January 12: Mary Townsend Seymour, Civil Rights Champion

 

Born in Hartford in 1873, lifelong civil rights activist Mary Townsend lost both her parents at the age of 15, and was adopted into the family of local black activist and Civil War veteran Lloyd Seymour.  A few years later, she married one of his sons, Frederick Seymour, and the newlyweds settled in the south end of Hartford.  Following the elder Seymour’s example, both Mary and Frederick became heavily involved in the African-American community around them, even opening their home to neighbors and local workers who needed a place to stay.  In 1917, Mary Townsend Seymour played a formative role in the establishment of the Hartford chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, shouldering the lion’s share of the administrative work in order to keep the fledgling chapter running in its early years.

The only known photograph of Mary Townsend Seymour, date unknown.

The 1910s and 1920s proved to be a crucible for Hartford’s African-American community: World War I saw many of the city’s black men leave to fight overseas, and community relations became stressed as Hartford experienced a massive influx of southern blacks during the Great Migration, whose lifestyle and mannerisms were markedly different than their native Connectican counterparts who had been living in Hartford for generations.  The relatively sudden increase in the city’s black population also strained city resources and made many white Hartfordites nervous, sparking talk of segregating the public schools.

In these difficult times for Hartford’s black community, Mary Townsend Seymour rose to meet as many of these challenges as she could.  When the Hartford NAACP chapter’s first president, William Bell, joined the military and was dispatched to fight overseas during World War I, Seymour became the chapter’s official spokesperson.  She joined the American Red Cross and helped form a local chapter of the Circle for Negro War Relief, which assisted black veterans returning home from overseas military service.  After the war’s end, Seymour co-authored a nationally-published exposé on wage discrimination for African-American women who worked in Connecticut’s tobacco fields, an experience that inspired her to seek a seat in the Connecticut General Assembly as a member of the Farmer-Labor party in 1920. While unsuccessful, her campaign made Mary Townsend Seymour the first African-American woman in Connecticut history to seek statewide office.

Seymour remained socially active throughout the remainder of her life, advocating for worker’s rights, African-American civil rights, and women’s suffrage.  She wrote tirelessly to prominent American suffragists, imploring them to be inclusive of black women in their efforts to secure the right to vote. On January 12, 1957, after a long life dedicated to improving the lives of those around her, Mary Townsend Seymour passed away in her hometown of Hartford.  Today, her grave in Hartford’s Old North cemetery is an honored spot on the Connecticut Freedom Trail.  Her lifelong work with the underprivileged women of Hartford, teaching them how to cook, sew, and manage a household, inspired the city to name one of its new affordable housing complex “Mary Seymour Place” in her honor in the 1990s.

The life of one of Hartford’s most dedicated Civil Rights leaders and luminaries remembered, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Mary Townsend Seymour,” Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame

Mark H. Jones, “Audacious Alliance: Mary Townsend Seymour,Connecticut Explored