Frances Berry Coston

Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Frances Berry Coston, 1876-1960

By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University

Frances Berry was born in Rockhold, Kentucky in 1876, the second of six children of James and Mary Berry. James was a farmer according to the 1880 and 1900 censuses. Frances graduated from Berea (KY) College, and subsequently took graduate courses at five universities. In 1900 Frances continued to live with her parents in Rockhold, where she worked as a schoolteacher. She moved to Indianapolis where she subsequently taught for 48 years. In 1916, now 39, Frances married George E. Coston. George worked for 25 years at a car company, Willis-Overland, in the finishing department and later had his own business as a cabinetmaker. The couple had three children and Frances was atypical for this period as she had a teaching career of almost five decades even as a married woman with children.

In addition to her work as a teacher, Frances wrote articles for the Indianapolis News, including a 1919 sketch of Indianapolis businesswoman and suffragist, Madam C.J. Walker. In the summer of 1917, Frances Coston was featured in two Indianapolis News articles urging Black women to engage in local politics to improve conditions for their race. In one piece she highlighted the growth of political clubs among Indianapolis Black women. The first of these was Branch No. 7 of the Equal Suffrage Association, whose first president was Carrie Barnes Ross.

In 1913 women's suffrage emerged as a contentious issue in Indiana as the state legislature considered a bill that would have offered women partial suffrage, limited to school board elections. The Equal Suffrage Association (ESA) supported the partial suffrage bill as a first step toward full suffrage. The Woman's Suffrage League (WFL) opposed the bill as undercutting the demand for full voting rights for women. Suffrage efforts culminated in a protest 500 strong at the statehouse that brought together supporters from both the ESA and the WFL. What is not clear from local newspaper accounts is whether Black women suffragists had joined in the day's events.

Frances Coston's activism extended into all corners of the Black community in Indianapolis. She spearheaded an effort to open a Colored YWCA and was a leader of the Woman's Improvement Club. In 1921 she was a founder of the Educational Aid Society for Colored Orphans.

The Costons lived out their lives in Indianapolis. George died in 1949 at the age of 75. Frances died at 84 in 1960. They were survived by their daughter, Jean Lee, a concert pianist, and a son, Ray, a physician.

Sources:

Federal Manuscript Censuses, 1870, 1880, and 1900, Kentucky; 1910, 1920, and 1930, Indianapolis. Accessed online, Ancestry Library Edition.

Marriage and death records for George Coston and Frances Berry Coston, Accessed online, Ancestry Library Edition.

Indianapolis News: obituaries for Frances Coston, July 19, 1960 and George E. Coston, Aug. 27, 1949. Accessed on newspapers.com.

"Urges Colored Voters to Use Their Judgment," Indianapolis News, 9 July 1917, p. 16.

Frances Berry Coston, "Colored Women Study Problem of Suffrage," Indianapolis News, 6 June 1917, p. 20.

"A Silent Roar: Indiana Suffragists' 1913 March to the Statehouse," on the Indiana History Blog. Accessed online at https://blog.history.in.gov/a-silent-roar-indiana-suffragists-1913-march-to-the-statehouse/

Christine Fernando, "'Black history is American history': How Black Hoosiers contributed to suffrage movement," Indianapolis Star, 27 Aug. 2020. Accessed online at https://www.indystar.com/story/news/history/2020/08/27/how-black-hoosier-women-contributed-womens-suffrage-movement/3414946001/

Frances Berry Coston, "Life of Mrs. Walker an Incentive to Race," Indianapolis News, 7 June 1919. p. 20.

 

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