Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biographical Database of Black Suffragists
Biography of Mary Brown Martin, 1877-1939
By Caryn E. Neumann, Associate Teaching Professor, Miami University of Ohio
African American Suffragist, Cleveland, Ohio
Mary Brown Martin, born in Raleigh, North Carolina on May 31, 1877, the only daughter of former slaves Winfield. Scott and Jane (Curtis) Brown, came to Cleveland in 1886. She attended Rockwell School before graduating as class vocalist from Central High School in 1900. Graduating from high school in her early 20s may reflect the lack of educational opportunities for blacks in Brown's birthplace. Intending to pursue a teaching career, she graduated from Cleveland Normal Training School in 1903. She then taught for two years in Birmingham, Alabama and Arkansas before returning to Cleveland. She married Alexander H. Martin in 1905 and the couple had four children: Lydia J., Alexander H., Jr., Stuart B., and Sarah M. (Pereira). Martin switched from Christianity to join the Baha'i faith in 1913. She died on November 19, 1939 of bronchial pneumonia and a cerebral hemorrhage at City Hospital. Her husband and children survived her. She is buried in Highland Park Cemetery.
One of the few black suffragists in Cleveland, Martin's activities are mostly lost to history. She became interested in politics early in life and her daughter Sarah recalled one of her mother's favorite sayings, "If a woman is good enough to be the mother of the president, she is good enough to vote." It is certain that she was from a reform-minded family with a strong commitment to education. Of her six brothers, two became physicians, two became lawyers, and two became dentists. Her husband, who graduated from Western Reserve University in 1897 as one of the first African Americans to do so, had a long career as an attorney active in Cleveland Republican politics. Both Martins worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Negro Welfare Association, and the Playhouse Settlement. Martin also served on various committees of the Phillis Wheatley Association. Their son, Alexander Jr., also became an attorney and was the first African American to run for mayor of Cleveland. The other three children became educators.
Martin worked as a teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools in the 1920s before winning election in 1930 as the second woman and first African American on the Cleveland Board of Education. The position made Martin one of the most influential black women in the predominantly white city of Cleveland. She served two terms, before declining to run again in 1937. Martin stepped back into the political arena in 1939, despite family fears for her health. She died shortly after winning another election to the Board of Education. Mary B. Martin Elementary School at 8200 Brookline Avenue was named in her honor in 1965.
Alexander Martin Family Papers, Western Reserve Historical Society; "Alexander H. Martin," Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, accessible at https://case.edu/ech/articles/m/martin-alexander-h; "Mary Brown Martin," Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, accessible at https://case.edu/ech/articles/m/martin-mary-brown; "Cleveland Negro Woman Named on School Board," Daily Free Press, November 7, 1929, p. 1; Lydia Jane Martin, "Mary Brown Martin," inLights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Baha'is in North America, Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis and Richard Thomas, eds pp. 283-n.p. Bahai Publishing, 2006; Regennia N. Williams, " ‘Race Women' and Reform in Cleveland, Ohio" in Proceedings of the 2002 Annual Meeting, ed. Vladimir Steffel, pp. 113-128, Marion, OH: Ohio Academy of History, 2003.