Ophelia Brown Wells


Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Ophelia "Opie" "Ophie" (Brown) Wells, 1853-1940


By Linda D. Wilson, Independent Historian

Illinois African American suffragist Ophelia (Brown) Wells was born in Jamestown, New York, on September 12, 1853, the daughter of Samuel L. and Nettie (Harris) Brown. Throughout her life she was known variously as Opie and Ophie. Her father and mother worked as a barber and hairdresser, respectively. In 1870, Ophelia Brown was teaching music when the family lived in Ellicott, New York. By 1880 the Brown family had moved to Chicago, Illinois. On July 12, 1880, Ophelia married Arthur A. Wells in Cook County, Illinois. Arthur Wells worked as a porter for the railroad. The Wells had at least one child, a son named Willard, who was born in 1891 and died in 1911.

Ophelia "Opie" Wells involved herself in politics as early as 1896. In April that year she served as a delegate from Chicago's Thirteenth Ward to the Republican Party convention held at Springfield. In July 1913, as a member of the Alpha Suffrage Club, she participated in a parade of suffragists celebrating the passage of a suffrage bill in Illinois that granted women the right to vote in municipal and presidential elections. As president of the club, Ida B. Wells-Barnett served as marshal of the July 1913 suffrage parade. Members and friends of the club rode in five touring cars that joined other parade participants. The Chicago Defender reported that the women made "a gala appearance" by wearing costumes and waving flags and banners.

In addition to suffrage work, Wells was an active member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club in Chicago. At the Phyllis Wheatley Home that opened in 1908, she served as supervisor of the sewing activities. As a musician, Wells performed at church functions, lyceums, and club meetings. Additionally, she taught music at the Frederick Douglas Center in Chicago. She also occupied herself with charitable activities. In March 1911 at the City Federation of Women's Clubs meeting, Wells asked club members for a donation to go to a widow and her children after her husband died.

Ophelia Wells died on February 7, 1940, in Norwood Park, Cook County, Illinois. She was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Worth, Illinois. Her husband preceded her in death on August 21, 1923. He was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, in Chicago.


Broad Ax (Salt Lake City, UT), March 11, 1911. Chicago (IL) Defender, July 5, 1913. Chicago (IL) Tribune, April 28, 1896, and August 22, 1923. Chicago (IL) Whip, March 25, 1922. Cook County, Illinois, Death Index, 1878-1922, accessed on Ancestry.com on June 30, 2021. Cook County, Illinois, U.S., Marriages Index, 1871-1920, accessed on Ancestry.com on May 19, 2021. Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, The Story of the Illinois Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, 1900-1922 (1921; NY: G. K. Hall & Co., 1997), 16-17, 36-37, and 95. Illinois, U.S., Death and Stillbirths Index, 1916-1947, accessed on Ancestry.com on May 19, 2021. Abraham Carter Kimani, Sr., "Mothers of the City: The Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home, the Great Migration, and Communal Family in Black Chicago, 1910-1930 (master's thesis, University of California, 2012), 40. Anne Meis Knupfer, "If You Can't Push, if You Can't Pull, Please Get Out of the Way": The Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home in Chicago, 1896 to 1920," Journal of Negro History 82, No. 2 (Spring 1997): 221-231. Anne Meis Knupfer, Toward a Tenderer Humanity and Nobler Womanhood: African American Women's Clubs in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (NY: New York University Press, 1996), 156. "Mrs. Ophie Brown Wells," in Randall K. Burkett, Nancy Hall Burkett, and Henry Lois Gates, Black Biography, 1790–1950: A Cumulative Index (Alexandria, VA: Chadwyck-Healey, 1991). New York Age, May 23, 1907. New York State Census, 1875, Ellicott, Chautauqua County, New York. Lisa G. Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 56, 58, 81, and 93. U.S. Census, 1870, Ellicott, Chautauqua County, New York. U.S. Census, 1880, 1900, 1920, and 1930, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. Katherine E. Williams, "The Alpha Suffrage Club," Half-Century Magazine (September 1916), 12. Charles A. Church, Republican Party in Illinois, 1854-1912 (1912), 178-79.


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