Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Caroline Burnett, 1835–1906

By Blair Forlaw, Citizen Researcher

In 1877, 15 women and 18 men signed a petition calling on the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to "adopt measures for so amending the Constitution as to prohibit the several States from Disfranchising United States Citizens on account of Sex." All of the signatories identified themselves as colored residents of Uniontown in the District of Columbia. Caroline Burnett was among them.

A review of records suggests that signing this petition may have been the only time that Caroline Burnett attached her name to the women's suffrage movement. Hers is not a story of social activism, but her 70 years of life reflect several other important dynamics of that era: race, class, economy, immigration, and the Federal government's authority over the District of Columbia. Through her, students of history are presented with intriguing questions, the answers to which could lead to a deeper understanding of women of her time and circumstance.

Caroline Burnett first appears to public view in the 1870 Census, where she is listed as a member of a household of eight individuals, their only apparent commonality being that all were Mulatto. At that time, approximately 1.5 percent of the general population and 12 percent of the African-American population of the U.S. were of mixed Black and White races, identified in public records as Mulatto.

The head of the household where Caroline lived was Elizabeth Herbert, one of the earliest settlers of Barry Farm, a subdivision of Washington D.C. established by the Freedmen's Bureau in 1867 to provide settlement opportunities for freed slaves and free Blacks. Elizabeth Herbert gave her age as 90 years at the time of the 1870 Census. Caroline was listed as "keeping house" in Elizabeth Herbert's dwelling, which was on Sheridan Avenue (now Sheridan Road), on the east side of Barry Farm and south of Uniontown on the Anacostia River.

The 1870 Census suggests that Caroline Burnett was born in the District of Columbia in 1845, but other official records indicate that she was more likely born in the District in 1835. Madison Burnett, also residing in the Herbert household in 1870, was born around the same time in southern Virginia, near the North Carolina border. He was one of a large family of children growing up with farming parents, identified in the 1850 Census as "free inhabitants," with no race specified.

As a young man, Madison worked as a farm hand in his family's Virginia home. Perhaps he moved to Washington D.C. in search of better economic opportunities as a carpenter. Perhaps he married Caroline there. We do not know for certain, because no marriage certificate could be found. Records do show, however, that by 1880, Caroline Burnett was a widow.

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Because they were people of color, it is unlikely that many of the signatories to the 1877 Petition for Woman Suffrage actually lived in Uniontown. It is more likely that the petition was signed by individuals from near-by neighborhoods while attending a gathering in Uniontown.

The reason is this: Uniontown was established in 1854 by the private Union Land Association, to provide homes for White workers at the nearby Navy Yard. The settlement carried restrictive covenants prohibiting the sale or lease of property "to any Negro, Mulatto, or anyone of African or

Irish descent." When the national economic Panic of 1873 hit the D.C. economy hard, the Union Land Association went bankrupt and developer John W. Van Hook was forced to sell his mansion, Cedar Hill. He sold the house to Frederick Douglass in 1877 – opening the doors of Uniontown to those previously excluded.

Historians describe Frederick Douglass as a very gregarious man who made his spacious Cedar Hill home freely available for meetings and social gatherings in support of women's suffrage. Residents of Barry Farm (including at least two Douglass sons) frequently made their way up the hill to the elder Douglass's house, and it is entirely possible that they were gathered there when the petition was distributed. Frederick Douglass, Jr., his wife, his sister Rosetta Douglass Sprague, and her husband were the first signers, in fact.

Several dynamics were at play in the campaign for suffrage for African-American women in the District of Columbia at that time. Enslaved persons had been emancipated in the District in 1862. The 14th and 15th Amendments had been ratified in 1868 and 1870, establishing citizenship for all persons born in the U.S. and prohibiting states from disenfranchising voters "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The earliest arguments for women's suffrage referenced these two Amendments specifically, asserting that women should be assured the right to vote under them.

In 1874, in the midst of a growing national movement for women's suffrage, Congress–which has Constitutional jurisdiction over the District of Columbia–took away the voting rights of all District residents. This was but one of a series of actions in which the Federal government constrained access to self-governance in the nation's capital, a tension that exists yet today.

