NAOMI ANDERSON, 1843-1899
MICHIGAN CITY —Naomi Anderson was a nationally renowned suffragist in her day, but she was forgotten in her hometown until recently.A group of activists is planning to make sure she isn’t forgotten again.Plans for a statue in her honor were unveiled Saturday, June 19 at the LaPorte County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Sculptor Bernard Williams, who has a studio in LaPorte, showed his design for a statue to be erected this fall at Charles R. Westcott Park.
Anderson was born the daughter of free blacks on March 1, 1843. Her poetry was so good that she was invited to attend the segregated school for whites. Naomi Bowman, as she was known at birth, married William Talbert in 1863. Her husband died in Chicago in 1877.
Shedelivered a controversial speech in Chicago in 1869 that put her in the national spotlight.It was just after the 15th Amendment, given African American men the right to vote, had been passed.“What is the difference between a slave and a free man other than the rights one has? And black women have no more rights now than they had before the abolition of slavery,” Anderson said.
Throughout the late 1870s, she gave lectures supporting women’s rights in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.It was rare for a woman of color to do so then.In Portsmouth, Ohio, she helped organize an orphanage for African-American children.After her husband’s death, she became a hairdresser to support her family. In 1881, she married Lewis Anderson in Columbus, Ohio. He became a successful financier, so she had time to campaign for women’s rights.
In 1892, she campaigned with white suffragists in Kansas, but prejudice among white women in the suffrage and temperance movements frustrated her.By 1895, she left for Califorrnia. Her activism there earned her praise from Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Code Stanton, whose names have long been remembered.“She gave speeches across the whole country,” Moldenhauer said. “She was very much in demand. She was shoulder-to-shoulder with Susan B. Anthony.” In fact, one newspaper account even gave Anderson top billing over Anthony, who spoke at the same event.Anderson sent her speeches to all kinds of newspapers across the country and got regular coverage because of it. “Her name was her brand, and she managed it very well,” Moldenhauer said.
Anderson died on June 9, 1899, unaware that her cause would be successful. Women gained the right to vote in August 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified.“Naomi never saw herself as African American,” Moldenhauer said. “She always referred to herself as a person of color.” In addition to temperance and women’s suffrage, she advocated for equality among all races and ethnic groups."
How Anderson came to her hometown’s attention more than a century after her death is a puzzle.Nancy Moldenhauer, who serves on the city’s Human Rights Commission, was searching for people with connections to Michigan City for Black History Month a few years ago when Naomi Anderson’s name popped up.“I have no idea who this person is,” Moldenhauer thought.Research led her to realize Anderson was probably one of the most famous people to have been born and educated in Michigan City. “She somehow fell between the cracks,” Moldenhauer said.
Not long after Moldenhauer’s discovery,Sue Websterreceived a jigsaw puzzle for a holiday gift. The puzzle depicted suffragists. When Webster checked the box to see who the unknown woman was, she realized Anderson was a Michigan City native. Webster’s sister, Bonnie Schaaf, did undergraduate studies in women’s history. She became lead researcher on the project to honor Anderson.
“All of a sudden there comes this announcement from Indiana Humanities asking for ‘unknown but yet significant’ women in the suffragist movement,” Moldenhauer said, so she got on the phone with Schaaf to discuss it. They joined forces to pursue the grant.
Michigan City Mainstreet Association agreed to be the local sponsor for the project. Since then, Unity Foundation, the Michigan City Public Art Committee and others have offered their support. Tonn & Blank is installing the sculpture for free. Additional donations are still being sought by the Celebrating Naomi Anderson Project Team.
from the article "Long-forgotten suffragist honored" written by Doug Ross, NWTimes, June 21, 2021 (Updated Jul 9, 2021)
This is a monthly feature. Sue Webster of the Porter County League is coordinating this column on suffragists throughout the state.