Lavinia B. Elliot Sneed (1867-1932), educator, orator and civil rights 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.


The daughter of Letta A. Jones and Joseph Elliot, Lavinia Elliot was born near New Orleans but moved to Louisville at a young age. She attended Louisville public schools and State University (later Simmons). Even as she matriculated, Sneed taught English and Latin for State University. In 1887, she graduated at the top of her class and began teaching in the Louisville Colored Schools, later becoming principal of the Georgia Moore and Phillis Wheatley schools. In 1888, she married Charles F. Sneed (1865?-1932), a physician who also taught at State University, probably in the medical school.

Lavinia Sneed served on State University’s Board of Managers, on the Ladies’ Board of Directors for Eckstein-Norton Institute, and was active in the War Camp Community Club #3 during World War I. She was known as a brilliant elocutionist. In fact, many thought her as powerful a speaker as Nannie Burroughs. In 1892, when Kentucky was debating a bill to require separate railway coaches for African Americans, Lavinia Sneed, Mary V. Cook, and three other Kentucky women spoke before the Kentucky General Assembly. The Courier Journal’s report is worth quoting, as it demonstrates typical attitudes of white newspaper reporters, who often commented on skin color and made inaccurate statements when reporting on Black women, but also because it highlights Sneed’s eloquence, as the reporter singles her out among five renowned elocutionists:

The hall of Representatives was well filled this afternoon when the Railroad Committee heard arguments from five colored women against the Separate Coach bill. The lobby was well filled with colored women, mostly bright mulattos, while the gallery was crowded with the mahogany browns and the coal blacks. The women who made speeches were Mrs. Lena B. Tibbs of Danville; Miss Mary V. Cooke, of Bowling Green [Louisville]; Miss Mary E. Bruttan [Mary Britton], of Lexington; Mrs Livinia B. Snell [Lavinia B. Sneed], of Louisville, and Mrs. Lizzie Green, of Danville. All of them, except Mrs. Snell, were a good deal whiter than most members of the Legislature, but to the credit of Mrs. Snell [Sneed] it may be said she made the best speech. They all, however, talked well, presenting the usual arguments.

Sneed was also a writer, writing for Our Women and Children and other Baptist publications and is included in I. Garland Penn’s late-nineteenth century presentation of outstanding members of the press, as well as in L. A. Scruggs’s Women of Distinction. Alice Allison Dunnigan calls Sneed a singer of merit. Because of her interest in music and dedication to State University, she traveled with a concert troupe to raise funds for the school. She supported Louisville black business leaders in many ways, including her development of the 1909 "Official Souvenir Program of the National Negro Business League" when the group met in Louisville.

In 1920, African American voters defeated a $1,000,000 bond for improvements on the University of Louisville campus because the University did not admit African American students. Another effort made in 1925 included a provision to provide higher education for African Americans. Lavinia Sneed was chosen vice-chair of the Colored Citizens Committee and actively supported the bond issue, speaking at many get-out-the vote rallies. After the bond passed, she was chosen as a member of the committee that worked with the University of Louisville Board of Trustees toward the creation of a Liberal Arts program for African Americans, the only woman on the committee. Other members included such activists as James Bond and A. E. Meyzeek. The result of their efforts would become Louisville Municipal College, the Black division of the University of Louisville.

Lavinia Sneed died 23 June 1932, and she is buried with her husband, Dr. Charles F. Sneed, in Louisville Cemetery.

***Sources***

  • [Louisville] Courier Journal: 16 April 1892; October 9, 1925; October 20, 1925; August 26, 1927.
  • Dunnigan, Alice Allison. The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Traditions. Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers, Inc. 1982. 288.
  • "Official Souvenir Program of the National Negro Business League, Louisville, Ky. August 18, 19 and 20, 1909," Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/OfficialSouvenirProgram/page/n39/mode/2up
  • Penn, I. Garland. The Afro-American Press, and Its Editors. Springfield, MA: Willey and Company, 1891. 413-15.
  • Scruggs, L. A. Women of Distinction, Remarkable in Works and Invisible in Character. Raleigh, NC: L. A. Scruggs, Publisher, 1893. Google Books. 270-71.
  • U. S. Census: 1860-1880
  • Washington Bee: 9 August 1919.