Yesterday, I posted an article on Facebook by Lynn Yaeger at Vogue entitled The African-American Suffragists History Forgot. It was a good, short article which gave names of a number of African-American women involved in the suffrage movement, including a couple I have never heard of. One of these is Elizabeth Piper Ensley, a woman who had extensive contacts in the east where the suffrage movement was bigger news, but who did her work in the west.
Not much is known about Elizabeth’s childhood. She was born around 1848 in the Caribbean Islands and was well-educated, probably to the level of a college degree. One source says that she received part of her education in Germany and France. Whether abroad or at home, when she moved to Boston in the 1870s, she made good use of her education by teaching school and helping to establish a library. She also got involved in suffrage and social reform groups active in Boston at the time.
In 1882, Elizabeth married Howell N Ensley and they moved to Washington D.C where they were both associated with Howard University, possibly as teachers. Some time before 1888, they decided to travel west and settled in Denver, Colorado. It was a period of economic depression in the area with a lot of unemployed miners moving to Denver with their families. Elizabeth got involved in reform efforts using her contacts in Boston and Washington to assist in relief efforts for the poor.
Around the same time, the Colorado Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association was reorganized with a desire to put women’s suffrage on the November 1893 ballot. The Colorado State Constitution of 1876 gave women the right to vote, but only in local school elections. The Equal Suffrage Association was originally founded at that time to work toward suffrage in state-wide elections, but had ceased functioning.
The Association reorganized with meager resources, just $25 and Elizabeth became treasurer. She took on a leadership role in two areas, first in developing the financial backing needed for the campaign, but probably more important to her, she organized black women. Together, they influenced the all-male electorate to vote in favor of the amendment and women in Colorado won the right to vote on November 7, 1893.
To Elizabeth, having the right to vote wasn’t enough. She soon organized the Women’s League to educate black women on the issues, why, and how to vote. During the next year, women helped to vote into the legislature a black man, lawyer Joseph Stuart, and three women, the first female state legislators in the country. She reported on the election in an article written for Women’s Era, the first monthly newspaper published by and for African-American women, founded and edited by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.
In 1904, she founded the Colorado Association of Colored Women’s Clubs with a focus on community and education programs. In her club work, she also served as the only black member of the Colorado Federation of Women’s Clubs.
Elizabeth died in 1919 and was buried in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery. In 2005, Sheba R. Wheeler of The Denver Post reported on a project which examined burial records at Riverside Cemetery in Denver. Riverside is one of the oldest cemeteries in Denver and the records proved to be a goldmine of information about the African-Americans living in the area in the late 19th century. Among them were the records of Elizabeth and her family. Although sources say that the Ensleys moved to Denver in 1890, Elizabeth’s husband died in 1888 in Denver. The couple had two children, Roger G. Ensley (1883-1915) and Charlotte Ensley Britton (1885-1948) who are also buried at Riverside.
The history of African-American women may have been forgotten, or suppressed, in the past, but hopefully this is changing.
“The African-American Suffragists History Forgot” by Lynn Yaeger, Vogue
Elizabeth Piper Ensley, Autry National Center of the American West
Elizabeth Piper Ensley at Find A Grave
Elizabeth Piper Ensley, Women of the West Museum
“Denver cemetery’s data “very valuable” to state” by Sheba R. Wheeler, The Denver Post