Georgia Anne Nugent

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Georgia Anne Nugent, 1873-1940

By Randolph Hollingsworth, PhD

Georgia Anne Nugent (15 May 1873 – 28 November 1940), first president of the Kentucky Association of Colored Women's Clubs, served as an officer in the National Association of Colored Women. She taught for more than forty years in the segregated Louisville public school system, volunteered as a Baptist Sunday-school teacher for half a century, and participated in many charity works and fundraising campaigns for the community-based organizations.

Nugent was the second eldest daughter of George, a railroad express man and school janitor, and Anna Foster Nugent, a laundress, who lived on South Sixth Street in Louisville, Kentucky. She graduated from Central High School in 1889. The 1900 census shows that she and two sisters (Alice Emma Nugent and Ida B. Nugent, later Paey) were schoolteachers, living with a large extended family in a house with their parents. Nugent continued her education by taking extension courses from Indiana State Normal School, Hampton Institute, and Chicago Normal College (now Chicago State University). She earned a bachelors degree from State Baptist University (now Simmons College of Kentucky) in 1930, and then from Kentucky State Industrial College (now Kentucky State University) in Frankfort in 1936 she earned the A.B. degree in social studies education.

The Louisville Woman's Improvement Club was founded on September 25, 1896, after a visit to Louisville by the investigative journalist and suffragist Ida B. Wells-Barnett of Chicago. Charter members of the club included Mary V. Cook, Georgia A. Nugent, and Mamie E. Steward – and they elected Fannie B. Williams president. The club included the departments established in the National Association of Colored Women (NACW): home and health, race, charity, literature, art, music, current topics. The club sponsored kindergarten training classes for black women and established the first black day nursery in Louisville with Ida B. Nugent as principal.

In 1900 the African American civil rights leader Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (who had been challenging white women to unite with blacks in the fight for suffrage) was discriminated against personally when attending the General Federation of Women's Clubs convention in Wisconsin. She had had been invited to attend as a member of the New England Women's Club but the convention organizers balked at the inclusion of her representing the Woman's Era Club – an African American women's club. She made an official statement on keeping clubwomen separate and refused to sit as a delegate at the convention. Meanwhile Mary Church Terrell, representing the NACW, was refused permission to bring the group greetings on behalf of her association. Despite this rejection, the NACW leadership continued to speak out for women's rights and cooperation with others for social justice for all.

Nugent met in November 1903 with Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, a representative of the National Association of Colored Women, at Louisville's Plymouth Congregational Church. They then met again on December 31, 1903. On that occasion, thirteen clubs (ten of which were clubs from Louisville, one each from Covington, Danville, Frankfort – together representing 180 total members) voted to be federated as the State Federation of Women's Clubs of Kentucky – the name was later changed to Kentucky Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Inc. (KACWC). Nugent was elected as the first state president at this meeting which included George Washington Carver of Tuskegee Institute as a guest. Their motto: "Looking upward, not downward; Outward not inward; Forward, not backward," was similar to the national motto of Order of the King's Daughters and Sons (of which Mary V. Cook Parrish, KACWC state organizer, was a member). Alice Nugent composed the KACWC song. Nannie Helen Burroughs recruited Mary Church Terrell to speak in Louisville in June 1905. (Burroughs was raising money for her school by 1907 and opened her school in Washington D.C. in October 1909). In 1906, the Kentucky association formally joined the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).

The 1911 National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) convention in Louisville included a draft resolution condemning disfranchisement on grounds of both sex and race. However, according to W.E.B. DuBois, Rev. Anna Howard Shaw scuttled the resolution since she believed black women's clubs were anti-suffragist. This attitude showed a lack of understanding – or even willful denial – since African American women activists had organized suffrage clubs, participated in open-air meetings and written essays in support of the cause since its earliest beginnings in the nineteenth century. Even the more conservative and class-conscious African American clubwomen such as Margaret Murray Washington and Mary Church Terrell spoke in support of universal suffrage. At every convention, the NACW produced resolutions supporting suffrage for black men and women. However, black women activists had more immediate priorities: seeking socio-economic justice, raising awareness about incidents of racial violence, and challenging segregation in ways that would make their families and communities safer and healthier.

