Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Mary C. Sparrow, 1887-1940

By Chelsea Lundquist-Wentz, graduate student, North Carolina State University

Mary's early life and family origin are not clear from the record, but later censuses and her death record suggest she was born in Tennessee in 1887. She married Samuel S. Sparrow sometime before 1910 and the couple are recorded as residing together in Richmond City in that census. Samuel worked as a porter for the railroad. He continued to work for the railroad through the early 1930s, listed as a porter and a laborer.

Mary had no occupation listed in the 1910, 1920 and 1930 censuses, but likely worked at some point in domestic service. The couple never had children of their own, though a teenage niece, Warnelle Cox, is listed as living with them in the 1920 census.

During these years, Mary Sparrow was involved in the political and social movements in the Richmond African American community. She was publicized in a newspaper as a participant in a 1922 National Association of Colored Women convention held in Richmond and organized by Ora Brown Stokes and other Richmond activists like Maggie Walker. The event hosted national figures including Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Charlotte Hawkins Brown and others. The publication of Mary Sparrow's name among likely attendees probably indicates her regular participation at Richmond organizing events in the Black community.

Mary Sparrow is cited in newspaper articles as being among the first of these black women to register to vote in early September 1920 in Richmond. The Richmond Planet noted:

Mrs. Mary Sparrow, 602 Elizabeth Street, was the first colored woman to register in this city. She is proud of the record she has made. She is originally from Tennessee but is an enthusiastic Richmonder here, being a property owner in this city.

Mary and Samuel Sparrow owned their Richmond home, which was worth $2,000 in 1930. Mary Sparrow's story may be one the newspapers considered novel, but she certainly was not alone as a politically active woman in Richmond. She is emblematic of the engaged citizens that formed a politically and financially motivated black community in Richmond.

Mary and Samuel Sparrow continued to live on Elizabeth Street in Richmond until Samuel's death in 1936; they were married for over 35 years. On February 23, 1940, Mary Sparrow died in her home after a months-long illness and was buried in Woodland Cemetery.

Sources

Brent Tarter, Marianne E. Julienne, and Barbara C. Batson, The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia (Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2020)

'Mary S Sparrow', Virginia, U.S., Death Records, 1912-2014 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. https://www.ancestry.com/sharing/30404210?h=07d371

"First Colored Woman Voter to Register Here," Richmond Planet. [volume] (Richmond, Va.), 04 Sept. 1920, p. 2. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84025841/1920-09-04/ed-1/seq-2/

"Women and Men, Your Attention!" Richmond Planet, 5 August 1922, p. 1. Accessible online on newspapers.com.

'Samuel Sparrow', Virginia, U.S., Death Records, 1912-2014 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. https://www.ancestry.com/sharing/29023202?h=d2b102

United States Census 1910; Census Place: Richmond Henry Ward, Richmond (Independent City), Virginia; Roll: T624_1644; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 0082; FHL microfilm: 1375657. https://www.ancestry.com/sharing/30419430?h=080d42

United States Census 1920; Ancestry.com [Database Online]. https://www.ancestry.com/sharing/29021610?h=0b1553

United States Census 1930. Census Place: Richmond, Richmond (Independent City), Virginia; Page: 13A; Enumeration District: 0006; FHL microfilm: 2342209. https://www.ancestry.com/sharing/30419555?h=5e0352

 

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