Armita Douglas (1874-1958)
By George Robb, professor, William Paterson University, Wayne, New Jersey
This biographical sketch was first published on the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States and appears here by permission. That database is accessible at https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/VOTESforWOMEN
President, New Jersey Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs
Armita Harris Douglas was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1874 to John Benjamin Harris, a stable hand, and his wife Sarah. Armita was the second of eight children. Like many African Americans at the time, the Harris family moved north as part of the Great Migration, settling in Philadelphia in the 1890s, where John now worked as an undertaker. Some of the Harris clan moved on to Newark, New Jersey, where Armita met her future husband, George Anderson Douglas, a recent Howard University graduate and pioneering black lawyer. The couple married on June 20, 1899. They were to have three children, John, Malcolm, and Beatrice. While George Douglas built a successful law practice (he was the first black lawyer to appear before the New Jersey Supreme Court), Armita Douglas built an impressive resumé as a political activist.
She helped organize the NAACP and the Urban League in Newark and was a charter member of the city’s Phyllis Wheatley Literary Club, an organization that encouraged cultural awareness and artistic talent among young black women. Douglas also helped organize the New Jersey Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (NJFCWC) in 1915. Under its first president, AME Zion minister, the Reverend Florence Randolph, the New Jersey Federation affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, whose motto, “Lifting as We Climb,” indicated a strong commitment to community service and a whole range of progressive causes, including education, desegregation, anti-lynching, and women’s suffrage.
Armita Douglas was active in the women’s suffrage movement in New Jersey, which had entered a period of soul searching following the State’s decisive rejection of a Woman Suffrage Referendum in October 1915. White suffragists, who had previously distanced themselves from African American clubwomen, began building bridges. In 1917, Lillian Feickert, president of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association (NJWSA), invited the Colored Women’s Clubs to join forces with the NJWSA. When the NJWSA later organized a Ratification Committee to advocate for the 19th Amendment, Florence Randolph served on its executive board. Armita Douglas and other members of the NJFCWC participated in suffrage rallies and parades around the state. When the New Jersey Assembly ratified the 19th Amendment in January 1920, Douglas helped organize an inter-racial victory banquet in Newark, her hometown.
In the years following ratification, Douglas was active in the New Jersey League of Women Voters and the New Jersey Colored Women’s Republican Club. During the 1920s she chaired the Civics Department of the NJFCWC. In this capacity, she urged black women to become more politically active in their communities and to assist those less fortunate. Speaking at a church in Summit, New Jersey in 1923, Douglas insisted that “the best mother is not the mother who stays at home all the time and gets a flower once a year . . . there are girls outside our own home who have not the surroundings they should have. Those girls are your problem.” In 1925, Douglas organized the New Jersey Junior Federation, an amalgamation of African American girls clubs in the state, to better serve the interests of young people. In 1927, Armita Douglas succeeded Florence Randolph as president of the NJFCWC. She held this office for six years, during which time she worked closely with the national headquarters in building membership and raising funds.
During the 1920s and 30s, Douglas played a leading role in the Newark chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom., an organization dedicated to disarmament and the peaceful resolution of national disputes through the League of Nations. She also served as an officer of the Newark Interracial Committee, a coalition of black and white women in the City that worked for civic improvements. As a leading member of this committee, she worked closely with Amelia Moorfield, a white woman, who, like Douglas, had been active in the women’s suffrage movement.
Following her husband’s death in 1935, Armita Douglas lived with her daughter, Beatrice Collins, in Belleville and, later, Montclair, New Jersey, where she died on December 9, 1958. She is buried in Glendale Cemetery, Bloomfield, New Jersey.
Betty Livingston Adams, Black Women’s Christian Activism: Seeking Social Justice in a Northern Suburb (New York: NYU Press, 2016), p. 79-80.
“Colored Women Federation,” Newark Evening News, July 23, 1919, p. 9.
“Colored Women Plan Convention,” Jersey Journal, July 12, 1943, p. 17.
“Inter-Racial Meeting to Aid Good Will Week,” Jersey Journal, May 14, 1930, p. 4.
LaVonne Leslie, Editor, The History of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (Xlibris, 2012), p. 241-45.
“Mrs. Armita Harris Douglas Dies,” Newark Evening News, December 11, 1958, p. 43.