A Note from the Curatorial Team

Votes of Suffrage: 100 Years of Women in Durham Politics is a glimpse at a few of the many women involved in Durham politics and activism in the last 100 years; A comprehensive list of the many women who made significant and groundbreaking contributions to Durham would require a book to cover every individual, rather than an exhibit. The Museum’s mission of fostering curiosity and encouraging further inquiry guides our curatorial process to present a slice of the story and inspire our audience to seek more information.

The nature of exhibit research is such that the selection of materials and stories is subjective, and there are constraints on an institution’s resources. In nearly all exhibits, information included will vary. When concerns about curatorial selection are brought to our attention, we consider the feedback seriously. A single exhibit can never include every story, but we seek to understand and document such absences through oral histories that are permanently preserved and made accessible to all Durhamites. These stories can form the basis of future exhibits, and the Museum welcomes ideas and partnerships with the community.


For over a century, women in Durham have played key roles in shaping our community while facing a continued fight for rights and equal representation. Even after the adoption of the 19th Amendment 100 years ago, White women in Durham could freely vote, but Black women and other women of color continued to face almost impassable barriers to do so.

Moreover, few women of any race won elected office in North Carolina before the 1950s. Nonetheless, women engaged in politics as they sought to increase their political influence. Over the decades they organized, lobbied, fundraised, voted, and ran for public office.

While Durham’s elected female officials and voters have influenced political change throughout our history, women’s participation in clubs and organizations as passionate advocates has shown the importance of collaboration and using one’s voice to inspire change. As a result, today the City and County enjoy diverse political leadership with many women playing prominent roles.

The Suffrage Movement 1848-1920

Headquarters for the North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association located in downtown Raleigh. Note the headquarters for the States' Rights Defense League of North Carolina, an anti-suffrage organization, in the background. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina

The fight for women’s suffrage began long before the twentieth century with the launch of the movement in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, the first women’s rights convention held in the United States. In 1868, when North Carolina rewrote its constitution, the proposal for women’s suffrage was rejected. In 1894 forty-five White women and men from across the state met in Buncombe County to form the North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association (NCESA). However, the NCESA was mostly dormant until it joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1913. Meanwhile Black women, like journalist Sarah Dudley Pettey of New Bern and educator Charlotte Hawkins Brown of Sedalia spoke out for suffrage for all women in the state.

Click to expand images

Many of these prominent figures sought to strengthen White supremacy by adding White women’s votes. Durham industrial magnate and an advocate for White supremacy, state Senator Julian S. Carr, was a vocal supporter of suffrage for White women, and even introduced Senator Rankin for her speech at the state fair.

Above: Petition in favor of women's suffrage to the North Carolina General Assembly with signatures from Durham's White businessmen. Courtesy of the Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Above: A pro-women's suffrage circular explaining how the 19th Amendment would benefit the platform of white supremacy in the state. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina. Background:Members of the North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association. Prominent suffrage leader Gertrude Weil of Goldsboro on far left. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

After a decades-long struggle, on June 4, 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment, also called the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” was passed by Congress, despite broad opposition from both of North Carolina’s senators and all but one of its representatives. When the amendment went to the states for ratification, North Carolina’s legislature rejected it. In 1920, the NC General Assembly sent word to their counterparts in Tennessee urging them not to ratify. Nonetheless, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, making it part of the United States Constitution.

Following ratification, the League of Women Voters (LWV) quickly replaced the Equal Suffrage Association and consisted of many of the same members. Durham's Mary Cowper, a local education and labor activist, helped found the NC LWV and served as its executive secretary for the state LWV. She also helped establish a LWV chapter for Duke University students.

Above: North Carolina League of Women Voters member registration card with Mary Cowper's Durham address listed. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina. Background: Duke University League of Women Voters, 1927. Courtesy of the Duke University Archives.

