Sarah Smith Garnet: Principal, Suffragist, Leader


Sarah Smith Garnet: Principal, Suffragist, Leader


So many talented African-American women became teachers when outlets for intellectual and managerial skill were few.

Sarah Smith Garnet began teaching when she was 14 years old, and in 1863 she became the first Black woman to be principal of a New York City school.

She remained the principal for nearly 40 years, innovating pedagogy the whole time. Her year-end literary assemblies drew large crowds. Her obituary in Crisis @thecrisismag notes that: "It was her untiring efforts toward doing away with separate schools for colored children

"...and her zeal in the accomplishment of her purpose that has given her the highest rank among the teachers of New York…"

W.E.B.DuBois spoke at Sarah Smith Garnet's funeral. Her obituary was written by Addie Waites Hunton, another NACW leader and anti-lynching activist.

It gives us a flavor of Sarah as an activist and as an educator: "Among her beautiful gifts recalled was that of drawing her pupils close to her...."Her boys always knew she would give them another chance.'"

After she retired from the public schools, Sarah Garnet spent more than a decade on her other career: votes for women.

She and her sister Dr. Susan McKinney-Steward had created the Equal Suffrage League in Brooklyn in the late 1880s. It was the first NYC Black women's club devoted to suffrage. (See Dr. Susan, yesterday!)

At first they met in the back of the seamstress shop that Sarah ran on the side when she was a principal. They eventually outgrew that space and moved to the (all Black) YMCA in Fort Greene that opened in 1902.

Around that time the Equal Suffrage League became affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women, and Sarah Garnet became superintendent of NACW's suffrage department.

Sarah Garnet was intellectually voracious - always seeking new ideas.

In her early 70s she supported the founding of the Niagara Movement, which demanded unconditional equal rights for African-Americans.

In her late 70s she went to England to meet radical suffragettes, and helped import their ideas to the US.

Hallie Quinn Brown's Homespun Heroines describes Sarah Garnet's last days:

"Mrs. Garnett literally died in harness. While in London she gathered suffrage literature and 24 hours before her promotion to her Heavenly Home, was distributing the same among her club in Brooklyn."

PS9 in Brooklyn was recently named for her, thanks to Brooklyn historian/activist @rauldougou and the @PS9BklynPTO. #BlackSuffragists #CenturyofStruggle #Suffrage100


Daily Suffragist




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Daily Suffragist, “Sarah Smith Garnet: Principal, Suffragist, Leader,” Daily Suffragist, accessed July 12, 2024,

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