Patty Blackburn Semple (1853-1923): Educator, Suffragist, Civic Leader

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Submitted as a Biosketch for the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project by Dr. Carol Mattingly, Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky

Patty Blackburn Semple was born May 20, 1853 to Alexander Bonner and Emerine Price Semple, owners of a local hardware store. According to one biographer, “Her parents were from two of the old and socially prominent families of the Blue-grass.” Semple graduated from Vassar College. She married J. Fred Effinger, of Washington D.C., in 1882, but the couple were divorced after a short, unhappy marriage and the birth of one daughter. Semple returned to Louisville and retook her birth name, subsequently using the appellation Mrs. Patty Semple. She named her daughter Bonner Semple, giving her daughter her own surname rather than that of Effinger. In 1885, Semple began teaching, initially at Louisville Female Seminary, where she taught history, literature and elocution. The following year she taught history and literature at Hampton College but in 1893 founded the Semple Collegiate School, a college preparatory for girls, which she kept for seven years, selling it in 1900. Semple encouraged girls and young women to further their education, at her school but also by founding the Vassar Club, a local club for Vassar graduates that promoted the college, and by joining the Kentucky Women’s College Club. She supported both clubs throughout her lifetime. The clubs gave scholarships to young women who entered post-secondary education. Patty Semple’s daughter Bonner and her granddaughter Patricia Dunkerson both graduated from Vassar.

Semple became active in many civic causes. She promoted literacy--for children but also for adults through the Moonlight schools. She was a member and at times officer of Neighborhood House, Louisville Lyceum, and the Art Club; she became the first woman trustee of the Louisville Free Public Library. Semple helped to found the local branch of such organizations as the Drama League, the Girl Scouts, and Legal Aid Society. She was first president of the Woman’s Club of Louisville, founded in 1890, again serving as president from 1910-1913; she remained an active member. Semple gave parlor lectures on a variety of subjects for adults of the “prominent class and society women.” Her interest in drama found an outlet in the many dramatic readings she did for women’s groups, such as the Louisville Woman’s Club, and at fundraisers for the many causes she supported. An excellent orator, she honed her speaking skills to promote causes she believed in.

At a time when many in Kentucky, and in the South in general, argued against woman’s suffrage because extending the vote to women would enfranchise black women, Patty Blackburn Semple, along with two other leading Louisville suffragists, Eleanor Tarrant Little and Adelaide Schroeder Whiteside, encouraged black women to register and vote after Kentucky women were given the school vote in 1912. Among them, they spoke at the “Colored Library,” now Western Branch of LFPL; at the Eastern branch of the library (also a “colored” library); at Beargrass Baptist Church, an African American church; and at the Colored Branch of the Y.W. C. A. Semple would have worked with African American women in her many educational endeavors. For example, she was an active member and one-time president of the Louisville Free Kindergarten Society. The Association had founded a kindergarten class for African American children in 1895, and worked with members of the African American branch, The Louisville Colored Kindergarten Association, in offering kindergarten training classes for African American women.

During the war, Patty Semple sold Liberty Bonds as part of the Woman’s Liberty Loan Legion. She represented both the State Council of National Defense and the Red Cross, served as vice chair of the Woman’s Committee of the National Defense Council and as Kentucky chair of the War Work at Home Department of the U.S. Food Administration. In the latter role, she promoted the conservation of food, especially sugar and wheat flour, traveling the state to encourage conservation with her “home card campaign,” whose purpose was to place a conservation card with instructions and hints on conservation in every home. According to the local newspaper, Washington authorities proclaimed the Kentucky program the most successful in the country. Semple seems to have been chosen for that position at least partly because of her previous work among African Americans. Rumors that German spies were infiltrating African American communities in an attempt to turn them against their government were rampant. She spoke to African Americans across the state--in their churches, libraries, and schools. In Louisville, February 1918, she spoke with African Americans invited to the Louisville mansion of Mrs. J.B. Speed and in June of that year addressed a patriotic meeting of African Americans at Phoenix Hill. The Courier Journal reported that “mindful of Mrs. Semple’s oft displayed friendship,” the African American community had “called upon her and presented an urgent invitation to deliver an address.” The event was well-orchestrated: the large crowd was joined by several African American military companies that marched from Camp Zachery Taylor through the city to Phoenix Hill. A Courier Journal report in that month claimed Semple had spoken “to large audiences of Negroes” fifteen times. Semple insisted, “I have met through the State some of the most remarkably fine, efficient [N]egroes I ever saw in my life. The [N]egroes are just as loyal as anyone in this country.”

