10 Progressive Women of Early 20th Century Charleston
March is Women’s History Month, and, in honor of this annual event, I’d like to profile some of the most progressive women of early twentieth century Charleston. A century ago, this community was just beginning to emerge from a social, economic, and cultural rut created by backward-looking politics. To move Charleston forward, we needed to embrace new, progressive ideas and policies, especially those recognizing the equal rights of women and of the African-American population. Time doesn’t permit me to discuss all the local women who provided leadership during this crucial period and served as role models for the rising generations, so I’ve whittled down my list to ten progressive women whose work and legacy I’d like to highlight (in alphabetical order).
Anna DeCosta Banks (1869–1930) was born in Charleston, but by the age of twenty she was living in Hampton, Virginia, with her husband and newborn daughter. In 1891 she graduated from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University), and in 1895 graduated from Hampton’s Dixie School of Nursing. There she remained as a teacher of nursing for several years, before returning to Charleston in 1898. Here she joined the faculty of an African-American hospital founded the previous year under the leadership of Dr. Alonzo McClennan, called the Hospital and Training School for Nurses (at 135 Cannon Street). Anna DeCosta Banks was the institution’s first head nurse and the organizer of its training curriculum. Her affiliation with the Training School for Nurses continued through the rest of her life, but during that time she also worked for twenty-five years as a “visiting nurse” of the Ladies’ Benevolent Society. Founded by upper-class white women in 1813 to provide assistance to the poor women of urban Charleston, The Ladies’ Benevolent Society paid Anna Banks to administer home health care to needy women in the city’s black community. In this work, Banks frequently took nursing students from the Training School on her home visits and modeled an admirable zeal for public service. In the years after Banks’s death in 1930, the nursing students at the Hospital and Training School continued her good work through the “Anna D. Banks Auxiliary.” A memorial tablet erected at the school in June 1941 included words of tribute paid to Banks by the superintendent of the Ladies’ Benevolent Society: “All ages, classes, races, called her Blessed.” The Hospital and Training School moved into a new building on Courtenay Drive in May 1959, at which time the institution was renamed the McClennan-Banks Memorial Hospital. In the wake of public desegregation, the institution closed in 1977, but the legacy of Anna DeCosta Banks continues.
Laura Bragg (1881–1978) was born and educated in Massachusetts, where she received a degree in library science from Simmons College in 1906. She came to Charleston in September 1909 to serve as librarian of the Charleston Museum (then located in Thomson Auditorium on Rutledge Avenue, in what is now Cannon Park). Two months later, she was elected president of the Charleston Natural History Society. A strong advocate for the advancement of public knowledge of the natural sciences, Bragg became the museum’s curator of public education by 1915. In 1920, she was named director of the Charleston Museum, the first woman in the country to hold such a position. In the 1920s she was among the founders of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, the Southern States Art League, and of the Southern Museum Conference. She was instrumental in the Museum’s 1929 purchase and restoration of the Heyward-Washington House, which opened to the public in 1930 as the city’s first house museum. Under her leadership in the early 1920s, the Charleston Museum began opening its doors one day a week to Charleston’s black community and added a children’s library and reading room that lent books. These actions, along with her creation of book packages circulated to the underprivileged (especially black) members of the community, represent the earliest steps toward the creation of Charleston’s first public library. In 1930, Bragg was among the founding trustees of the Charleston Free Library (now CCPL), which was initially housed in the Charleston Museum, and served as the institution’s first librarian. Although she returned to Massachusetts later in 1931 to serve as director of the Berkshire Museum, Laura Bragg retired in 1939 and lived the rest of her life in Charleston.
