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Who was Victoria Clay Haley?

For three days in April 1913, five hundred suffragists, including two hundred women from Wisconsin and Illinois who arrived on a special train, attended the Mississippi Valley Suffrage conference held at the Buckingham Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri. “Tea, gossip and mild scandal were things not mentioned at meetings where the initiative and the referendum, lobbying, campaigning and the gentle arts of winning suffrage converts were the vital questions of paramount interest,” wrote a reporter for a Fargo, North Dakota newspaper.

On the second day of the gathering, Victoria Clay Haley, president of the Federated Colored Women’s Clubs of St. Louis, walked in and took a seat.

In an all-white gathering in a segregated city and hotel, Haley’s  “unheralded appearances caused consternation” and “considerable commotion” and "caused a stir."

A southern delegate summoned the hotel manager who instructed Victoria Clay Haley to leave. She refused. The manager summoned Mrs. David N. O’Neill, president of the St. Louis Suffrage Association and head of the arrangements committee. It was against the rules of the hotel for Mrs. Haley to stay, explained the manager.  Not so, Mrs. O’Neill replied, pointing out that ”the letter of the rules for the hotel had been obeyed, for the colored woman had not been served with food in the hotel.”  He reluctantly consented after a chorus of suffragists joined Mrs. O’Neill and “impressed upon him the necessity of allowing Mrs. Haley to continue at the conference.”

In addressing the convention, Mrs. Knefler, head of the state campaign for equal suffrage said, “Suffrage means democracy and we cannot be democratic if we exclude negroes from our session or keep from them the right to vote.”

In explaining why she attended the convention, Victoria Clay Haley told a reporter: “In the announcement of the meeting I noticed that the leaders of the conference included the same women who had declined to accept as satisfactory a bill for woman suffrage in Missouri that did not extend the suffrage to colored women.

I saw an opportunity to convey to them the heartfelt appreciation of the colored women of Missouri, as I have heard it expressed both in public and in private.”  The following year she attended the same convention, and led the effort to organize a Black women’s suffrage movement.

Learning about Victoria Clay Haley led me to make a delightful connection to another bold Black woman. In the 1920s, Haley was on the executive committee of the Frederick Douglass Home, a historic preservation project of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and she was friends with Madam C. J. Walker, the Black entrepreneur, philanthropist, and civil rights activist. In the early 1990s, I was writing about Madam C. J. Walker and discovered that she had donated the largest sum of money to restore the Douglass Home, and that there was an elegant tablet with a bas relief of Walker on the outside of the house commemorating her donation. Perhaps Victoria Clay Haley played a role in soliciting the money from Madam and the placement of the tablet. Sculptor Ulric Ellerhusen created the tablet. The Douglass Home was dedicated on August 12, 1922.

Eager to see and photograph the tablet, I had jumped into my car and driven to Frederick Douglass’s home, Cedar Hill, in Anacostia, a neighborhood of Washington, D. C.  But, alas, no tablet. Subsequently I discovered that the tablet had been removed during repair work and was in storage at a National Archives warehouse. I found a photograph and included it in my book Madam C. J. Walker: Building A Business Empire.

Frederick Douglass’s home had been restored exactly as it was when he lived there. Two large portraits prominently displayed caught my attention: There they were—Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although Douglass, Anthony, and Stanton had been longtime friends and co-workers for equal suffrage, they had had a falling out with Stanton and Anthony making racist remarks during the 1870 ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment that enfranchised only Black men.

Yet, many years later, here I stood looking at their portraits that Frederick Douglass had hung in his home. Food for thought.

Images: Victoria Clay Haley;  Negress Causes Stir, St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 4, 1913; Negress Gets Welcome by Suffragists The St Louis Star and Times April 4,1913, p. 3; Madam C J. Walker Tablet, National Archives.

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Always a delight to read your historical writings against the backdrop of the terrible travails of today. Somehow it gives me a drop of hope! Thank you!

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Thank you! Gives me a drop of hope too!

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