Willie Mae King (Cannon)

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Willie Mae King (Cannon), 1899-1950

By Amy Hobbs Harris, Associate Professor, Central State University

Willie Mae King was born January 16, 1899 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a student in Chattanooga and at Wilberforce University, King exemplifies the activity of the youngest Black women suffragists leading up to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Her parents were William King and Mattie King, and she was survived by one brother, Clarence King and her husband, C.L. Cannon. Both her parents were born in Georgia; her father was born c. 1873 and her mother was born c. 1874. The couple married in 1895 and was living in Chattanooga by 1900. They had purchased a home on East Fifth Street by 1910, and her father was a wage earner in an ice cream factory. By 1920, the family had moved to 901 Ivy Street in Hamilton, Tennessee, where they owned a home with no mortgage.

King appeared regularly in the local Chattanooga Daily Times and the Chattanooga News while she attended the all-black Howard High School. In 1914, King gave a speech on "Simplicity in Dress," a popular reform movement, at Howard's commencement ceremony. Then, in May 1915, in her third year at the school, she was designated "best all-around student" and participated in a debate between Howard High School and Pearl High School. With her debating partner, Zenobia Howse, she argued in the affirmative on the question of women's suffrage. The Chattanooga Daily Times ran a story with the headline, "Colored Student Debaters Argue Question of Suffrage" on April 24, 1915.

King enrolled at the Academy at Wilberforce University in 1916 and was designated as an Academy fourth year student in the 1917 University Bulletin. To enroll in the Academy, the preparatory arm of Wilberforce University, students needed a certificate of good character and evidence they had passed eighth grade or an examination administered by the Academy. King is listed as a graduate of the Academic Department, the Academy, in the July 5, 1917 issue of The New York Age. King matriculated to Wilberforce University in the fall of 1917 and is listed as a student in 1917-1918 University Bulletin. At the university's graduation ceremonies in June, she placed second in the oratory contest. Hallie Quinn Brown, professor of elocution and a prominent member of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, who would later serve as president of the organization, praised King's prize-winning essay on temperance. The next year, in June 1919, King placed first, winning the faculty prize for an essay titled "Black Madonna." During her final year at Wilberforce University, she was elected as a representative to the Young Women's Christian Association.

In June 1920, Willie Mae King published an essay, "Suffrage and Our Women'' in The Competitor. She opens the essay proclaiming that national suffrage for women is about to be enshrined in the constitution and "the dreams of Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Matt [sic], Elizabeth Stanton, and Dr. Anna Shaw are soon to come true." (60) She then acknowledges the realities of the South where Black men are widely disenfranchised and now Black women may face the same humiliations. She asks of a representative Black woman: "Should she be willing to despair, fold her hands and say, 'We don't want equal suffrage because we will be humiliated at the polls or because the Southern Negro woman will not be allowed to vote?'" After detailing all the ways Black women have contributed to the country: supporting the war effort, working as "dentists, doctors, sculptors, lawyers, and editors," raising children, and participating in civic organizations, King argues that those who are able to vote should and that they should continue to work to challenge the prejudice and "'punk' arguments" that keep people from the polls in the South.

After finishing her time at Wilberforce and as women gained the right to vote, Willie Mae King's voice in the historical record is quieter. In August 1920, she is listed as a speaker at her alma mater, Howard High School, in Chattanooga. The following year, August TN19TN21, she is named as a teacher at Lincoln School for the 1921-1922 school year. After that, the only identifiable mention of her in the Chattanooga newspapers is her death notice in 1950. Her death record states her occupation as a teacher in the public schools and that the cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage.


"Suffrage and Our Women," The Competitor, 1:5 (June 1920), pp. 60-61.

Federal manuscript censuses for Tennessee, 1900-1920, for the household of William King and Mattie King. Accessed via Ancestry Library Edition.

Willie Mae Cannon. Certificate of Death. State of Tennessee, 1950. Accessed via Ancestry Library Edition.

Newspaper stories in The Chattanooga News, The Chattanooga Daily Times, The Xenia Daily Gazette, and The Xenia Evening Gazette, searching for Willie Mae King, Willie M. King, and C.L. Cannon in the indexes of Tennessee and Ohio newspapers, 1900-1950 via Newspapers.com.

1916-1917 Wilberforce University Bulletin. Archive. National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center. Wilberforce, Ohio. p. 140.

1917-1918 Wilberforce University Bulletin. Black Collection. Hallie Q. Brown Memorial Library. Central State University. Wilberforce, Ohio. p. 150.

1919-1920 Wilberforce University Bulletin. Black Collection. Hallie Q. Brown Memorial Library. Central State University. Wilberforce, Ohio. p. 176.

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