Susan Dart Butler (1888–1959) was born in Charleston and received her early education at the Avery Institute. During her childhood, Susan’s father, the Rev. John L. Dart (1854–1915), founded the Charleston Industrial School on Kracke Street in 1895. In 1899 the school expanded with the addition of a large building known as Dart Hall. Susan left home in the early years of the twentieth century to study at Atlanta University, and then attended the McDowell Millinery School in Boston. While employed as a hat maker in that city, she married Nathaniel Lowe Butler (1882–1948) in 1912. The couple then settled in Charleston and, after Rev. Dart’s death in 1915, took over the operation of Dart Hall. In the early 1920s, Susan became involved in the Charleston Interracial Committee which met at the African-American YWCA on Coming Street. There she met with Clelia McGowan, the first female member of Charleston’s City Council, who asked Susan to make a survey of library resources available to Charleston’s black community. Finding very little available and a great need, Mrs. Butler and her family transformed her late father’s personal library at Dart Hall into a reading room and lending library. Acting as the first librarian of what became known as the Dart Hall Library, Susan was instrumental in helping to secure the funding to create the Charleston Free Library (now CCPL), which opened in January 1931. After twenty years of running Dart Hall Library, Susan Dart Butler retired in 1957 and died two years later. The library she began in 1927 moved to a new, desegregated building in 1968, at which time it was renamed the John L. Dart Library. In December 2017, the 90th anniversary of the opening of her library, the citizens of Charleston gathered to dedicate a historical marker acknowledging the pioneering educational work of Susan Dart Butler.
Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987) was born into a poor family in Charleston that worked hard to enable her to attend the teacher training program at Avery Institute, from which she graduated in 1916. For the next three years she taught at a rural private school on Johns Island (Promise Land School) because black teachers were not allowed to teach black pupils in public schools in South Carolina. In her first foray into political activism, Septima participated in the campaign to lobby the state legislature to admit black teachers into the public school system, which was achieved in 1920. Following the death of her husband, Nerie Clark, in 1925, she taught at several institutions outside of South Carolina before returning to Charleston in 1947. Here she became active in the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, and in 1953 began visiting the liberal Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. After being fired in 1956 for refusing to disavow membership in the NAACP, Mrs. Clark became a full-time civil rights activist and is credited with creating the “citizenship school” model of grass-roots political action that was replicated throughout the south in the late 1950s and 1960s. In her later years, Septima Poinsette Clark received ample praise for her lifetime commitment to the advancement of civil rights and equal access to education. She was elected to the Charleston County School Board in 1975 and received an honorary doctorate from College of Charleston in 1978. President Jimmy Carter awarded her the “Living Legacy” award in 1979, and in 1982, she received South Carolina’s highest honor, the Order of the Palmetto.
Susan Pringle Frost (1873–1960) was born into a prominent Lowcountry family that saw its fortunes decline in the last decade of the nineteenth century. At the turn of the new century, she began working as a stenographer, first for an architect and then for the U.S. District Court in Charleston. In 1908, she began investing her savings in real estate, purchasing dilapidated historic properties in the city and converting them into profitable holdings. At the same time, she became active in the national movement to advance women’s rights. In March 1914, she was elected the first president of the Charleston Equal Suffrage League (later renamed the League of Women Voters), which was allied with National Woman’s Party. By 1916, Frost was regularly advertising properties for sale, and in July 1918, after sixteen years of stenographic work, she resigned from the Federal court. In September 1918, she opened an office on Broad Street and devoted her time to expanding her successful real estate business. Frost’s experience with rehabilitating old buildings in urban Charleston nurtured a growing concern for preserving from demolition the historic fabric of the city’s built-environment. Sharing these concerns with like-minded citizens, in the spring of 1920 she organized the Society for the Preservation of the Old Dwelling Houses of Charleston (later shortened to the Preservation Society of Charleston). Under Frost’s leadership, this organization planted the seeds of what became known as “historic preservation” in Charleston and beyond. The Preservation Society’s success in raising local consciousness led directly to the city’s 1931 ordinance to create the nation’s first “historic district.” For the rest of her life, Susan Pringle Frost continued as a respected and outspoken advocate for the empowerment of women and the preservation of our nation’s historic buildings.
