By Kacy Rohn, Planner, City of College Park and Heather Barrett, Administrator of Research and Survey, Maryland Historical Trust
On March 21st at the Miller Senate Office Building in Annapolis, Augusta T. Chissell will be inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, joining seven other notable women honored for their achievements and contributions to the State.
Maryland women suffragists played an important role in the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in 1920. State suffrage leaders, including Augusta T. Chissell, developed a robust network of grassroots organizations across Maryland, greatly shaping the fight for women’s rights. While the work of these activists has largely been forgotten, this is particularly true for African American suffragists, who were excluded from prominent suffrage organizations and omitted from newspaper coverage and organizational records. Early twentieth-century African American suffragists’ work was particularly important at a time when Jim Crow laws sought to undermine hard-won civil rights.
Augusta Chissell was an important African American leader of the women’s suffrage movement in Baltimore City in the early twentieth century. Chissell had deep roots in Baltimore’s women’s clubs, which fostered leadership skills as they promoted causes including education, healthcare, and prohibition. She was an officer in Baltimore’s Progressive Women’s Suffrage Club and held a leadership position in the prominent Women’s Cooperative Civic League. Chissell, her neighbor Margaret Gregory Hawkins, and activist Estelle Young were part of a black middle class who lived and worked in neighborhoods now part of the Old West Baltimore Historic District. The close proximity of these organizations’ members, driven by residential segregation, made it convenient for them to hold meetings in their homes, and they often gathered at Chissell’s home on Druid Hill Avenue in Baltimore.
In the early twentieth century, the women’s suffrage movement began to secure the support of important state and national organizations. In 1914, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) endorsed women’s suffrage, and local clubs and associations moved quickly to draw further public support by holding mass meetings. The first public meeting of the Women’s Suffrage Club drew a large and enthusiastic crowd to Grace Presbyterian Church in December 1915, and in 1916, the NACWC brought their biennial national convention to Baltimore, where the suffrage movement was a major topic of discussion.
Following passage of the 19th Amendment, Chissell authored “A Primer for Women Voters,” a recurring column in the Baltimore Afro-American that offered guidance to new African American women voters. She organized training sessions for women at the neighborhood Colored Young Women’s Christian Association (CYWCA) after women got the vote, and later served as the Chair of the Women’s Cooperative Civic League and as Vice President of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP. The Women’s Club used the CYWCA to hold weekly ‘Citizenship Meetings’ for new women voters and ongoing lectures on voting and civic responsibility.
Augusta T. Chissell’s legacy endures in her former home at 1534 Druid Hill Avenue, where she lived during her decades of civic activism, and in the former CYWCA building at 1200 Druid Hill Avenue, where the Women’s Suffrage Club began hosting public meetings in 1915. As the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment approaches, Marylanders should honor and celebrate strong women like Augusta Chissell, whose decades of civic activism laid the groundwork for so many of us.
Tomorrow’s event is sold out, but the Maryland Historical Trust will post photos of the induction ceremony on social media. To explore the story of women’s suffrage in Maryland, visit MHT’s storymap “Maryland Women’s Fight for the Vote.”