. 1920s, from Shepperd, The Montgomery Saga, 182

Selected Sources:

African American newspapers, including the Chicago, Ill. Broad Ax; Chicago, Ill. Defender; New York, N.Y. Age; and Pittsburgh Courier

Claude A. Barnett Papers: The Associated Press, 1918-1967

Nikki Brown, Private Politics and Public Voices: Black Women's Activism from World War I to the New Deal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006)

Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

Janet Sharp Hermann, The Pursuit of a Dream (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999)

A. P. Hood, The Negro at Mound Bayou... (Nashville: AME Sunday School Union, 1909

National Notes, Records of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, 1895-1992

Papers of the NAACP, Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939

Gladys Byram Shepperd, The Montgomery Saga: From Slavery to Black Power (1971), unpublished manuscript, Benjamin Montgomery Family Papers, 1872-1938, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.


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