Mary E. Cary Burrell (1866-1949)
By Betty Livingston Adams, Ph.D.
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
Mary E. Cary Burrell, reformer, suffragist, and political organizer, was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1866 to Lucy Cary (c.1843). She attended Richmond’s public schools to the eighth grade, graduating in 1883 from the Richmond Colored Normal School. Mary worked as a public school teacher for two years, until her marriage in 1885 to William Patrick Burrell (1865-1952), executive secretary of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, an outgrowth of the Independent Order of Good Templars. William and Mary had two sons, William Jr. (1893) and John Mercer (1894).
Renowned as an outstanding speaker, Mary E. Burrell found her voice as reformer and organizer while employed by the Grand Fountain. From 1885 to 1910, she served variously as the first female door-to-door canvasser; the first female bank clerk; editorial staff member of the official Fountain publication, The Reformer; organizer of Fountain branches and Rosebud youth groups; president of the Rosebud Board of Managers; and treasurer of the Rosebud Nursery Convention. A prominent church and club woman, Burrell was a founder and executive board chairman of the Virginia Women’s Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention; a founder of the Richmond Hospital and chair of the Women’s Auxiliary; and secretary of the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women.
In the wake of the failure of the Grand Fountain Savings Bank, the Burrells relocated to Brooklyn, New York in 1912; then to Essex County, New Jersey in 1913where with her husband Mary served as head social worker at the East Orange Social Settlement under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church Ladies’ Guild. By 1914 both Burrells were active in the Federation of Colored Organizations, founded in 1912, campaigning for passage of woman suffrage and prohibition as reform measures. The stunning defeat of both the prohibition and suffrage referenda in New Jersey in 1915 and the racial and economic dislocations of World War I, provided Mary Burrell with a humanitarian reason to add political organizing to her religious and reform experience.
As a member of the New Jersey State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, organized in 1915, and in her community service, Burrell seized the opportunity to fight race and sex discrimination and transformed the Federation’s Prison Reform Department into the Legislative Department. Suffrage, war, and electoral politics enabled Burrell to promote causes for which she had long worked.
Following New Jersey’s ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in early 1920, State Federation women held voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote ‘suffrage meetings’ throughout the state to explain the election process, evaluate party platforms, and encourage African American women and men to become active in the political life of their community. By the time of Congressional ratification in August, the women had formed the State Colored Women’s Republican Club. As the elected chairman of the Essex County club encompassing Newark and the surrounding suburbs, Burrell established ward and district units and hosted campaign rallies in which black and white, national and state party leaders participated. During the 1920 campaign, the Essex County club held more than forty-six meetings, most in local churches, and Burrell gave more than thirty speeches in support of Republican presidential candidate Warren Harding and the entire Republican ticket. Under her leadership, black women successfully turned a Democratic ward into an overwhelming Republican majority and sent the first African American, Dr. Walter Alexander, to the New Jersey Assembly.
Burrell worked with Assemblyman Alexander to draft several pieces of legislation, including prison reform and civil rights bills that passed both the assembly and senate over the Democratic governor’s veto. She also partnered with the newly-elected white Essex County assembly woman on prohibition legislation and worked with her legislative counterpart in the white women’s federation on feminist legislation; though she could not count on their support for anti-lynching and civil rights legislation. Because of her effectiveness as a lobbyist, the state legislature granted Mary Burrell floor privileges for an entire term.
Mary Burrell held positions in national and state interracial and inter-gender civic and political organizations, including the National League of Republican Colored Women, the State Colored Republican Conference, the interracial National Republican Conference, the interracial Newark NAACP, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and the (NJ) State Migrant Commission. She remained an honored reformer and political organizer in her adopted state until her death.
Adams, Betty Livingston. Black Women’s Christian Activism: Seeking Social Justice in a Northern Suburb. New York: New York University Press, 2016.
Burrell, William Patrick and D. E. Johnson. Twenty-Five Years History of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, 1881-1905. Richmond, VA: Grand Fountain, United Order of True Reformers, 1909. Reprint: Franklin Classics, 2018.
Hucles, Michael. “Burrell, Mary E. Cary (1863-c.1920).” In Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Vol. 1. Edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Rosalyn Terborog-Penn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993, 197-98.
“In the Political Arena: Women’s Work in Essex County, N.J.” Competitor, Vol. 3, no. 4 (June 1921), 34.
“Pioneer Social Worker Honored By Friends on 72d Birthday,” Newark News, August 28, 1937, Clipping Collection, Newark Public Library.