Hallie Quinn Brown was an African American born free on March 10, 1845, according to some sources1. She became an acclaimed elocutionist, educator, author and political activist who lived an extraordinary life of service and commitment as she fought for the rights of African American people and especially African American women. She is frequently credited as being one of the most remarkable Black leaders, especially notable during the onerous period of Reconstruction.
She was the daughter of two former enslaved persons, Thomas Arthur Brown and Frances Jane Scroggins. Thomas was the son of a Scottish woman, who owned a Maryland plantation, and the plantation’s Black overseer. He was allowed to purchase his freedom. Frances was freed by one of her grandfathers who was a white Revolutionary War officer and plantation owner. Brown started her life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For her, this was an activist environment. She witnessed the commitment of her parents to fight the horrible and unjustifiable treatment of African Americans through their active involvement with the Underground Railroad.
Unlike most of her contemporaries, Brown was well educated. In 1873, she was one of the first African American women to graduate from Wilberforce University. She also graduated in 1886 from the Chautauqua Lecture School. Wilberforce awarded her an honorary Master’s degree in 1890 and an honorary Doctorate of Law in 1936.
She used her education initially as a teacher. Her career started with plantation schools in South Carolina and Mississippi. Due to the prominence of lynching and other violent attacks against Blacks in the South, her career continued in northern public schools. Later she held faculty positions at various universities. Her career culminated with appointments as dean of Allen University, dean of women at Tuskegee Institute and trustee at Wilberforce University.
Brown’s training at the Chautauqua Lecture School served as the foundation to develop her skill in elocution, which is the art and practice of oral delivery including the use and control of both vocal production and gesture. Highly regarded as a professional elocutionist, she gave extensive performances: “In her era, she was recognized as one of the greatest elocutionists across two continents, Europe and America. Though she rarely appears in history books, Brown’s legacy can be found in today’s speech-language pathologists and spoken word artists.”2
Brown’s oratory skills were not only entertaining; she used her powerful voice to lecture for social change by advocating for African American political and civil rights, women’s suffrage, anti-lynching legislation and more. She was a member of a traveling group that raised money for Wilberforce University through performances. Her European engagements spanned several years and included the 1895 convention of the World’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a lecture before Queen Victoria in 1897 and the 1899 International Congress of Women. She was also a guest during Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Celebration in 1899.
She utilized her expertise as an elocutionist in three of the six books she published. In 1926, she served as the editor of Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction. This encyclopedic text compiles 60 biographical sketches of prominent African American women. In the preface, Brown states, “It is our anxious desire to preserve for future reference an account of these women, their life and character and what they accomplished under the most trying and adverse circumstances.”
Working with many African American women throughout America, Brown endeavored to establish a major political organization. She was a founding and dedicated member of the National Association of Colored Women’s ClubsExternal. This “mega” club was created with the merger and powerful alliance of hundreds of Black women’s clubs across America. It reflected their desire to have an influential national association to raise awareness around issues specific to the African American community. She served as president from 1920 to 1924. Following this, she served as honorary President until her death in 1949.
Her leadership roles in national and state politics also reflected Brown’s commitment to African Americans. Her positions included the vice-president of the Ohio Council of Republican Women and chair of the executive committee of the Negro Women’s National Republican League. During the 1920 run-up to the Presidential election, she spoke in support of Warren G. Harding’s nomination, and in 1924 she was quite possibly the first woman of color to address a national political convention.
Hallie Quinn Brown lived an incredible and exemplary life as a leader, activist and elocutionist. Her contributions, however, are frequently omitted from historical accounts. “By telling her story, we can utilize the past to inspire a new generation of activists to find their voice and use it to enact change.”3
- Search on Hallie Q Brown in the historic newspapers database, Chronicling America to find articles about her activities and appearances. For example:
- Hallie Q. Brown is Again Honored. The Northwestern Bulletin-Appeal. St. Paul, Minn., August 8, 1925, p.4
- Present Day Political Leaders. The Northwestern Bulletin-Appeal. St. Paul, Minn., October 25, 1924, p.3
- Get details about the image of Hallie Brown with her cape (shown above) in the Picture This blog post Portraits of Nineteenth Century African American Women Activists…
- Read a transcribed electronic edition of Homespun Heroines and Other Women of DistinctionExternal available through the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill collection, Documenting the American SouthExternal.
- Explore African American Women Authors of the Civil War Era: A Resource Guide to find additional works by Brown and her contemporaries.
- Search across the collections of photos, prints, and drawings to find images of African American women who worked with Brown to establish the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. Names to search on include Mary Church Terrell, Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune, Sojourner Truth, Ida B Wells-Barnett, Frances Harper.
- Images of participants in more recent civil rights movements are included in African American Activists of the 20th Century: Selected Pictures.
- African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection gives a panoramic and eclectic review of African American history and culture. A diverse array of written materials such as sermons, speeches, annual reports, legal documents, conference proceedings and more are included.
- Search across the Library’s website on Wilberforce University to learn more about this institution through maps, exhibitions and publications.
- Expand your knowledge of Queen Victoria through Queen Victoria: Topics in Chronicling America.
- Review the description of the Hallie Q. Brown Papers, 1870-1949External held by Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.