Mary Townsend was born in 1873 to Jacob and Emma Townsend. By the time she reached her teenage years, she had lost both of her parents. Just before her mother’s death, Mary was adopted into the family of celebrated Civil War veteran and social activist Lloyd G. Seymour. Shortly thereafter, she became involved in her first act of social advocacy: in June of 1888 she visited Hartford City Hall to review her birth certificates and declared her official name as Mary Emma Townsend Seymour. At such a young age, Seymour had a distinct sense of self and this sense of identity would mark her life of socio-political activism as she became a civil rights champion, rallying other African American men and women to value themselves and their rights. She is celebrated for her commitment to the fight for equal rights and full citizenship for all, regardless of race. In 1891, she married Frederick Seymour, a member of the Lloyd Seymour family.
In the mid- and late-1910s, many African Americans from the southern United States fled to northern cities, including Hartford, looking to escape the hatred and oppression of the South. In Hartford, white residents had largely ignored their black neighbors, but now, with the black population doubling, tensions were beginning to flare. School officials considered segregating the schools, and it was clear that the racism of the South was alive and well in the north. Seymour had married Frederick Seymour, a member of her adoptive family, in 1891 and it was during this time of social change in Hartford that Seymour and her husband opened their home to 20 people (black and white, male and female) and began organizing for civil rights. On October 9, 1917, Hartford’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was born with Seymour serving as the organization’s spokesperson.
The years following the foundation of Hartford’s NAACP were some of Seymour’s most active. In 1918, she expanded her community organizing efforts and helped form Hartford’s equal rights advocacy chapter of the Circle for Negro War Relief, Inc. Here, she helped Negro soldiers’ families during the war. Around the same time, she also joined the Colored Women’s League of Hartford. In 1919, when suffragists like Alice Paul were fighting for Congress to pass the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote, Seymour became concerned that the amendment would not include black women. Seymour worked hard to make sure that black women were not being ignored in the fight for women’s liberties.
Around 1920, Seymour joined the Red Cross and worked with African American women laborers in Connecticut’s tobacco warehouses. She and fellow activist Josephine Bennett interviewed female laborers and discovered immense wage discrimination. Seymour and Bennett’s exposé on the subject appeared in the NAACP’s The Crisis in 1920.
In 1920, Seymour became the first African American woman to run for the Connecticut State Assembly. While she did not win, her candidacy as the first African American woman to try for this position cannot go unacknowledged. Seymour’s earnest belief that an end to discrimination was a universal good compelled her to fight tirelessly to unite all people in pursuing equal rights for years to follow. She died in Hartford in 1957 and is buried in Hartford’s Old North Cemetery. Her grave is a site on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. To honor her legacy, in 1997 Mary Seymour Place was opened in Hartford to provide supportive housing for homeless women and children.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.