Hester Jeffrey

HJeffreys3Born Unknown
Birthplace Unknown
Died 1934
Grave Site Boston, MA
Contribution Organizer and activist in the African-American community.

Hester C. Jeffrey moved to Rochester, New York from Boston, Massachusetts in 1891. She was the daughter-in-law of Reverend Rosewell Jeffrey, an affluent and prominent political activist and the wife of R. Jerome Jeffrey. (She was sometimes referred to as Hester Jeffreys or Hester Jeffries.)

Jeffrey, an untiring organizer and an activist in her own right, became involved in many of the city’s associations soon after she moved to Rochester. She was a member of the Political Equality Club and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In the latter group she held the positions of County Superintendent as well as Secretary of the Third Ward WCTU. She was also Section President of the Needlework Guild of America. In 1897, she was appointed to serve on the (Frederick) Douglass Monument Committee.

The African-American population in Rochester grew substantially between 1900 and 1920. During the same period — starting in the 1890s — African-American women banded together to form clubs and suffrage groups throughout the nation. Jeffrey’s activities reflected these trends. She founded or helped to organize a number of local African-American women’s clubs among the growing black community in Rochester. In 1902, she organized the Susan B. Anthony Club for African-American women. She also served as its president. While the club’s goals were in part philanthropic — its Mothers’ Council was created to help mothers with small children – -it also advocated suffrage, as its name implies.

Jeffrey was also instrumental in founding the Climbers and the Hester C. Jeffrey Club, organizations for young African-American women. One of the purposes of the Hester C. Jeffrey Club was to raise funds for young black women to take courses at the Mechanics’ Institute (which later became the Rochester Institute of Technology).

As the above affiliations demonstrate, Jeffrey built and maintained ties across racial communities in Rochester. Her affiliations with both communities are reflected in the religious sphere as well as in civic and philanthropic organizations. While she often attended the First Unitarian Church and had close ties with Mary Gannett, wife of its prominent minister, she maintained an active membership in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion church, and served on various committees there.

Jeffrey’s activities as a clubwoman assured her a state and national as well as a local presence. In 1902, she spoke at a Buffalo, New York convention of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), a group founded in 1896 by such prominent African-American leaders as Harriet Tubman, Rosetta Douglass Sprague (daughter of Frederick Douglass), Frances Harper, Mary Church Terrell and Ida Wells Barnett.

In 1905, Jeffrey represented the New York Federation of Colored Women (NYFCW) at a New York State Woman Suffrage Association (NYSWSA) convention. The same year, as president of the NYFCW, she presented its annual report when the group met in Rochester.

Jeffrey was also a friend and associate of Susan B. Anthony, and was chosen to give a eulogy at Anthony’s funeral, in 1906. There, she shared the platform with William Channing Gannett (minister of the Unitarian Church), Rochester Mayor James Cutler, Rush Rhees (president of the University of Rochester), and nationally known suffragists Carrie Chapman Catt and Reverend Anna Howard Shaw. Jeffrey’s eulogy reflects her many affiliations and activities:

We, the colored people of Rochester, join the world in mourning the loss of our true friend, Susan B. Anthony…The colored churches in this city, the National and State Federations of Colored Women, the federated clubs of the association…all extend…their tender sympathy…”

In her eulogy, Jeffrey also expressed her support and advocacy for suffrage. She stated that the “members of the Susan B. Anthony Club” were filled with “sorrow” for the loss of “their great leader.” She proclaimed Anthony to be a “friend for many years — our champion.” And she “pledge[d]” that the members of the Club would “devote our time and energies to the work thou has left us to do.”

HJeffreys1Jeffrey was instrumental in the establishment of the first memorial for Susan B. Anthony. The memorial, a stained glass window at the A.M.E. Zion church, consisted of a portrait of Anthony along with her famous statement — “Failure is Impossible.” It was presented to the church by Jeffrey on behalf of the Susan B. Anthony Club. Unveiled on August 20, 1907, the occasion was commemorated with speeches by suffragist Jean Brooks Greenleaf and Hannah B. Clark.

Hester Jeffrey organized and led associations that improved the lives of African-American women in Rochester. She was also able to transcend racial barriers at a time when this was no small feat. She joined forces with the suffrage movement and, as author Roslyn Terborg-Penn states, was able to move between the often-segregated worlds as part of “both the NACW and the NAWSA [National American Woman Suffrage Association] networks.”

Jeffrey died in 1934.

Bibliography of Suggested Books & Articles

  • Frazier, Charles W., comp., The Old Ship of Zion: Its History and Its People, Rochester, NY: 1995.
  • Harper, Ida Husted, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, Vol. III, Indianapolis, IN: The Hollenbeck Press, 1908.
  • Hester Jeffrey, biographical sketch, unsigned typescript.
  • McKelvey, Blake, “Lights and Shadows in Local Negro History,” Rochester History, v. 21, no. 4 (October 1959), p. 18.
  • Obituary of Hester Jeffrey. Tengwell Scrapbook, Local History Division, Rochester Public Library.
  • Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.