Mamie E. Lee Steward (1869-1930), Louisville educator and political leader

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This biosketch was written by Dr. Carol Mattingly, Professor Emerita of English at the University of Louisville. For her full project on “African American Women and Suffrage in Louisville,” visit https://arcg.is/1O8muW.


Mamie E. Lee was born the daughter of Isaac and Carolyn Lee, in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1860, the Lees were free, and in 1870 held real estate worth $2000 and a personal estate of $300. Clearly the Lees were more well-off than most African Americans. Mamie Lee attended private schools and received music lessons. She later graduated from State University [later Simmons] and became head of its music department. She was active in national Baptist and women’s organizations and in local and state charities.

In 1878, Mamie Lee married William Steward, whose parents had also been free at his birth. Like his father, William worked as a porter, but by 1875 he had advanced to messenger at the L&N Railroad, and by 1875 became Kentucky’s first Black letter carrier. William Steward became editor and owner of the American Baptist, the national paper of Black Baptists, Chairman of the State University Trustee Board, and Secretary of the General Association for half a century. According to Williams, “Steward was not only the most powerful figure in the all-Black General Association but also among the most powerful Blacks in the city of Louisville. He had influence among Louisville’s white entrepreneurs and philanthropists. And he controlled Black city job appointments and State University. Steward was the real power behind the university during a clergy-led period in Afro-American history” (55). The Stewards had three children. Daughter, Caroline, married John Blanton, a banker. The Blantons lived with the Stewards during the Stewards’ lifetimes. Caroline Blanton followed in her mother’s footsteps, becoming active with her in many civic clubs. Caroline Blanton is pictured in Lucy Harth Smith’s photo of the Georgia A. Nugent Improvement Club in Pictorial Directory of the Kentucky Association of Colored Women (below, seated, 4th from left).

According to her biography in Davis’s history of the National Association of Colored Women, more than $100,000 was raised during the 30 years Mamie Steward served as president of the Baptist Women’s Educational Convention. “When women began to vote, she was the Secretary of the Women’s Club [presumably the West End Republican Colored Women’s Club] and rendered most helpful and valuable service” (241).

Mamie Steward was a powerful leader in the Black community. She was one of the founders of the Baptist Women’s Educational Convention in 1883, serving as its president for thirty years, and of the Kentucky Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (KACW), its second president. She was also a leader in the National Association of Colored Women, serving as corresponding secretary of the NACW for many years. Locally she was president of the Ladies Sewing Circle Club and Secretary of the Colored Orphans Home. One of her greatest achievements locally was as fundraiser for State University during her tenure as president of the Women’s Educational Convention: she was credited with raising much of the $40,000 to establish a girls’ dormitory. On April 14, 1908, Mamie Steward, convention president, “raised the first spade of dirt” for the erection of the girls’ dormitory and domestic science building (Williams 55). Two other women profiled here, Hattie Harris and Lizzie Crittenden, joined her in that honor because of their great efforts on behalf of the University. In 1921, Mamie Steward served as delegate to the city GOP and captain of the 9th ward. She became Secretary of the West End Republican League of Colored Women.

Mamie Steward and Mary Cook Parrish were two of the older members of this suffragist group and acted as mentors to younger members. Steward, in her official positions, and Parrish, with her status, strong personality, and beliefs, influenced and assisted many African Americans. Both were spoken of in terms of their gentle and loving personalities. Both were major fundraisers for State University and other charitable causes. Both held influential positions in Louisville African American causes and were held in high esteem throughout the Louisville Community, among both African American and white Louisvillians.

Mamie Steward was a member of Fifth Street Baptist Church; its organist for 47 years. At her death, the Woman’s Improvement Club was renamed the Mamie Steward Improvement Club in her honor. She is buried with her husband in Eastern Cemetery in Louisville.

***Sources***

  • Advocate: 15 August 1924.
  • American Baptist: 8 January 1904.
  • [St. Paul] The Appeal: 17 May 2890.
  • The [Louisville] Courier Journal: 19 September 1884; 23 November 1889; 10 March 1892; 21 May 1894; 9 September 1895; 15 August 1903; 15 August 1908; 8 February 1909; 13 July 1910; 5 October 1913; 30 June 1921; 7 August 1940.
  • Davis, Elizabeth Lindsay. Lifting as They Climb. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996 (originally pub. 1933).
  • Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church 1880-1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • [Indianapolis] Freeman: 6 July 1907; 28 November 1908; 25 June 1910.
  • Louisville Leader: 29 April 1922; 17 June 1922 (inc. a photo of Steward and music class); 15 March 1930; 11 April 1931; 21 December 1935.
  • McDaniel, Karen Cotton. “Local Women: The Public Lives of Black Middle Class Women in Kentucky Before the Modern Civil Rights Movement.” Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Kentucky, 2013.
  • National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (microform). Edited by Lillian Serece and Randolph Boehm. Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America. Part 1. Reel 1: frames 00282, 00289. 00291, 00298, 00301, 00304, 00308, 00310, 00312, 00313, 00320, 00330, 00332. 00334, 00335, 00336, 00341, 00342, 00345, 00347, 00356, 00363; Reel 8, frame 749; Reel 23, frames 283 and 284, Reel 24, frames 360 (photo), 395.
  • "Steward, Mamie." 480-481 in Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, Edited by Gerald L. Smith, Karen Cotton McDaniel, and John A. Hardin. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2015.
  • Williams, Lawrence H. Black Higher Education in Kentucky 1879-1930. The History of Simmons University. Studies in American Religion. Volume 24. Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1987.