Martha Virginia Webster (1862-1951), educator and community activist

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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.


Martha Virginia Webster was born in Simpsonville, Shelby County, Kentucky, on December 17, 1862. The 1870 census lists her living with her widowed mother, Jane Webster, aged 30, who worked as a laundress and was the sole support of her three children, Joseph, aged 11, Martha Virginia, aged 9 and Harvey, aged 3. Jane Webster is listed as being unable to read or write. The 1880 census shows Jane Webster as keeping house and taking in a boarder.

Martha Virginia graduated from Louisville Colored (Central) High School and became a teacher. It’s unclear where she taught before 1918, when she began teaching at Louisville’s Coleridge Taylor School, but Superintendent B. W. Hartley said in 1924 that Webster had forty-three years teaching experience. Perhaps she taught elsewhere in the Louisville Schools, resigned, and was rehired in 1918, as city directories consistently list her as teacher, and she applied for a pension upon her resignation from the Louisville schools. Her Jefferson County Public School personnel file shows only the brief period of teaching at Coleridge Taylor School. She never married or had children, living with and supporting her mother much of her life.

Although Martha Webster was active in the National Association of Colored Women, her primary affiliation was with the United Brothers of Friendship and Sisters of the Mysterious Ten. The Brothers had evolved from an 1861 group of young Louisville night school students, both free and enslaved, who had agreed “to care for the sick and bury the dead and to elevate the Negro to a practical place of usefulness according to the need of the present time.” The Colored American called it “the first fraternal order founded by a Negro.” The organization became the formal United Brothers of Friendship in 1868 at the suggestion of their teacher, W. H. Gibson, who served as its first president. The Brotherhood spread throughout Kentucky and then nationwide and internationally. Various women’s auxiliary groups eventually became formalized into The Sisters of the Mysterious Ten in 1878. By the end of the nineteenth century, the group was made up largely of professionals and helped to fund orphanages and other benevolent causes. In the early twentieth century, Webster was elected and re-elected National Grand Princess, the highest position in the Sisters of the Mysterious Ten. She, with a few other members of the Sisters, organized in 1886 to build or buy a property for the Louisville United Brothers and Sisters. By 1895 they had not only purchased a building for that purpose but bought an adjoining property as well, demonstrating their business acumen. The portrait from Gibson's History of the United Brothers of Friendship and Sisters of the Mysterious Ten (Louisville, 1897) was probably taken in her mid-thirties.

Webster showed the same business shrewdness and drive when she turned much of her effort and influence to establishing and expanding the Phillis Wheatley Young Woman’s Christian Association (YWCA) for Black girls and women. This YWCA branch was initiated in 1917 after years of organizing and fundraising, apparently with Webster as a major force. In 1921, a testimonial was given in her honor for her work with the YWCA. The Leader called her the “Mother of the YWCA.” In 1922, a new YWCA building was opened, with a dormitory for girls on the third floor, a large hall for meetings, sports, and other activities on the second floor, and a first-floor kitchen and cafeteria. The YWCA became a major center for the Black community, offering a wide variety of services and activities, including clubs for schoolgirls, industrial girls, business and professional women, and homemakers, as well as clubs on site at factories and schools. The center offered numerous classes and an employment bureau. Many community meetings were held at the Wheatley YWCA, and numerous suffragists listed here participated by offering classes or by supporting the center in other ways.

Martha Webster resigned her position in the Louisville Public Schools on 1 March 1923 to become executive secretary of the newly built YWCA, but in 1924 the white YWCA Board of Directors dismissed Webster without the consent of the Black Committee of Management at Wheatley YWCA, creating protests throughout the Black community. The board was made up primarily of other women activists: Mary Cook Parrish, Mamie Steward, Bertha Whedbee, Essie Mack, Lucretia Gibson, and Artesia Gilbert (later Wilkerson). According to the Leader, they “did not mince words in making known their displeasure.” The community was incensed that the local Black management board had not been consulted and felt Webster’s firing especially unfair, as she had been so important in the establishment of the YWCA and had resigned her relatively well-paying and stable teaching position in order to take the YWCA position. Webster refused to leave her office, and the tension became so great that the center was closed in September, opening again in November only after bi-racial meetings and negotiations. Martha Webster was not reassigned, but the white board’s choice for her replacement did not replace her.

Webster left Louisville to take a teaching position at Albion Academy in Franklenton, North Carolina. She still had little respite from her enemies. “A Friend” wrote Louisville Public Schools in May of 1925, informing and protesting that Webster was illegally “receiving a retired pension” despite her teaching since January 1925 in North Carolina.

Martha V. Webster supported herself as a public-school teacher with only a high school education. By 1910, Webster is listed as boarding with another teacher in the household of a divorced woman and her child. She would board with different households throughout her long life, generally with other teachers or librarians like herself. She passed away on February 27, 1951, at age 91 and is buried in Louisville Cemetery.

***Sources***

  • The Colored American: 24 August 1901; 19 July 1902.
  • (Louisville) Courier Journal: 30 August 1908; 10 December 1922; 2 November 1924.
  • Gibson, W. H. History of the United Brothers of Friendship and the Sisters of the Mysterious Ten. Louisville: Bradley and Gilbert, 1897.
  • Indianapolis Freeman. 18 August 1906.
  • Louisville City Directories: 1885-1923.
  • Louisville Leader. 25 March 1922; 9 September 1922; 28 June 1924; 16 August 1924; 30 August 1924.
  • Martha Webster Personnel File, Jefferson County Public Schools Archive.
  • U. S. Census: 1870-1880; 1900-1940.
  • Williams, Lillian Serece, ed. Records of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, 1895-1992. Bethesda, MD. University Publications of America, 1995. Part 1, Reel 1, frame 315; Part 2. Reel 23, frames 283-84.