Maud Winthrop Gibbon (1885–1974) was born into a prosperous family and received a private education in Charleston. Her family’s wealth allowed her to travel and study abroad, where she developed a life-long passion for music. After studying the ‘cello in New York, she returned to Charleston around 1908 and began appearing regularly at the private, amateur musicales hosted by the city’s Musical Arts Club. Following another round of European studies, Miss Gibbon returned to Charleston in 1917 and promoted the expansion of the Musical Arts Club. In the summer of 1919, she led the formation of the Charleston Musical Society, which offered a subscription series of Sunday concerts featuring both local amateur and visiting professional talent. Using Gibbon’s home at 97 Rutledge Avenue as its office, the new society flourished and in 1921 evolved into an expanded entity called the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. The following year, Gibbon began organizing a youth orchestra and promoting music education in the Charleston schools. Difficult economic times forced an end to such musical activities, however, and Maud Gibbon again left Charleston. Returning in the mid-1930s, Gibbon and friends founded the Charleston String Orchestra in 1936 and again used her home as its base of operations. This organization expanded in late 1941 and by the end of 1942 was again calling itself the Charleston Symphony Orchestra (CSO). In 1948, Maud Gibbon retired from the CSO, at which time she was acknowledged as the founder, manager, and driving force behind that organization. Starting from an informal collective of female amateur musicians, Gibbon persevered and sacrificed through many years of lean economic times to create a stable and permanent musical organization. From copying musical scores by hand, printing the programs, repairing the instruments, paying the bills, and performing in the orchestra, Maud Gibbon’s dogged determination created her own personal musical legacy.
Felicia Fielding Goodwin (1867–1937) is among the least remembered of the progressive women of early twentieth century Charleston, but she played an important role in the promotion of civil rights and interracial cooperation during a critical time in our community’s history. Her family roots in Charleston, and many of the details of her life are obscure, but by 1886 we find her married to Julius Fielding Sr. (ca. 1855–early July 1890) and the mother of Julius Fielding Jr. (1886–1938), who, in 1912, started the family’s renowned mortuary business. Following the death of her husband, the young Felicia Fielding supported herself as a seamstress. In 1893, she married George F. Goodwin (1869–1928), a local barber who was a native of Columbia, South Carolina, and continued working at home as a seamstress. In 1907, Mrs. Goodwin led a group of women who organized a ladies’ auxiliary to the local African-American branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Their stated purposed was “to promote the physical, social, moral and religious welfare of their young women, particularly those dependent on their own exertion for support.” In October 1910, “The Colored Young Women’s Christian Association of Charleston, S.C.,” was incorporated under the leadership of president Felicia Goodwin. Shortly thereafter, in 1911, the board of the new institution purchased a small house and lot at 106 Coming Street and began to flourish. By 1913 there were more than fifty black children enrolled in the YWCA’s daily kindergarten, and at least 100 girls enrolled in its vocational sewing school. It also provided a place for after-school recreation for girls and night courses for young working women. As the city became crowded during the first World War, 1917–18, the national YWCA office provided financial assistance that retired the branch’s debt and expanded its services. During that time, chairwoman Felicia Goodwin moved into the Coming Street Y to act as housekeeper, cook, and surrogate mother to the girls, many of whom received two hot meals a day from her. With a membership of approximately 500 at the beginning of the 1920s, the “colored” branch of the Charleston YWCA served as an important meeting place for community discussions of interracial cooperation, Red Cross services, women’s rights, and civil rights in general. Felicia Goodwin died in 1937, but the Coming Street YWCA persevered into the twenty-first century.
