Namah Gertrude Sockhum Curtis

 

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Namah Gertrude Sockhum (Mrs. A. M.) Curtis, 1869-1935

By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University

Namah (also Namoyoka) Gertude Sockum was born in California in July 1869, the first child of Hamilton and Irene Sockhum of San Francisco. Her parents may have died when she was young because in 1880 the 10-year old lived in San Francisco with her grandmother, Lydia Jackson. In 1887 she married Austin M. Curtis.

The couple lived in Chicago in the 1890s, where Austin earned his M.D. degree at Northwestern University Medical School in 1891 and later served at Provident and Cook County Hospitals. Namah Curtis was briefly involved in reviewing Black-related exhibits for inclusion in the 1893 Columbian Exposition. She had been appointed by Bertha Honoré Palmer, white president of the Board of Lady Managers for the Exposition, but Exposition organizers did not make a good-faith effort to incorporate the work of Black women.

The Curtises moved to Washington, DC, in 1898, where Austin served as Chief Surgeon at the Freedmen's Hospital for four years. He then went into private practice and joined the faculty at Howard University Medical School. He was a member of the Department of Surgery for forty years, including eight as Department Chair.

In 1898 Mrs. Curtis, now resident in Washington, DC, authored a broadside, "Appeal to Colored Voters," which called on the Colored Voter to "stand up for the party that has always stood by him."—i.e. the Republican party. The broadside identified Curtis as "Colored Representative of the Woman's Republican Association."

According to the 1900 DC census the Curtis family included four children between 3 months and twelve years of age. The census found them again in DC in 1910 with their three sons and a daughter. Namah was not recorded with an occupation in either of these censuses, but she also worked for the federal government, recruiting and leading "Black women . . . to serve as contract nurses in Cuba" during the Spanish-American War. She became a respected member of the Black elite in the District as evidenced by her appointment in 1905-1906 on a committee that heard charges against Anna Julia Cooper, the principal of the M Street High School. She also represented mothers of M Street High School students in Congressional hearings about Black schools in the District in 1906. She called for greater authority for the assistant superintendent of Black schools and for Blacks to comprise a third of the members of the Board of Education. Her elite status also led to her appointments as a colored representative for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis (1904) and Fiscal Agent of the Executive Committee of the Negro Building for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition (1907).

Controversy surrounded Curtis's part in the St. Louis and Jamestown Expositions. In 1907 a rumor circulated that Mrs. Curtis was coming to Boston to arrange to ship the Crispus Attucks monument to Jamestown for its tercentennial exposition. An article in the Washington Bee complained that Mrs. Curtis was "the same colored woman who managed the 'Jim-Crowing' of colored Americans at the St. Louis Exposition." Considerable local opposition arose to the Jamestown proposal and it fell through quickly.

While Mrs. Curtis was allied with Booker T. Washington on plans for the Negro Building at the Jamestown Exposition, at other times she was a strong advocate for her race. In 1907 she boycotted a DC store, Kanns, for its refusal to serve a Negro servant who accompanied a white girl at its lunch counter. Curtis told the store's owner "I spend sixty dollars a month in your store and from this day I shall not spend another cent." In 1920 she addressed the DC School Board to protest the use of "darky" by a Senate subcommittee investigating the schools. She argued that Black members of the School Board were "humiliated and chagrined" by this insulting treatment.

In February 1921, Mrs. A.M. Curtis joined a delegation of 60 Black women suffragists, who protested violations of the recently ratified 19th Amendment in Southern states that denied Black women their voting rights. The delegation, headed by the NAACP field secretary, Addie W. Hunton, met with Alice Paul, head of the National Woman's Party (NWP) on the eve of the party's national convention. Their purpose was to press the NWP to pass a resolution calling on Congress to investigate the failures of Southern states to enforce the 19th Amendment for Black women. Paul made no such commitment and the convention as a whole refused to endorse the call.

Namah Curtis passed away in 1935 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, an honor that acknowledged her military service in recruiting contract nurses for service in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

Sources:

Federal Manuscript Censuses, Namah Sockhum, San Francisco, 1870 and 1880; Namah Curtis, Washington, DC, 1900 and 1910. Marriage record, Namah Sockhum and Austin M. Curtis, April 1887; Death record, Namah Gertrude Curtis, Nov. 1935. Accessible online with Ancestry Library Edition.

List of NAACP Delegation Members to Alice Paul, 12 February 1921, NAACP Papers, Part 04 Voting Rights and Voting Rights Campaign, 1916-1950 (Feb. 8, 1921-April 3, 1921), frames 61-64, Library of Congress.

Henry S. Robinson, "The M Street High School, 1891-1916," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., 1984, Vol. 51, 119-143.

Katie Lattal, "Austin Maurice Curtis, MD, 1868-1939," online in the Galter Health Sciences Library & Learning Center, accessible at https://galter.northwestern.edu/News/black-history-month-austin-m-curtis-md.

"Áustin Maurice Curtis, 1868-1939," Journal of the National Medical Association, July 1954, 294-98.

Erin Shaughnessy, "How Did African-American Women Define Their Citizenship at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893," Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000. See the Introduction and Document 7. Accessible online.

Ann Massa, "Black Women in the 'White City,'" Journal of American Studies, 8 (1974), 319-37.

Sarah Watkins, "The Negro Building: African-American Representation at the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition," W&M ScholarWorks, accessible online at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/235409486.pdf.

Rachel Deborah Bernard, "Three Separate Schools: Black Politics and Education in Washington, D.C., 1900-1930" (Unpub. Ph.D. Diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2012).

"At Kanns," Washington Bee, 6 April 1907, p. 1.

"Negro Day at Jamestown," Washington Evening Star, 28 July 1907, p. 2.

"'Darky' Humiliating to Colored Citizens, She Tells School Board," Washington Times, 18 March 1920, p. 13.

"Appeal to Colored Voters," [1898], broadside in Cox-McPherson Family Papers, 1892-1022, mss#38-11, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library.

 

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