Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Emma F. G. Merritt, 1860-1933

By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University

 

"Miss Merritt," The Washington Bee, 8 March 1902, p. 8.

Emma Merritt was born in Dumfries, VA in 1860, the daughter of John and Sophia Merritt. The family moved to Washington, D.C., and she was educated in the public schools of the District. In 1875 she graduated from M Street High School, which later became quite a hotbed of support for woman suffrage. After four years at Howard University she took another three years at Columbian University (now George Washington University). She also took a degree at Cook County Normal School and additional courses at Columbia University. She taught or served as a school administrator in D.C. until 1930. She never married.

One can trace Emma Merritt readily through her Federal census entries. In 1870, at the age of ten, Emma was the fourth of eight children in her D.C. family. Her father was a laborer with real and personal property valued at $1000. By 1900 she was enumerated in the District as a school teacher and a single boarder. She continued to teach in 1920, this time as a household head who took in lodgers, one her niece. In 1930, now 70 and still enumerated as a teacher, she owned her own home in the 2nd precinct of D.C., and lived with another niece.

In addition to her work with D.C. youngsters, Merritt was in demand to lead teachers' institutes. A 1901 article praised her as "an untiring worker" at institutes in Maryland and South Carolina. She continued to offer this teacher training throughout her career in school districts as widespread as Pennsylvania and Texas. Carter G. Woodson, the noted Black historian, said of Merritt, "There is no doubt that the District of Columbia has never had a teacher whose influence has been more widely exerted for the enlightenment of Negroes at large."

In February 1921, Merritt 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 field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 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.

Merritt continued to work on race issues after the 1921 NWP convention. She was active in planning a silent parade in 1922 in support of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill being considered in Congress. She served as a YWCA organizer and president of the D.C. branch of the NAACP. Her anti-lynching activism under the umbrella of the NAACP continued into the early 1930s. In addition, in 1932 she joined the Washington Interracial Committee, an NAACP initiative that attacked segregation in the District and worked to improve the status of African Americans in the city. This activism led Merritt into electoral politics and she became a member of the Fairmont Heights Republican Club.

Emma Merritt retired from the District schools in 1930 and passed away in Washington, D.C. in 1933.

Sources:

Federal Manuscript Censuses, Washington, D.C., 1870, 1900-1930. Accessible online with Ancestry Library Edition.

"Miss Merritt," The Washington Bee, 8 March 1902, p. 8.

"An Untiring Worker," The Colored American, 19 Oct. 1901, image 2. Accessed online with Chronicling America, at the Library of Congress website.

Estelle W. Taylor, "Emma Frances Grayson Merritt: Pioneer in Negro Education," Negro History Bulletin, Jan.-Sept. 1996, accessed online at https://galeapps.gale.com/apps/auth?userGroupName=googlescholar&da=true&origURL=https%3A%2F%2Fgo.gale.com%2Fps%2Flogout.do%3FuserGroupName%3Dgooglescholar%26page%3Dtrue%26prodId%3DAONE&prodId=AONE

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.

Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy, Jim Crow Capital: Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, D.C., 1920-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

 

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