Cecilia Sterrett Dorrell

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Cecilia Sterrett Dorrell, 1880-1958

By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware

Suffrage Organizer, Voting Rights Advocate

Cecilia [or Cecelia] Dorrell undertook her most visible labors on behalf of Black women's suffrage in 1920 and 1921. With the 19th Amendment ratified, Dorrell became a ward-level organizer for the Colored Republican Women's Club of Wilmington, Delaware in September, 1920. In that capacity, she was committed, along with sister-suffragists Alice Dunbar-Nelson, the club's leader, and Mary J. Woodlen, to achieving "100 percent registration" among "colored women" in the city. The effort was a success, as both Black and white observers noted the strong participation of Black women voters in the 1920 election.

Then, in February 1921, Dorrell joined Dunbar-Nelson, Woodlen, Blanche Williams Stubbs, and two other Delaware women in travelling to Washington, D.C., to attend the annual conference of the National Woman's Party (NWP). Their purpose was to unite with a delegation of Black women leaders, headed by Mary Church Terrell, in pressing the NWP to petition Congress to enforce the 19th Amendment in the southern states where Black women's voting rights were being egregiously violated. The NWP should request a congressional investigation of "violations of the intent and purposes" of the amendment, their resolution argued. Despite some support from white allies, the resolution was voted down. After Dorrell's involvement in the 1921 protest, the historical record is silent on any further political commitments.

Born in 1880 in either Chestertown, Maryland, or New York (sources differ), Cecilia was the middle child and only daughter of Maryland-born John Jordon Sterrett (1851-1914) and Susan A. Wilson Sterrett (1859-1921). In May, 1898, Cecilia Sterrett was married to John Victor Dorrell (1877-1941) by Rev. B. T. Moore, pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Wilmington, Delaware. The newlyweds went to housekeeping with Victor's parents, John Walter Dorrell and his white wife, Sarah Margerum Dorrell, at their home, 2419 West 2nd Street, which would remain Cecilia's residence until her death. With the Sterretts and the Dorrells living near each other in Wilmington's Hilltop neighborhood, Cecilia was enmeshed in close familial ties and in the economic and political worlds of Wilmington's Black middle class. Both her father and her husband were skilled workers in the building trades, as was Victor's brother, Frederick Dorrell. Her older brother, John A. Sterrett, became an ordained minister. In later years, Victor Dorrell had a successful building contracting business, and was active in Wilmington's Republican Party politics. The couple also acquired several rental properties in their neighborhood.

The 1900 census found Cecilia and Victor sharing the Dorrell family home, not only with Victor's parents, but also with his widowed brother, Frederick, and Frederick's three-year-old son Freddie. Soon, their own son, John Walter Dorrell, born in 1900, joined the household. When Frederick Dorrell remarried in 1906, he and his new wife, Elizabeth [Bessie] Spence Dorrell, a music teacher, moved nearby, leaving Freddie to remain in his grandparents' care.

In other circumstances, Cecilia Dorrell's connections to Black middle-class Wilmington women, including her sister-in-law Bessie, might have led her to join the Equal Suffrage Study Club, the city's Black women's suffrage organization, founded in March 1914. But she did not. Neither did she or Victor joined the Wilmington branch of the NAACP, chartered in 1915, although Victor's sister Florence Dorrell Anderson (Mrs. Burnside Anderson) was a founding member and later served on the group's executive committee.

A series of family tragedies surely help delineate Cecilia Dorrell's preoccupations during the decade of the 1910s. In February, 1910, Cecilia's younger brother William Wilson Sterrett died in agony after a terrible fire at his workplace. He left behind a young widow, a two-year-old son, and an infant daughter, all of whom then came to live at the Dorrell family home. In August, 1913, the newborn son of Fred and Bessie Spence Dorrell died. Then, in October, 1913, came the worst loss imaginable: Cecilia and Victor's own beloved son, thirteen-year-old John Walter Dorrell, was hit by an automobile while walking on a city street. His skull was fractured; he lingered for hours before dying. Six months later, Cecilia's father was dead, too. By March, 1916, Cecilia's mother, Susan Wilson Sterrett, was suffering from such "grief" and "acute melancholy" that she was admitted to the state hospital at Farnhurst, near New Castle, to be treated for depression. Cecilia would undoubtedly have been a regular visitor during her mother's hospital stay, which lasted until her death in September 1921.

