Julia's sister, Dr. Mary Britton


Julia's sister, Dr. Mary Britton


Memphis in the 1880s was still rebuilding from the war and the yellow fever epidemics. It wasn’t a very big place. The two women discussed yesterday - Julia Hooks & Elizabeth Meriwether - were each elites in their own circles. Did they ever meet? I doubt it. But who knows?

Hooks and Meriwether both had sisters, or sisters-in-law, who were also accomplished notables as well as devoted suffragists. Covering Julia’s sister Dr. Mary E Britton today; Elizabeth’s sister-in-law Lide Smith Meriwether tomorrow.

Mary Britton and her older sister Julia were born into a free family of color in Lexington KY in the 1850s. All the children got a classical education. Julia’s musical talent was apparent early, and in 1869 the family moved 40 miles to Berea so the girls could go to college. (One more note about Julia: she is listed as faculty at Berea College in 1871-72, making her the first AA to teach white students in KY. She must have been supremely talented.) Tragically, both parents died as Mary was about to graduate, leaving 4 or 5 younger children.

Mary became a teacher, the first of her 3 careers & one source of evidence of her suffrage activity. An active member of the KY State Assoc of Colored Teachers, Mary spoke about women’s suffrage at the Assoc’s 9th annual convention in 1887.

Her speech was reprinted on the front page of the American Catholic Tribune, a respected Black-run newspaper. Mary begins by saying she wishes she could recant her earlier disinterest in women’s rights! “From my early youth I was a strong advocate of human rights...not women’s rights.” She goes on to make the case: disputing bad theology, decrying taxation without representation, and quoting famous male suffragists like Frederick Douglass & Henry Ward Beecher.

While teaching school, Mary Britton also became well-known as a journalist, writing for both mainstream and Black newspapers. She published a regular column in the Lexington Herald under the pen name “Meb” in which she advocated for reform of all kinds.

She and Ida B Wells met and became friends when Ida visited Kentucky for a meeting of the National Colored Press Assoc. They had a lot in common: as politicized Black women journalists, as teachers, and having both been orphaned as teenagers with younger siblings in need of care.

Mary had a third career as a doctor. She attended American Medical Missionary College, run by the 7th Day Adventists in Battle Creek MI & Chicago. She returned to Lexington & built a respected practice. She was active in state & national professional associations.

One final story of Mary E Britton’s activism: the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago was known as the “White City” for its decor and its racist policies. Mary decided to prove the point by seeking admission to the Kentucky pavilion. She was rudely rebuffed.

A reporter for the Indianapolis Freeman saw and described it as a humiliating indignity. Hers is the only documented refusal of entry at the Fair. Thanks to Dr. Karen C. McDaniel who found these wonderful sources:  #BlackSuffragists #Suffrage100 


Daily Suffragist




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Daily Suffragist, “Julia's sister, Dr. Mary Britton,” Daily Suffragist, accessed July 14, 2024, https://dailysuffragist.omeka.net/items/show/208.

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