Further, Black women in the District, doubly disadvantaged, struggled to be represented equally within the suffrage movement. In 1876, for example, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a national advocate for suffrage and other rights of African-American women, requested that the names of 94 Black women be added to the National Woman Suffrage Association's Declaration of the Rights of Women. This Declaration was presented at the World's Fair in Philadelphia on the Centennial of the U.S. Declaration of Independence – without the Black women's names. Unrelenting, Cary went on to organize the Colored Women's Progressive Franchise Association in Washington, D.C. in 1880.

Despite the lack of inclusion on the part of the National Woman Suffrage Association, the petition that was signed by Caroline Burnett and others in Uniontown was a printed form designed and distributed by the NWSA. The national organization distributed the forms widely, intending that they would be presented to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees of the 45th Congress (1877-1879). The campaign was so successful that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Josyln Gage, and Susan B. Anthony reported in a memorandum submitted to Congress that year that a total of 40,000 signatures from 35 states and 5 territories had been collected.

Was Caroline Burnett proud to be associated with Uniontown – finally, after years of exclusion? Was she aware of the compounding obstacles that still stood in the way of her full participation in American democracy? Did she see agency for herself in the proposed Woman Suffrage amendment? Was she inspired by the larger cause, the greater good? We might imagine her having these sentiments, but we have no real answers.

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Elizabeth Herbert, the elderly woman who owned the Barry Farm property where Caroline Burnett lived in 1870, died during the decade. A newspaper notice reported that her will was filed in probate court in the District of Columbia in September 1881.

What happened to most members of Elizabeth Herbert's household after her death is not clear. But Caroline Burnett next appears in the public record as a servant in a White household in a prosperous section of New York Avenue in the District of Columbia. According to the 1880 Census, the head of the four-person household was John McClelland, a widowed machinist with a 24-year-old daughter at home. Peter Shriggs, a Black coachman, was also in residence. The servant Caroline Burnett – other characteristics being consistent with what is known of her – is identified in the Census as White. The records give us no clue as to whether Caroline was "passing for White" (a practice not entirely unknown to light-skinned Mulattos of the era) or was reported to be White by the individual who responded to the Census taker's questions.

The widower John McClelland died in 1885, around the same that Caroline reconnected with Barry Farm. She returned by a rather unexpected route. According to a newspaper notice, ownership of the lot in Barry Farm that belonged to Elizabeth Herbert in 1870 was transferred to Caroline Burnett in 1884 for $25. The seller of the property was Mary S. Callan – an individual who cannot be found in any of the earlier Barry Farm records. Several women named Mary Callan appear in the U.S. Census of the District of Columbia around that time; all of them were either Irish immigrants or the daughters of Irish immigrants. Mary Callan was possibly part of the great wave of European immigrants who came to the U.S. between 1820 and 1860, one-third of them from Ireland, many fleeing the economic and social devastation of the potato famine.

It is interesting to wonder how a woman of Irish descent (a group often distrusted and demeaned in the dominant white Protestant culture of 19th Century America, and prohibited – as were African Americans – from purchasing property in Uniontown) came to acquire Elizabeth Herbert's plot in Barry Farm. And why would she sell it to Caroline Burnett for $25 – a small fraction of the original $125 – 200 price of Barry Farm lots? One clue about the sale can be found a few years later in a local newspaper notice: like many others in the sustained economic downturn, Mary Callan was in financial trouble. In April 1890, she was put on notice for being delinquent in paying three property tax bills totaling $164. The notice threatened that the property would be sold at public auction by the Tax Collector's Office if the taxes were not paid in short order.

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The next time Caroline Burnett appears in the public record is with the notice of her death at 331 V Street NW in the District of Columbia in February 1906. The building where she died was only a few blocks from Freedman's Hospital, then located at 5th and W Streets NW. This hospital was established by the Department of War in 1862 to serve the medical needs of free and formerly enslaved African Americans. It later became the teaching hospital of Howard University.

