Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists
Biographical Sketch of Mary Elizabeth Branch, 1881-1944
By Linda D. Wilson, Independent Historian
African American Mary Elizabeth Branch, the daughter of Clement Tazewell, a shoemaker, and Harriett Branch, was born on May 20, 1881, in Farmville, Virginia. Although her parents had been slaves, they could read and write. They instilled the importance of education in their children. Mary Branch and her siblings attended the Farmville elementary school. She attained a high school education at the Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute (now Virginia State University) in Petersburg. Following her graduation, she taught English at the elementary school in Blackstone.
Mary Branch never married and focused on a life-long career of education and leadership. Significantly, she was one of the first African American women to vote after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote. Branch was among nine faculty members from the Virginial Normal and Industrial Institute to vote in the November 1920 election. Prior to the election the women registered to vote and paid a poll tax of $1.50.
Branch worked as a professor and served as the college's housing director for twenty years at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute. During the summers she continued her education at University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago. From the latter Branch attained a bachelor's degree in 1922 and a master's degree in English in 1925.
Her career in education continued in Kansas City, Kansas, and St. Louis, Missouri. In 1927 she taught social studies at Sumner Junior College in Kansas City. The following year she was dean of women at Vashon High School in St. Louis, reportedly at that time the largest African American women's school west of the Mississippi River. In 1930 the American Missionary Association recognized her leadership skills and appointed her president of Tillotson College in Austin, Texas. During her tenure she made significant improvements to the campus, the enrollment increased, and the college was admitted to the American Association of Colleges in 1936.
While Mary Branch lived in Austin, Texas, she was active in the civil rights movement. She served as president of the Austin Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Branch also served
on the State Interracial Commission of Texas and the NYA (National Youth Administration) Negro Advisory Board for Texas. As an educational leader she addressed numerous mass meetings at churches. In April 1944, three months prior to her death, she established a nation-wide campaign to fund African American colleges.
Mary Elizabeth Branch died following an operation on July 6, 1944, in Camden, New Jersey. She was buried in the Mount Peace Cemetery. She was survived by a brother, Reverend Samuel Branch. In her honor the Mary E. Branch Gymnasium and Auditorium was built on the Tillotson College campus in 1951. Additionally, Mary Elizabeth Branch Park is in the Mueller District in Austin, Texas. Her papers are available at Huston-Tillotson University, Downs-Jones Library Archives. Late in life, she received honorary degrees from the Virginia State College and Howard University.
Austin (TX) American, May 6, 1931; February 19 and December 10, 1933; January 17, 1934; May 13, 1936; May 8 and July 27, 1937; June 5, 1938; March 4 and August 27, 1942; April 30, 1944.
Olive D. Brown and Michael R. Heintze, "Branch, Mary Elizabeth," Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 20, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/branch-mary-elizabeth, published by the Texas State Historical Society.
Dallas (TX) Express, July 1 and 8, 1922.
Fort Worth (TX) Star-Telegram, July 9, 1944.
Chapter Six, "Making Bricks Without Straw," [biographical sketch of Mary E. Branch] in Mary Jenness, Twelve Negro Americans (NY: Friendship Press, 1936), 85—100.
Frank Lincoln Mather, ed. Who's Who of Colored Race: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent Vol. 1 (Chicago, IL: 1915).
New York Age, May 24, 1924; July 28, 1934.
Prince Edward County, Virginia Births, 1862—96, for Mary Branch, accessed through Ancestry.com on June 20, 2022.
Richmond (VA) Planet, October 8, and December 3, 1921; June 3, 1922.
Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch, July 9, 1944.
Rock Island (IL) Argus, February 15, 1939.
St. Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, July 9, 1944.
Tillotson College Bulletin, January 1945 (Austin, Texas).
U.S. Census, 1880 and 1900, Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia.
U.S. Census, 1920, Matoaca, Chesterfield County, Virginia.
U.S., Find a Grave Index, 1600s-Current, for Dr. Mary Elizabeth Branch.