By ALEXANDRA SACCONE
Undergraduate English major
Published September 8, 2023
A new historical marker celebrating Black suffragist Charlotte Dett was unveiled recently during a ceremony in Niagara Falls, thanks to the efforts of UB faculty member Lillian S. Williams, who nominated Dett for the honor.
“Dett is an unknown story, like that of so many African American women, and will enhance our understanding of these reform movements,” Williams, associate professor in the Department of Africana and American Studies, College of Arts and Sciences, told the crowd that gathered for the event on Aug. 16 at the site of Dett’s one-time home.
Dett (1862-1937), a suffragist and preservationist, was vice president of the Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs and served in several executive positions of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW). She joined other NACW members, including President Mary Talbert, in preserving the Washington, D.C., estate of Frederick Douglass and in honoring the life of Harriett Tubman of Auburn.
This year is the 103rd anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Williams, who serves on the board of the National Vote for Women’s Trails and the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites, noted there are few markers to document this event, and even fewer to celebrate the contribution of Black suffragists.
“The collaborative was concerned about getting more diverse representation because typically, when we look at the suffrage movement, we focus upon upper class white women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But there were a variety of women of color and working-class women that were involved, and there were no markers for them,” said Williams, who is also director of community engagement in Africana and American Studies. “So, in the 21st century, we began to look at the roles that these women played in the movement — whether they were working class, whether they were women of color — we wanted an opportunity to document their contributions as well.”
The marker, a white and purple plaque, is located near the site of Dett’s former home and guest house near the Niagara Falls Convention Center on Old Falls Street. This marker, among others, was first proposed by Williams to the National Votes for Women Trail organization, and later evaluated by historians at the Pomeroy Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Syracuse that supports the preservation of community history.
Williams nominated Dett and activist Mary Burnett Talbert for markers; she also succeeded in securing markers for the national headquarters in Washington, D.C., of the NACW, the major group through which African American women exercised political power, and for Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, whose first activities when it was founded in 1913 were to organize around suffrage issues. Both Dett and Talbert held administrative positions in the NACW.
The Niagara Falls ceremony included speeches from local officials, including Mayor Robert Restaino; Bonnie Lockwood, representing Gov. Kathy Hochul; Erie County Legislator April Baskin; and Robin Schulze, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Jaman Dunn, assistant professor in the Department of Music, performed compositions written by Dett’s son, R. Nathaniel Dett.
The event was sponsored by the National Collaborative of Women’s History Sites, the Pomeroy Foundation and the office of Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino with support from the College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Africana and American Studies.