Elizabeth P. Ensley: Suffragette and African American Women’s Club Leader

An active leader in African American women’s clubs and the women’s suffrage movement in Colorado, Elizabeth Piper Ensley worked to improve the rights of women and African Americans.

Elizabeth Piper Ensley came to Colorado in the 1890s. Born in Massachusetts in 1847, she studied abroad in Europe, taught school in Boston, and established a circulating library. In the 1880s, she and her husband, Howell N. Ensley, moved to Washington, D.C. and taught at Howard University, one of the top African American universities in the country. In the 1890s, the Ensleys moved to Denver, which had the largest African American population in the state. Elizabeth immediately became involved in activism, social work, the women’s suffrage movement, and local women’s clubs.

Elizabeth P. Ensley was one of the key members of the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association of Colorado. She was one of the twenty-eight original members when the association was created in 1893 in the face of the campaign for the popular referendum. Ensley was elected treasurer of the Association, which had only $25.00 at its inception. As treasurer, she would have handled and overseen things like fundraising, management of funds, donations from national suffrage organizations, and funding for leaders who spoke around the state such as Carrie Chapman Catt. Under Ensley’s guidance, the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association of Colorado became financially secure and carried out a successful statewide campaign, even in the midst of an economic depression in Colorado. Ensley was also instrumental in mobilizing African American women to join the suffrage campaign and persuading African American men to vote for women’s suffrage. When the popular referendum came in November of 1893, male voters passed women’s suffrage by a margin of six thousand votes, giving both black and white women the right to vote in Colorado.

Along with her leadership in the campaign for women’s suffrage in Colorado, Elizabeth Ensley was an active leader of African American women’s clubs. In 1894, the first year women could vote in Colorado, Ensley helped found both the Colored Women’s Republican Club and the Woman’s League of Denver, which worked to mobilize African American women to vote. That year, Elizabeth Ensley and the African American women of Denver voted to elect Joseph Henry Stuart to the Colorado Assembly, where he became one of Colorado’s first African American legislators and passed an important civil rights bill. Ensley noted the power of the African American women voters and their clubs in Colorado in an article she wrote entitled “Election Day” in December 1894 for The Woman’s Era, the official publication of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the first national newspaper written by and for African American women. She wrote, “The readers of the ERA will be interested to know what special part the colored women have taken in the election. Most of them have done admirable work in the interest of the Republican party. They also formed clubs of their own and heroically helped their brothers to elect a representative to the legislature.” Elizabeth Ensley continued to be an active member of women’s clubs in Colorado. In 1904, she called for the African American women’s clubs of the state to organize, and founded the Colorado Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, of which she was later vice president. The association's song, written by Eva Carter Buckner, well encapsulates Elizabeth Ensley’s lifelong mission to fight for the rights of women and African Americans:

“We’re Colorado’s colored women struggling for a place;
We’re loyal to our country and we’re loyal to our race;
We’re holding high the banner, in the dust it must not trail,
As we go marching on.
Onward, upward to the summit,
Onward, upward to the summit,
Onward, upward to the summit,
We’re advancing step by step.”

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