Helena Johnson Downey

Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Helena Johnson Downey, 1874-1952

By Danielle Hoskins, PhD Candidate, University of Iowa

Helena (sometimes listed as "Helen") Johnson was born in Moberly, Missouri, in 1874 to parents Isaac and Nancy Johnson. Her family moved to Ottumwa, Iowa, before 1885. She married William Benjamin Downey, a butcher, in 1895, and with him had at least four children, William Russell Downey, Samuel Leslie Downey, Elizabeth Constance (Downey) Moore, and Mabel Helen Louise (Downey) Hall. Though she had limited formal education beyond her first year of high school, Helena became one of the most prominent members of Ottumwa's small but active black community, founding and leading several women's clubs between the 1890s and 1920s. She was a member of the Ottumwa Ida B. Wells Club, and a founding member and recurring officer of the Good Intent Club, which was initially a needlework club, but it broadened its interests and often discussed suffrage and hosted speakers on voting rights. Described as a "strong-minded and articulate woman," Downey led Iowa's black women's clubs in forming the Iowa branch of the National Association of Colored Women at a convention in Ottumwa in 1902. She is considered the first president of the Iowa State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (ISFCWC). She remained active in the Federation throughout her life, serving several times as its president and in other leadership roles, including parliamentarian, state organizer, and trustee, as it grew from a handful of clubs with around a hundred members, to dozens of clubs with hundreds of members.

During her time with the Federation, it formed an active suffrage committee, as the organization developed a suffrage platform, which it envisioned as means for racial advancement. For Downey and other clubwomen, supporting American war efforts in 1918 was an extension of the suffrage cause; she called on her fellow clubwomen to contribute, writing in The Bystander in January 1918, "We are fighting for a new day and it is coming...every Red Cross button, every Liberty bond, every bit of fuel and food conserved is doing 'our bit' and shows to the world that we are American citizens worthy of justice and protection."

In the ISFCWC, Downey worked alongside fellow suffrage activists Teresa Adams, the Federation's suffrage chair, Gertrude Rush, and Sue M. Brown, and frequently traveled the state to speak at women's clubs' events. Downey was also instrumental in the Iowa Federation's efforts to purchase a home for female African-American students at the University of Iowa (then the State University of Iowa) in 1919, as campus dormitories were segregated.

Downey moved to Chicago before 1930 and lived with her children after her husband's death. She died in 1952 and was buried in Ottumwa.


(Photo from "Iowa State Federation Colored Women's Clubs," The Bystander [Des Moines, IA], May 19, 1916)


Allen, Anne B. "Sowing Seeds of Kindness - and Change: A History of the Iowa Association of Colored Women's Clubs." Iowa Heritage Illustrated 83 (2002), 2-13.

"Helena Downey" "Hard Won; Not Done: A Commemoration of the 100-Year Anniversary of the Ratification of the 19th Amendment from an Iowa Perspective." 19th Amendment Centennial Commemoration Project. https://19th-amendment-centennial.org/helena-downey

"Iowa State Federation Colored Women's Clubs." The Bystander (Des Moines, IA), May 19, 1916.

"To Iowa Club Women." The Bystander (Des Moines, IA), January 4, 1918.

1910 United States Federal Census. Ottumwa Ward 5, Wapello, IA, Roll: T624_426 Page: 14A; Enumeration District: 0144. [Database online]. Provo, UT: Ancestry.com

1930 United States Federal Census. Chicago Ward 5, Cook, IL, Roll: T626_667 Page: 17B; Enumeration District: 0194. [Database online]. Provo, UT: Ancestry.com


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