Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Madge L. Cuney, 1878-1967

By Rachael Schnurr

PhD Student in History, Princeton University

A lifelong advocate of Black women's education, Mrs. Madge L. Cuney was born Madge Louise Williamson in Columbus, Ohio, in 1878. Her parents were Thomas J. Williamson, a carpenter, and Maria Louisa (Waring) Williamson, a homemaker. She studied at the Miner Normal School in Washington D.C., an institution of higher learning and teacher training for African American women founded in 1851. The school played a significant role in developing the African American school system in Washington D.C. during the Jim Crow Era. She then attended Howard University, where she was a senior in the pedagogical department in 1901. Following graduation, she worked as a public school teacher, and in 1905 she married Norris Wright Cuney III, a government clerk who had also been a student at Howard University. Her husband was the nephew of Norris Wright Cuney, Sr., a prominent activist and political organizer who fought for Black equality in Texas. In 1906, Mrs. Cuney gave birth to twin sons, N. Wright Cuney IV and William Waring Cuney. The latter became a musician and poet of the Harlem Renaissance, attending Columbia University and serving as a technical sergeant in the Second World War. The family lived for many years in the home they owned at 503 Florida Avenue NW, in Washington.

In the 1910s and 1920s, Madge L. Cuney participated in multiple women's organizations and activist groups aimed at improving the lives of Black women. In 1912 she headed the sewing department at the Jane Freeman Booth School, an institution organized to teach African American women skills that would give them independent incomes. In 1916-1918 she was active in the campaign to raise funds for the building of a new "colored" branch of the Y.W.C.A., to house and train young Black women drawn to the city during the First World War.

In February 1921 she joined Addie Hunton in a 60-person NAACP delegation that met with Alice Paul before a National Woman's Party convention that met to determine the post-suffrage agenda for the NWP. The delegation called on the NWP to call for a Congressional investigation of the Southern disfranchisement of most Black women voters in the run-up to the November 1920 elections. The convention turned down the Black suffragists' resolution and decided rather to follow Alice Paul's agenda and focus on laws discriminating on the basis of sex, a position that led in 1923 to the NWP proposal for an Equal Rights Amendment.

In the early 1920s, she served as a board member of the Women's Republican League alongside Mary Church Terrell. She also resumed her role as a public school teacher during this time and, in addition, taught vocational courses through the Southwest Business Women's Club.

In the mid-1920s she hosted speakers from the National Association of Colored Women at Dunbar High School, the first secondary school founded for African American students in the nation. In the following decade, after her husband's death, she advanced into a supervisory role as a public school matron, where she served for more than a decade. Her son N. Wright Cuney followed her into public education, becoming a printer and teacher at the Phelps Vocational School (now Phelps A.C.E. School). She died in Washington in 1967.

Sources:

Information on Madge Cuney's activism may be found in newspapers from Washington D.C., in particular Black newspapers dating from 1910-1930. Articles include "A Great School, A Benefactor to Health, Etc.," Washington Bee, February 17, 1912, 8; "Modern Building Sought to House Colored Branch of Y.W.C.A.," Evening Star, March 4, 1916, 10; "Local News Tersley Recorded," Washington Post, March 5, 1916, 18; "Colored Y.W.C.A. to Try for 1,000 New Members," Evening Star, April 30, 1918, 9; "G.O.P. Colored Women in Conference Here," Evening Star, March 6, 1925, 17; "At Community Centers of the Public Schools," Evening Star, November 15, 1925, 46. She is also recorded in the Mary Church Terrell Papers, Republican Party Miscellaneous, 1924-1940, available at https://www.loc.gov/item/mss425490323/.

More information on Cuney's life and family may be found through the 1880 Federal Census in Columbus, Ohio as well as the 1900-1950 Censuses in Washington D.C. See also District of Columbia Compiled Marriage Index, 1830-1921 and U.S. City Directories Collection, 1822-1995, both available at ancestry.com. See also C. G. Woodson, "The Waring Family," Negro History Bulletin 11, no. 5 (1948): 99-107.

For Cuney's participation in the delegation to Alice Paul, see: List of NAACP Delegation Members to Alice Paul, 12 February 1921, NAACP Papers online, Voting Rights and Voting Rights Campaign, 1916-1965 (Feb. 8, 1921-April 3, 1921) frames 61-64, Library of Congress.

 

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