Semple’s work with African Americans may be the more remarkable as her sister, Ellen Churchill Semple, who taught for a period in Patty Semple’s school, was a proponent of environmental determinism, and in many of her works suggested that humans born in tropical zones suffer arrested development. “Nellie” Semple, a celebrated geo-anthropologist, was not unusual; such theories as those to which she ascribed were popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and allowed for a seemingly justified racism. The ideas followed on two popular late-ante-bellum theories advanced by pro- slavery proponents:  the “paternalistic” claim that blacks were childlike and needed supervision, and the “scientific” claim that blacks were biologically inferior mentally and emotionally.

Patty Semple encouraged literacy among African Americans, encouraged African American women to register to vote, and spoke to many groups of African Americans as part of her war work. Her work with African Americans between 1912 and 1919 appears to demonstrate the evolution of her ideas about race.  In 1901, when the National Federation of Women’s Clubs considered permitting African American Club Women to join their Federation, the Kentucky Club voted against the recommendation. Semple pleaded against the Club’s strongly worded denunciation of the National’s effort, which read, “The Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs protests against the admission of colored women to the General Federation.” Some Louisville women, led by Mary D. Anderson, argued against the statement because of its racism, but Patty Semple, who seemed to support Anderson on the first day of the convention, made clear the following day that she would vote against the National’s proposal, that she was personally against the admission of African American clubs, and simply thought the protest from the State organization was “a little too strong” and presented Kentucky out of step.

Ellen Semple, ten years Patty’s junior, likely influenced Patty less than did her peers. A stronger influence seems to have been the young women closer to her age, such as Whiteside and Little, and especially Susan Look Avery, who is generally credited with founding the Woman’s Club of Louisville, although Semple is sometimes seen as co-founder. Avery, a staunch abolitionist and proponent of equal treatment for African Americans, had refused the post of President when the club was founded. Semple was elected to that position and would have worked closely with Avery, who was her senior. In a piece published in May 1923, shortly before her death, Patty Semple wrote a glowing, lengthy tribute to Avery, remarking the “great” influence Avery had on those around her: “people went away uplifted and inspired to nobler effort. And it is significant they carried away less the sense of her than of what she stood for.” Semple also would have come to know many of the leading black women in the community in her early reform work and in her registration efforts for the school vote. Later, during her war work, newspapers reported on her meetings with black leaders, sometimes claiming she met with “fifty leading [N]egroes.”  African American leaders in the Louisville community, both men and women, were highly educated and sophisticated, very much representing the social values Semple would have approved.

Patty Blackburn Semple died June 4, 1923 and is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery. The family plot includes her father, mother, sister Ellen, daughter Bonner Semple Marquis, and her daughter’s first husband, Casselberry Dunkerson.  Family members, including her mother, have relatively simple headstones; however, in an unusual gesture for the very early twentieth century, the large monument identifying the family plot bears the mother’s name, Emerine Price Semple, rather than the father’s name or simply the family name, which were customary. The monument gives Emerine’s dates of birth and death with the inscription, “Her children arise up and call her blessed.”

Sources: Patty Blackburn Semple; J. Fred Effinger; Bonner Semple

 Caron’s Directory of the City of Louisville.  Louisville: C. K. Caron Publisher, 1884-86; 1910-20.  University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections.

“Ellen Churchill Semple file, Pamphlet B, S47.3T. Filson Historical Society.

“Ellen Churchill Semple.” In Louisville Free Public Library Kentucky Author files.

Louisville Courier Journal:  29 August 1897; 22 September 1898; 1 March 1899; 30 November 1892; 6 June 1901; 7 June 1901; 16 February 1918; 22 April 1918; 12 May 1918; 28 May 1918; 3 June 1918; 12 June, 1918; 2 September 1918; 30 September 1918; 5 October 1918; 21 October 1919;

Louisville Times 25 October 1921; 2 June 1960.

“Patty Blackburn Semple.” In Kentucky Work Projects Administration Library Project. A Dictionary of Prominent Women of Louisville and Kentucky. Louisville: The Louisville Free Public Library, 1940. 216-18.