Mary Evans Wilson was founding member of the Women’s Service Club, NAACP Boston Branch
Around the turn of the 20th century, African American Mary Evans Wilson emerged as one of Boston’s leading civil rights and community activists. The eighth of nine children, she was born in Oberlin, Ohio in 1866, the daughter of Henry Evans and Henrietta Leary Evans, native North Carolinians. Her father had traveled on horseback from North Carolina to Oberlin, where he found work as an undertaker and cabinetmaker.
After graduating from Oberlin College, Wilson moved to Washington, D.C. There, she taught for 10 years in the city’s public schools. She was not only a teacher, but an accomplished musician. She also wrote a health and beauty column for Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin’s Woman’s Era — the first monthly ever published by and for African American women.
On June 27, 1894, she married Butler Roland Wilson, a renowned civil rights attorney in Boston. Reverend Francis James Grimké, Archibald Grimké’s brother and the polished pastor of the fashionable Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., performed their marriage ceremony in the nation’s capital, at 934 S Street NW — the home of the bride’s sister Anna Evans Murray.
Anna was a teacher, a civic leader, a pioneer in the establishment of free kindergarten classes for black children, and the wife of Daniel Alexander Payne Murray — an assistant librarian employed by the Library of Congress.
Mary Wilson was described on her wedding day in the July 1894 issue of the Woman’s Era as a “particularly striking-looking girl,” possessing a “tall, slender figure,” a “dark complexion and rich, black hair.”
The newlyweds purchased a home at 13 Rutland Square in Boston’s South End. Six children were born of the marriage: Marian E. Wilson on April 12, 1895, Butler R. Wilson Jr. on November 11, 1896, Frederick Wilson on April 17, 1900, Francis Garrison Wilson in 1901, Edward Ware Wilson on August 20, 1903, and Lola Marie Wilson on August 26, 1906.
Having come from a family of activists, it is no wonder that Mary Wilson married a civil rights activist and ultimately became one herself. In 1858 her father, Henry, was jailed for attempting to free a runaway slave from his captor. The event became known as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.
Her uncle, Lewis Sheridan Leary, accompanied John Brown on his raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and died of injuries he sustained that day. In fact, Wilson’s mother, Henrietta, delivered an impressive address at Harpers Ferry on August 17, 1906, “John Brown’s Day,” at the second annual meeting of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization founded by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1905.
Concerned for the safety of black Southerners, on May 20, 1899, Mary Wilson and other prominent black women of the Hub led an anti-lynching demonstration at Boston’s Chickering Hall. About 300 people attended — mostly women. As a keynote speaker who presided over the event, Wilson told the audience that she saw no reason for the South to resort to lynching African American men accused of rape, for all the officers of the law, the judges and the juries were white men. She said any black man rightly charged with sexual assault could be properly punished by the machinery of the law and could not escape, provided the accuser testified and was cross-examined in court.
Sounding much like her husband the attorney, Wilson declared, “we now demand that the law shall have a chance. We stand on the Constitution of the United States, and demand that the Negro, like any other man, when accused of crime be brought before a jury of 12 men, be confronted by his accusers, and punished according to justice by the properly constituted authorities.”
She laid bare America’s hypocrisy, pointing out that the United States had recently driven the Spanish out of Cuba and the Philippines in the name of humanity but allowed African Americans to be shot down and burned at the stake at home. She asked why shouldn’t black men, who “saved the day” at El Caney in the Spanish-American War, enjoy the right in their own country to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without being lynched?
Wilson criticized President William McKinley for refusing to call attention to this “grave state of internal affairs” and for taking no steps to remedy it. Among the other speakers at the anti-lynching demonstration that day were Mrs. Florida Ruffin Ridley, Mrs. Edna D. Cheney, and Mrs. Julia Ward Howe.
Wilson also played an important part in helping to build the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. In 1915, she volunteered her time and paid her own expenses traveling to western New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and laying the groundwork for new branches in those states by recruiting church and community leaders.
One of the organizers of the Boston Branch of the NAACP, Mary Wilson, along with her husband, Butler, directed much of its early activity. In one instance, Mrs. H. E. Plunkett, a black woman of Melrose, Massachusetts, had arranged, through a telephone call, for her confinement in the maternity ward of the New England Sanitarium — a hospital at Spot Pond in the town of Stoneham. When she presented herself for admission, however, she was refused service.
Wilson, an officer of the NAACP, charged the hospital with discriminating against Plunkett on account of her color. On March 29, 1916, she made a call to several members of the Stoneham Board of Selectmen, informing them that, in 1910, the New England Sanitarium, by a ruling of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, had won exemption from local taxation on the ground that it was a charitable and benevolent institution. Wilson asked the board whether the sanitarium’s action in turning away a worthy patient because of her color was an example of charity or benevolence.
On the evening of April 3, 1916, the board held a hearing at which Wilson cleverly employed the tactic of questioning the town’s patriotism. By shaming Stoneham and calling upon the town to make good its “reputation for patriotism,” she persuaded its hospital live up to the ideal of extending equal privileges to all American citizens. Dr. H. P. Steele, a manager of the sanitarium, told Wilson that the exclusion of Plunkett was the unauthorized act of an employee of the facility, which he deeply regretted, and he gave his assurance that from then on, black people would be admitted to the hospital.
Also in 1916, as an officer of the Boston Branch, Wilson, and others, made a strong appeal to the city’s department stores to hire black women as salespeople.
A dedicated community servant, Wilson organized a knitting club during World War I to provide scarves and gloves to black soldiers from Boston. Her knitting club later became the Women’s Service Club. In 1919, it purchased the building at 464 Massachusetts Avenue in the South End and incorporated for the purpose of providing needed services to Boston’s African American community. Today, the Women’s Service Club remains committed to providing those services.
After the war, Wilson used the club’s knitting circles and other means to launch a membership drive for the local branch of the NAACP. In time, she recruited over two thousand new African American members.
Wilson often spoke publicly. For instance, on October 20, 1920 at Boston’s Clarendon Street Baptist Church, she delivered a lecture titled “The Negro: A National Asset.”
Mary Evans Wilson died at her South End home on March 28, 1928. Her funeral took place three days later at the Columbus Avenue AME Zion Church. She is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery beside her husband, Butler.