In 1914 Georgia Nugent was elected to the rigorous job of corresponding secretary for the NACW; then, in 1918 she won election as Chairman of the Executive Board, a position in which she served through 1922. In addition, in August 1915 Nugent took a leadership role in the newly formed Northwestern Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. Delegates from eighteen states met on August 16th at St. Mark's AME church in Chicago. The chairman elected was Mrs. J. Snowden Porter of Illinois; Nugent was put on the committee on by-laws and constitution (an important and busy role in African American women's club work); and, Martha V. Webster of Kentucky was elected as organizer. Similar to the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, they applied in vain for membership in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Nugent might have been convinced by the NAWSA's leadership sending out an anti-racism resolution in October 1917 and writing essays in The Crisis in 1917 of their common cause for democracy. Nevertheless, Nugent used her role as NACW's corresponding secretary when she wrote to encourage black clubwomen to take leadership roles across racial boundaries in the war efforts at the local level. She urged clubs to show their support for American patriotism through various service groups as "means of a closer cooperation... cooperate in every way from conservation of food, Red Cross work, and buying of Baby Bonds and Liberty Bonds." (Nugent, Report of the Corresponding Secretary for 1917 & 1918 in NACW, 11th Biennial Convention Minutes, July 1918, quoted by McDaniel, p.149)

In 1917 Nugent was part of the organizing committee to raise funds for paying off the mortgage and restoring the home of Frederick Douglass at Anacostia, Washington D.C. She stayed on the Advisory Board of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association through 1922 when the restored home was finally dedicated on August 12, 1922. As Mary Talbert, president of NACW, wrote in 1922, the campaign showed "the world that the Colored Women of American stand united.... We can and will stand for a better, higher American Citizenship of which we are a big factor and play an important part." Nugent would also have had a hand in crafting "An Eastern Appeal to Western Women Winning the West for Women Through Suffrage," a public letter from the NACW in the summer of 1918. The powerfully stated prose emphasized the importance of the ballot for black women and for women of the West to stand by the disenfranchised women of the East.

"It is women for women now, and shall be till the fight is won. ... How can our nation be free with half of its citizens politically enslaved? ...This is why we place suffrage before all other national issues. ... Women of these states, unite. We have only our chains to lose, and a whole nation to gain. Remember your sisters everywhere, as democracy is democracy the world over." (The Denver Star, July 13, 1918)

That same year the Kentucky clubwomen formed a committee to lobby the legislature in the interest of women and children. They had been successful also in getting two books on black history and culture added to the list of materials approved for study in Kentucky public schools for black children.

For African American women, the successful passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was yet another twist in the long road to civil rights for which every individual and every clubwoman must fight. Nugent, as chair of the NACW Executive Committee, commented in 1920 on the NACW proposal to establish a citizenship school: "The ballot without intelligence back of it is a menace instead of a blessing and I like to believe that women are accepting their recently granted citizenship with a sense of reverent responsibility." (NACW Reel 1, frames 0613, quoted by McDaniel, p. 149)

Nugent's careful attention to improving one's own and a neighbor's education, health and sanitation as well as decorum was not unusual in its underlying assumption that racial barriers could be breached in this way. However, the systemic racism already firmly in place worked against her. Even after 1920, in a strong push to get white women to vote in Louisville, the Democratic Party of Kentucky had no qualms in race-baiting. In a pamphlet directed to "Women of Louisville!" and including a free packet of Sharp's sewing needles, a section was devoted to showing how black women voters were a threat to white supremacy norms.

The women have it in their hands to win the November Election. They can do it by turning out in full force on Registration Days.
Only sixty out of every hundred white women voters registered last year.
At the same time 83 out of every hundred negro women voters registered.
Study these figures carefully and you will readily see that you must
If You Fail to Vote, You Will Fail in Loyalty to Your Children, Your Home, Your City.

Georgia Nugent retired from teaching in the spring of 1938, and she traveled extensively with her sister Alice. On November 25, 1940, she died in her home after suffering a stroke. She is buried in the Eastern Cemetery in Louisville. After her death, the Louisville Women's Improvement Club was renamed the "Georgia A. Nugent Improvement Club" to honor this nationally renowned and respected activist.


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