Death came again to the Dorrell house in August, 1916, when Victor's father died at the age of eighty-six. Then, within a few years, Victor's brother Frederick began to exhibit symptoms of mania, claiming, for instance, that he owned "millions of dollars." Victor joined with Fred's wife Bessie to take charge of having him committed to Farnhurst. He died in 1924, suffering from "general paralysis of the insane."

Cecilia Dorrell's involvement in the 1920 voter registration and mobilization effort, as well as the 1921 protest in Washington, D.C., seems likely to have been prompted by her warm friendship with local suffragist, teacher, poet, writer, journalist, and activist Alice Dunbar-Nelson. By summer 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment achieved ratification, Dunbar-Nelson, who had already devoted years to the suffrage cause, was deeply involved in making sure that Delaware's Black women voters would be organized and ready to vote. In September, Cecilia joined Dunbar-Nelson and others in a newly formed Committee of Colored Republican Women. They "blocked out the city into workable districts," prompted newly eligible women to register, and provided educational materials in advance of the November elections. Extant sections of Dunbar-Nelson's diary provide a glimpse of "Ce" and Victor Dorrell's easy-going friendship with Dunbar-Nelson and her husband, Robert Nelson. The couples socialized together at parties and football games, and on one occasion, discussed plans for "watch night," December 31, when Black Wilmingtonians watched for the arrival of January 1, commemorating Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In Cecilia and Victor Dorrell's later years they enjoyed economic success and were active in a variety of local causes and social activities. In the 1940s for instance, she presided over the Lincoln University Auxiliary Association as well as fund-raising for the historically Black institution. In 1951, she chaired a fund-raising committee for the newly built St. Matthew's

Episcopal Church, home to a several Black suffrage leaders. Victor died in 1941, leaving his entire estate, including the house at 2419 W. 2nd Street and two other nearby properties to Cecilia. She died in 1958. Both were buried at Wilmington's Mt. Zion Cemetery.

Photos courtesy of Therese Seay, who maintains a private family genealogy page on Ancestry.

Cecilia Sterrett Dorrell, n.d.


l-r: Cecilia Sterrett Dorrell, John Walter Dorrell, J. Victor Dorrell, c. 1913.


Biographical details on the Sterrett and Dorrell families can be traced in censuses, city directories, and genealogical records available on ancestry.com and familysearch.org. The following newspaper articles provided useful information: "Two Fatalities Result of a Fire [death of William Wilson Sterrett]," Wilmington Every Evening, February 14, 1910, p. 2; "Boy Killed by an Automobile [death of John Walter Dorrell]," Wilmington Every Evening, October 28, 1913, p. 1. For Susan Wilson Sterrett's diagnosis upon entering Farnhurst, see Katherine A. Dettwyler, Remembering Farnhurst: Stories from the Delaware State Hospital (n.p., n.d.: Outskirts Press, 2019). The biography of Cecilia's sister-in-law, Bessie Spence Dorrell, found on this website, includes some additional details on the Dorrell family.

Cecilia's will can be found at the New Castle County Register of Wills office, Wilmington, Delaware, file #39207. Victor's will is file #22542.

Newspaper articles covering Cecilia Dorrell's voting rights activism include "Colored Republican Women Organize Club," Wilmington Morning News, September 9, 1920, p. 6; "Women Throwing Selves into Fray," Wilmington Morning News, September 15, 1920, p. 2; "City Charter Gains Support," Wilmington Evening Journal, February 9, 1921, pp. 1, 3;

"Colored Women for New Charter," Wilmington Morning News, February 9, 1921, p. 11; and "Washington Letter," New York Age, February 19, 1921, p. 2.

On her friendship with Alice Dunbar-Nelson, see Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, ed. Gloria T. Hull (New York: Norton, 1984), pp. 65-66, 109-12, 115-16, 136-37.

Useful secondary sources include Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: William Morrow, 1984), pp. 166-170; and Anne M. Boylan, Votes for Delaware Women (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2021), pp. 152-54, 159-60.

Related Writings in Database

View works by

View works about




Back to List of Black Woman Suffragists
back to top