Caroline Burnett's death certificate was completed in the polished penmanship of Dr. Floyd V. Brooks, a prominent physician and civic leader of the day, who noted that she was a 70 year-old colored woman, a widow, who had been in this District for only three weeks, although she "was resident previously." The primary cause of her death was pneumonia, Dr. Brooks noted, but the immediate cause of death was "exhaustion."

Of Caroline Burnett's interesting life journey, we know no more.

Sources:

1850 U.S. Federal Population Census. Database with images. Free Inhabitants in the Southern District in the County of Pittsylvania in the State of Virginia. Page 241. Madison Burnett in household of Micajah Burnett. Dwelling #779. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed via www.archives.com.

1870 U.S. Federal Population Census. Database with images. Inhabitants in Subdivision East of 7th St. Road. Washington, District of Columbia. Page 91. Caroline Burnett and Madison Burnett in household of Elizabeth Herbert, Dwelling #564. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed via www.archives.com.

1880 U.S. Federal Population Census. Database with images. Inhabitants on New York Avenue, City of Washington, District of Columbia. Page 20. Caroline Burnett in household of John McClelland. Dwelling #1332. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed via www.archives.com.

1877 Petition for Woman Suffrage. Petitions and Memorials. 1878. Committee on the Judiciary. Petitions and Memorials, 1813-1968. 45th Congress. National Archives Building, Washington, D.C. https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/documented-rights/exhibit/section3/details/suffrage-petition.html.

Anacostia. Anacostia Community Documentation Initiative. www.cdi.anacostia.si.edu.

Death Certificate for Caroline Burnett, February 14, 1906. Record No. 165660. District of Columbia Health Department.

Deaths in the District. Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 17 Feb. 1906. Page 5. Image 5. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1906-02-17/ed-1/seq-5/.

Death of John McClelland. May 21, 1885. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/185264751 via www.archives.com.

Declaration of Rights of Women of the United States, July 4, 1876. Elizabeth Cady Stanton Collection. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (111.00.01) [Digital ID#s us0111_1, us0111_0] http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/creating-the-united-states/declaration-legacy.html#obj2.

Delinquent Taxes. Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 04 April 1890. Page 5. Image 5. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1890-04-04/ed-1/seq-7/.

Email communications from Alcione Amos, Anacostia Community Museum, May 2019.

Freedmen's Hospital, African American Heritage. https://www.culturaltourismdc.org/portal/freedmen-s-hospital-african-american-heritage-trail.

Giovana Xavier da Conceição Nascimento. The Dangers of White Blacks: mulatto culture, class, and eugenic beauty in the post-emancipation USA, 1900-1920. Revista Brasileira de Historia, vol. 35 no. 69 (Jan./June 2015). Accessible online at https://bit.ly/2XV5Y7s.

Hutchinson, Louise Daniel. List of First Settlers of Barry Farm / Hillsdale 1867-1871. History of Place Research Files, Anacostia Community Museum. 1981. Elizabeth Herbert's house was Lot 18 in Section 3.

Library of Congress. Irish Immigration. http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/irish2.html.

Matthew B. Gilmore. A Timeline of Washington, DC History. Washington, DC History Resources. https://matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com/a-timeline-of-washington-dc-history/.

Memorial to the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States in Congress assembled, from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Susan B. Anthony, National Woman Suffrage Association. Petitions and Memorials, 45th Congress (1877-1879). Committee on the Judiciary. HR45A - H11.7. National Archives Building, Washington DC.

Transfers of Real Estate - Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 08 Sept. 1884. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1884-09-08/ed-1/seq-4/.

Uniontown. https://en/wikipedia.org/wiki/Anacostia_Historic_District and https:///www.culturaltourismdc.org/portal/303.

United States Senate. "Landmark Legislation: Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments." https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/CivilWarAmendments.htm.

U.S. Department of the Treasury. Financial Panic of 1873. https://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/Financial-Panic-of-1873.aspx.

 

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