Male leaders from Durham’s Black Wall Street encouraged Black women to register to vote. N.C. Mutual president C.C. Spaulding regularly escorted female employees to the courthouse so they could register to vote. Meanwhile, Minnie Pearson and members of the NCFCWC organized large groups of registrants to wait until the final two weekends permitted for voter registration to flood the courthouse. Despite the obstacles, in 1920, at least 50 Black women registered to vote in Durham. In contrast, over 1500 White Durham women registered to vote.


While few women won elected office in Durham or throughout the state during the first decades after adoption of the 19th Amendment, several women in Durham won appointment to important government agencies and boards. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal ushered in an era of federal government-supported programs that provided relief and employment for Americans. While the growth of Duke University and the booming tobacco industry mitigated to a degree the impact of the Great Depression, nonetheless, many in the city and county suffered as unemployment rose.

One early program established by the Durham Chamber of Commerce was an employment bureau, operated by Ethel Carr Lipscomb. After the creation of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in 1933, Durham’s employment bureau was absorbed by the federal program and awarded $30,000 for relief with Lipscomb leading the growing department. In 1938 a federal Social Security office opened in Durham and served six nearby counties; the office was run by Nina Horner Matthews for over thirty years.

Black and White middle-class women continued to pursue reform through club work. Durham’s Mary Cowper was appointed the chair of the American Association of University Women’s social studies committee in 1937, which sought to provide affordable preschool education for working class families. The committee supported the Durham Nursery School Association in 1938 with Cowper serving as president. Two years later, the program enrolled forty-six children and offered health clinics. In 1940, the city’s Recreation Department established two kindergarten programs.

Background: The Durham Nursery School, located on East Main St. Courtesy of the Herald-Sun.

However, the African American community remained underserved and relied on nursery schools at White Rock Baptist and St. Mark AME Zion churches. In 1925, Clydie F. Scarborough, with help from her husband John, a prominent funeral director, established the Daisy Scarborough Nursery to provide education, nutrition, and health care for working-class African American families. Throughout the 40s and 50s, Mrs. Scarborough expanded the school to include kindergarten classes.

Daisy Scarborough and students in front of the Daisy Scarborough Nursery School. Image courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Following WWII, Durham faced a housing shortage caused by war material conservation and the baby boom; for African American families, racial discrimination in financing and rents furthered the problem. In 1949, the city established the Durham Housing Authority and utilized federal funding to upgrade substandard housing. The Housing Authority also constructed Few Gardens for Whites and McDougald Terrace for Black residents in the 1950s as low-cost housing communities, but inequities in housing standards persisted.

Background: Aerial View of the McDougald Terrace complex. Image courtesy of the Durham County Library.


During the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement yielded important victories, including increased participation and representation for the Black community within local politics.

Background: The ribbon cutting ceremony for the opening of the Women in Action headquarters. Elna Spaulding pictured second from the left. Image courtesy of the Durham County Library.

After the Supreme Court ruled in Brown V. Board of Education (1954) that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, local and statewide White officials administered policies to block or delay integration. Meanwhile, courageous Black activists, including many women, took action to integrate Durham’s schools. In 1957 Floyd and Evelyn McKissick successfully sued for their children, Joycelyn and Andree, to attend White schools in Durham. The McKissicks were among the first group of Black students to desegregate Durham’s city schools in 1959. Despite the violence and harassment they suffered, they refused to back down in their fight for racial equality.

However, not until the late 1960s and early 1970s, following federal court orders, were Durham’s schools fully integrated. To facilitate a peaceful transition to school integration, Durham civil rights activist and parent Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis co-chaired a weeklong “Save Our Schools” charette in 1971.

Background: Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis during the weeklong charette. Image courtesy of the Durham County Library.

