Guest Columnist

Iowa women's history profile: Vivian B. Smith of the State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs

Vivian B. Smith (Contributed photo / University of Northern Iowa)
Vivian B. Smith (Contributed photo / University of Northern Iowa)

Editor’s note: March is Women’s History Month. Stories of women from Iowa who fought for equal suffrage tell us something important about standing up for equality and justice in a world where those seem to be scarce resources. The fight for justice and equality for all people continues, even beyond this month. These stories appear thanks to the work of the League of Women Voters of Iowa, which is marking the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment at 19th-amendment-centennial.org.

Vivian Smith is recognized as one of the Buxton women who were public advocates for women’s suffrage during the early 1900s. Ms. Smith believed that women’s right to vote would be beneficial to African Americans as well as whites.

She was a member of the Waterloo Suffragette Council and served as chair of the suffrage committee for the Iowa State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1917.

In addition to her direct work with the suffrage movement, Ms. Smith was also a talented violinist and singer and would often perform at meetings of the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.

She attended the Iowa State Teachers College at Cedar Falls (now known as the University of Northern Iowa) as the only student of color at the time, graduating in 1916. She became a teacher and taught in Illinois.

Sue M. Wilson Brown was born on September 8, 1877 in Staunton, Virginia. Her parents were Jacob and Maria (Harris) Wilson, who came to Iowa, like many others, to mine coal. Sue attended and graduated from Oskaloosa High School where she met her husband, attorney Samuel Joe Brown, a native of Iowa. They were married on December 31, 1902. The pair eventually settled in Des Moines together.

Though she ultimately settled in Des Moines, she worked at the local, state, and national levels to advocate for African-American women. Some of the clubs she helped establish were the Intellectual Improvement Club in 1906, Mary B. Talbert Club in Iowa City in 1914, and the Des Moines League of Colored Women Voters. She also worked as the editor of the journal of the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (IFCWC), the Iowa Colored Women. The IFCWC oversaw and assisted many African-American women’s clubs in Iowa. She would later preside over the IFCWC from 1915 to 1917.

Allyn Benkowich and Kristen Corey work with the Office on the Status of Women.

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