Blanche Harris (1878-1956)
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, Colored Women’s Suffrage League of Newark
Harriet Blanche Harris (known as Blanche) was born in Maryland in 1878 to Simon and Alethia Jefferson. Like many African Americans of the period, the Jeffersons moved north in search of better opportunities. They settled in Newark, New Jersey in the late 1880s, where Simon worked as a piano mover until his death in 1898 and Blanche made her living as a dressmaker. In 1901, Blanche married Paul Grover Harris, a railroad porter. Their only child, Kathryn, was born in 1921. During much of their marriage, the couple lived separately, Blanche with her mother in Newark, Paul in New York City, where he worked as a painter.
Blanche Harris’s suffrage activism grew out of her work for the Republican Party, which in the early 20th century, was more supportive of civil rights for African Americans and of women’s suffrage than was the Democratic Party. In 1912, Harris helped organize African American support for Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, in which he was the only candidate to officially endorse women’s suffrage. Blanche Harris served as the manager of a “flying squadron of colored women” who staged rallies for Roosevelt around New York City.
Blanche Harris was active in the women’s suffrage movement in New Jersey in the period before the state’s unsuccessful October 1915 suffrage referendum. She served as president of the Colored Women’s Suffrage League of Newark. At this time, African American women in New Jersey began forming their own suffrage organizations, often under the auspices of the New Jersey Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs or of their local churches. Harris spoke at rallies around the state and helped get out the vote. For example, on September 27, 1915, she addressed a mass meeting of African Americans in Plainfield, New Jersey, urging the men in the audience to vote for the referendum. According to the Plainfield Press, Harris spoke with “eloquence and kindly, humor,” explaining that both black women and white women had a right to representation in government.
What role, if any, Harris played in later suffrage campaigns is not known, but her political activism and public speaking had opened up new employment opportunities for her. By 1920, Blanche Harris was teaching elocution in a private school. In 1924 she became vice-chairman of New Jersey’s Colored Republican State Committee. In this capacity Harris worked to secure the African American vote for Calvin Coolidge’s presidential campaign and Hamilton F. Kean’s bid for the Senate. As a paid operative for Kean, she helped organize fund-raising dinners and mass meetings around New Jersey, and she frequently spoke at these events. Harris’s Republican connections were probably useful for her securing a job as an attendant in Newark’s civil courts, where she worked in the 1930s.
There is little documentation for Blanche Harris in her later years. She died on February 12, 1956 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Newark.
“Big Monster Mass Meeting,” Trenton Evening Times, September 5, 1924, p. 4.
“Colored Women at Work for Edge,” Jersey Journal, June 18, 1924, p. 7.
Death Notice, Newark Evening News, February 14, 1956.
“Kean Negroes Plan Dinner,” Jersey Journal, September 5, 1924, p. 2.
Newark City Directories, 1890, 1915, 1923, 1932.
“Suffragists Hold Enthusiastic Rally,” Plainfield Press, September 28, 1915.
U.S. Census returns, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930.
Special thanks to Beth Zak-Cohen, Librarian, Charles F. Cummings New Jersey Information Center, Newark Public Library.