Also throughout the 1980s, women played a larger role in political office with many serving on the Durham city council, including Jane S. Davis (1981-1989), Sylvia Kerckhoff (1981-1983, 1985-1993), Carolyn D. Johnson (1983-1987), Lucy Virginia Englehard (1983-1999), and Peggy Watson-Borden (1986-1991), among others. Davis and Kerckhoff played leading roles in promoting walking and biking paths in Durham.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the LGBTQ+ community grew and refused to remain invisible, while fighting for equal rights within the Triangle. In 1981, 300 people participated in the state’s first gay and lesbian march, “Our Day Out,” in downtown Durham; a Duke University student, Betsy Barton, helped organize the first march as well as “Out Today, Out to Stay,” which occurred in 1986 and became the annual pride march. In 1988, she became the first out lesbian to serve on the Durham Human Relations Commission.

Flyer advertising the first "Our Day Out" event in 1981. Image courtesy of the Durham County Library.

Ryals, Nygard, and Becky Heron utilized a state grant to create an inventory of the county’s natural and cultural resources that would help direct commissioners and the planning department as Durham continued to grow. Heron, elected as a county commissioner in 1982, served the Durham community for 29 years. She was a champion of environmental protection and the Durham County Animal Shelter. Heron was also instrumental in the planning and construction of the Durham County Senior Center.

At the state level, Governor Terry Sanford appointed Duke University history professor Anne Firor Scott to lead the newly established Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1963 to examine unfair employment practices, access to education, legal rights, and more.

Fifty years after the 19th amendment was adopted, Durham Representative Willis Whichard introduced a bill to ceremonially ratify it for the state in 1971. The following year, the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972 was passed in the U.S. Congress, but has never been ratified by the states, largely due to southern states, including North Carolina, refusing to ratify it.

Above: Courtesy of the News and Observer. Background: Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women meeting with Anne Firor Scott seated at the head of the table. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.


Although the downtown area saw progress, gentrification of the surrounding urban neighborhoods accompanied revitalization, raising rents and housing prices, pushing lower income residents, disproportionately Black and Latino, out of the neighborhoods near downtown, with few options there for affordable housing.

Background: Sylvia Kerckhoff, in 1993, awaiting word on election results with her rival Mayor Harry Rodenhizer. Courtesy of the News and Observer.

In 1992, in an effort to ensure an equitable education for all of its citizens, regardless of race, Durham merged its county and city school districts. Durham County’s Black commissioners, Chairman Bill Bell, Commissioners MaryAnn Black, and Deborah Giles, played leading roles in overcoming widespread resistance to merger of the schools. The State Board of Education sought to block the merger because the merger plan did not have the unanimous vote of the Board of County Commissioners. Chairman Bell then advised the State Board of Education that he would advise his board to sue the State Board of Education for their refusal to approve the merger, given that it met all of the legislative guidelines for merger and did not require a unanimous vote of the board of county commissioners. Later a compromise plan for electing the proposed merged school board was devised by commissioners Black and Ellen Reckhow which was unanimously approved by the board of county commissioners.

The merger plan was presented to the State Board of Education, and they approved the school merger. In the June 1992 elections for Durham’s newly merged seven (7) member school board, five of the seven (7) elected members were women: Beverly Washington Jones, Mozell Washington, Nancy Jirtle, Kathryn Meyers, and Sue Behringer.

Background: (From left to right) William Bell, Deborah Giles, Becky Heron, MaryAnn Black, and Ellen Reckhow. Courtesy of the Durham County Library.

Today, 100 years after the adoption of the 19th Amendment, Durham’s political environment reflects the community’s progressive attitude and diverse demographic makeup.

The City Council consists of a majority of women and people of color, and has included several members of the LGBTQ+ community. In 2018, Javiera Caballero became the first Latina councilmember. With the election in 2020, the Durham County Board of Commissioners will be comprised of all women members; Commissioner-elect Nida Allam will become the first Muslim woman elected to office in the state and she also serves as the Chair of the City of Durham’s Council for Women. The Durham Public Schools Board of Education is also predominately female. In 2020, Alexandra Valladeres became the first Latina member of the board.

The diversity of Durham’s elected officials reflects voters’ interests in equitable housing, mandating a living wage, educational resources for Latino students, environmental protection, and much more. Durham’s growth and progressive trend over the last few decades has been strengthened by women who played pivotal roles as activists, voters, government employees, and elected officials.