Clelia Peronneau Mathewes McGowan (1865–1956) was born into an old Charleston family that had moved inland during the Civil War. Her early life followed a conventional pattern. She married a prominent lawyer, William C. McGowan of Abbeville, and had three children. Following her husband’s death in 1898, she returned to Charleston and began a long career of public service. In the 1910s she joined the Charleston Equal Suffrage League and became an active participant in the local campaign for women’s rights. In December 1920, four months after the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote, Governor Robert A. Cooper appointed Clelia McGowan to the South Carolina Board of Education. She was the first woman appointed to a public office in South Carolina. When the members of the Charleston Equal Suffrage League reorganized themselves into the Charleston League of Women Voters in July 1922, they elected Clelia McGowan as their first president. In that same year, she was involved in establishing the South Carolina branch of the Atlanta-based Commission on Interracial Cooperation and served as chair of that body for most of the 1920s and 1930s. In August 1923, she was elected to represent Ward 1 on Charleston’s City Council. Her campaign platform was “a free library for Charleston,” and over the next six years she was instrumental in obtaining the necessary funds from the Rosenwald Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and the city and county of Charleston. From 1930 to the end of her life, Clelia McGowan was an active member of the Board of Trustees of Charleston Free Library and worked tirelessly to promote equal access to the tools of literacy and learning among all members of the Charleston community.
Mabel Louise Pollitzer (1885–1979) was born in Charleston in 1885 to a family of Jewish immigrants from Austria. Like her sisters Carrie (1881–1974) and Anita (1894–1975), she was an active member of the National Woman’s Party in the early twentieth century and campaigned for women’s rights and education throughout her life. Mabel graduated from Charleston’s Memminger School in 1901 and from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1906. Armed with a degree in biology, she returned to Charleston and started a biology department at Memminger. During her forty-four years of teaching at that school, she was devoted to the promotion of science education and to community progress. Mabel Pollitzer was the first South Carolina public school teacher to present courses in sex education and hygiene to girls. In 1914 she was among the founders of the Charleston Equal Suffrage League, which evolved into the League of Women Voters in 1922. In the 1920s, she was among the community activists campaigning for the creation of a free public library. Helping to secure legislation to create the library, she was among the founding members of the Board of Trustees of the Charleston Free Library (now CCPL), which opened its doors in January 1931. Mabel Pollitzer remained committed to advancing women’s rights throughout her life, and at the time of her death, in 1979, she was still lobbying on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
Huldah Josephine Prioleau was born in Charleston shortly after the Civil War (either in 1866 or 1870) and attended the Avery Institute. Leaving for further schooling, she attended Clafflin College in Orangeburg and Allen University in Columbia and then taught for two years at the latter school. In 1899 she enrolled at Howard University Medical College in Washington, D.C. Receiving her M.D. in 1904, she then returned to Charleston to practice medicine. In 1908 Dr. Prioleau constructed an office and residence at 92 Spring Street, where she lived and worked the rest of her life. She was one of the first African-American female physicians in South Carolina, and during her lifetime she was the only such doctor in Charleston. Throughout her career, Dr. Prioleau actively promoted the healthcare of children and young mothers in the city. In 1912 she was once of the founding members of the Charleston County Medical Association. In 1917–18 she led the Colored Branch of the Red Cross in Charleston and became involved in the sensitive politics of interracial cooperation. Dr. Prioleau was displeased with the patronizing and condescending attitude of many local white Red Cross volunteers, and their callous treatment of black servicemen. Working closely with the writer John Bennett, Dr. Prioleau found an ally that helped to diffuse the tense race relations of that time. Although she is little remembered in Charleston today, at her death in 1940, she was remembered as a strong, intelligent woman who was committed to the improvement of her community.
That’s my list of ten progressive women of early twentieth century Charleston. Of course, there are plenty of other women that I could have included, so this list merely represents my personal choice for the moment. If you like to learn more about any of these ladies, or about other notable women, or about the culture and politics of early twentieth century Charleston, I encourage you to come on down to the South Carolina History Room at CCPL. We have some great resources, and our staff will be happy to help you start your own journey into the past. I’ll be there, too, working on next week’s program!