Emily Howland was born in 1827 in Sherwood, NY to Slocum and Hanna Howland. Sherwood had a large Quaker population and Emily’s family was prominent in the Society of Friends. A core belief of the Quakers is that all humans are equal, driving many to become involved in both abolition and the women’s suffrage movement. Quakers began pushing for the end of slavery in the late 1600s and formally petitioned Congress for abolition in 1790.
Emily grew up with the conviction that slavery was wrong and developed a strong desire to help African Americans through education. From 1857 to 1859 she taught at the Normal School for Colored Girls, also known as the Miner School for Girls, in Washington D.C. The Miner School was founded by Myrtilla Miner in 1851 after her Mississippi school refused to allow her to teach classes for African Americans. Classes at the Miner School focused on training future teachers. Enrollment in the school grew quickly and Miner received regular donations from Quakers who supported her mission. Harriet Beecher Stowe also admired the school and donated part of the royalties she earned from Uncle Tom’s Cabin ( read more about slave narratives in our exhibit ‘Twisted Threads of Gold and Steel‘).
Emily continued teaching during the Civil War, working in Arlington Virginia teaching formerly enslaved people to read and write. As the Union Army moved south and enslaved peoples were freed, they were sent to “freedmen” or “contraband” camps near Washington. Friends wrote to Emily describing the poor state of affairs in the camps, particularly for the women and children. Emily wrote her sister-in-law of her decision to teach at these camps saying that these formerly enslaved people deserved the same education granted to every American. While there, she was compelled to serve as a nurse during a smallpox outbreak in the overcrowded camp.
After the war, Emily was disappointed that the formerly enslaved people were not receiving the land promised them by the government. She purchased 350 acres in Northumberland County Virginia allowing formerly enslaved people to settle on the land and purchase small tracts. In 1867 she established the Howland Chapel School to serve the children of these families. The small building operated as a school until 1958 and still stands today. Emily ultimately founded or supported over fifty schools for African Americans in the south.
Emily returned to Sherwood in 1870 but continued her interest in education. In 1872 she founded the Sherwood Select School in which she later became the consulting head, a position she held until her 100th year. In 1926, a few weeks before her 99th birthday, she was awarded an honorary degree of doctor of letters by the University of the State of New York Regents, in recognition of her dedication to education.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Emily, along with her niece Isabel, became more actively involved with the women’s rights movement, attending the 22nd annual convention of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association in 1890 and becoming a major supporter and funder of the work of Susan B. Anthony. In 1891, Emily helped found The Cayuga County Political Equality Club, an offshoot of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association. Both men and women could join the club and work to collect signatures on petitions for suffrage.
“Let us not look back that we may rest in what has been done for us, but only to be urged to more faithfulness ourselves, that our cause may not suffer loss nor fall behind its record in the past. Above all we must spare no effort to gain the ballot, the possession of which not only will enable us to secure our own place in the government, but will enable us to join hands with our brothers and help in these crucial times when difficult problems press for solution.”
Emily served as president of the Political Equality Club and gave annual speeches to members of other clubs as well. In an address to the Cayuga County Woman Suffrage Club in 1901, Emily urged the group to keep fighting for equality.
Emily was known for her persuasive and eloquent speeches. At an 1894 hearing before the Suffrage Committee of the Constitutional Convention in Albany, Emily was introduced as a “woman who is able to make an effective speech in three minutes…” She used forceful and logical arguments with humor, once proclaiming that although four midwestern states enfranchised women, “the sky has not fallen,” certainly proving that women’s suffrage would not come with the dire consequences anti-suffragists warned of.
Emily remained involved with her “causes” as her niece called them, of education, temperance, suffrage, and peace, until her death in 1929. She requested her gravestone to read “I strove to realize myself and to serve,” a goal she certainly accomplished.
Learn More about Emily Howland at the Howland Stone Store Museum