‘Hidden Figures’ no longer: Celebrating Huntsville’s Black suffragists

single-meta-cal February 1, 2022

Editor’s Note: This guest piece was written by Historic Huntsville Foundation Executive Director Donna Castellano. 

This past October, our City celebrated the dedication of a historic marker in William Hooper Councill Memorial Park honoring Black suffragists Mary Binford, Ellen Brandon, India Herndon, Lou Bertha Johnson, Celia Love, and Dora Lowery.

Thanks to this historic marker, these women are no longer hidden figures, but women whose place in American history has been recognized. While an important first step, the marker does not tell the story of the women, their families or their community.

Shaped, but not defined, by Alabama’s 1901 Constitution

The women’s collective history spanned from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement. A defining point in all their lives was the ratification of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution, which included provisions allowing Alabama officials to create a state government that affirmed white supremacy by disfranchising most Black voters through literacy and property requirements. In 1900, 180,000 Black male Alabamians had voting rights. In 1902, only 3,000 Black male Alabamians were registered to vote.

Although Black Alabamians were discriminated against during and after Reconstruction, their voting power allowed them to keep a rising tide of white supremacy somewhat at bay. This political leverage ended after 1901. Black Alabamians challenged the legality of the 1901 Constitution and took the matter to the United States Supreme Court. In their 1903 decision, Giles v. Harris, the justices sided with the state of Alabama. With no political power or national allies, Blacks watched helplessly as Alabama officials legally crafted discriminatory state and local governments.

Mary Binford, Ellen Brandon and Celia Love grew up in the decades before 1901, in an era when their husbands could vote and hold political office. Following the ratification of the Constitution, this older generation of Black leadership created a space where Black entrepreneurship, businesses and independence could grow, forming the financial resources and community bonds which would be used to challenge the political, legal and social culture of white supremacy.

Suffragists India Herndon and Lou Bertha Johnson were younger, and grew up in an era when most Black male Alabamians had no voting rights. They were part of a new generation of Black leaders who built on the legacy of their elders. These families amassed the financial resources to challenge unfair laws, initiate voter registration drives and launch the Civil Right Movement.

This blog shares the history of Ellen and Daniel Brandon, leading figures in Huntsville’s early Black community. A second blog, scheduled for Feb. 23, will share the story of Lou Bertha Johnson and her husband, Shelby. The Johnsons assumed the leadership mantle from the Brandons, fighting legal injustices in the court system. Their victories spurred greater activism by the Black community.

Huntsville’s early Black leaders: lifting as they climbed

Ellen and Daniel Brandon were part of a tight circle of prominent and affluent Black families with political influence until the ratification of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution. Their education, wealth and livelihoods set them apart from most. At a time, when 7 out of 8 Alabama residents lived in rural areas, these families owned comfortable, well-appointed houses on streets a few blocks from Huntsville’s Courthouse Square. They were teachers and entrepreneurs who owned and operated their own businesses. Adolphus and Celia Love were the only farmers among the suffragist families.

black and white portrait of man

Daniel Brandon (pictured) and his wife, Ellen, were part of a tight circle of prominent and affluent Black families with political influence until the ratification of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution.

These prominent families were also members of an intellectual community that stretched beyond the boundaries of their small, southern town. Charles Hendley’s Huntsville Gazette and Henry C. Binford’s The Journal kept subscribers informed about issues that affected them, reprinting  articles and editorials from newspapers across the nation.

An 1895 visit to Huntsville by Mrs. Frances Ellen Harper, a  noted  Black author, abolitionist, and women’s suffrage advocate, likely sparked the creation of Huntsville’s Black suffrage movement. After Mrs. Harper toured the campus of Alabama A&M college, she spoke at multiple gatherings, including a lecture at Lakeside Methodist Church. All the suffragists were members of Lakeside Methodist.  Mrs. Harper, along with Harriett Tubman, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, dedicated to securing civil and political rights for Black women. The club’s motto, “Lifting as We Climb,” was a call to Black activism that took root in Huntsville.

Entrepreneurship and self-reliance – building blocks of success

Entrepreneurship was a defining trait of Huntsville’s prosperous Black community. The Brandon family operated a successful brick masonry and construction firm in Madison County. Both Ellen and Daniel attended school. Ellen was a graduate from Rust Institute, a training school for Black teachers, formerly located on Franklin Street. Ellen Scruggs and Daniel Brandon married in 1886 and had four children.

Daniel Brandon acquired his work ethic from his father, Henderson Brandon, who established a successful brick making and construction firm in the decades following the Civil War. The 1870 census lists Mr. Brandon as a brick mason. By 1875, he had acquired a steam mill and advertised that he could grind wheat and corn at his Pulaski Street business.

When Daniel joined the family business in the mid-1880s, Henderson Brandon & Son Contracting was born. The Huntsville Weekly Democrat announced the Brandon firm won the contract to supply 500,000 bricks and five brick masons for the construction of the Baker & Helm Building, finished around 1887, which still stands at the corner of Washington Street and Clinton Avenue. In the late 1890s, City government tapped the Brandons to manufacture 500,000 bricks for the sewer system. In 1919, Daniel Brandon built the Humphrey Bros. building on Main Street in downtown Madison. The building still has the plaque embedded on the front façade, “Built by D. S. Brandon,”  leaving little doubt as to its maker.

exterior of historic brick building

In 1919, Daniel Brandon built the Humphrey Bros. building on Main Street in downtown Madison.

As Daniel Brandon made his mark on Huntsville’s landscape, Ellen Brandon became a leading figure in Huntsville social circles. The Brandon home on Pulaski was a frequent gathering spot for their circle of friends. The social pages of The Journal describe a holiday gathering in their “spacious and beautifully decorated house.” The Journal gives readers an inside view of the evening, where everyone enjoyed games and music, then entered the dining room with a table laden with “dainty, snowy linen, rare silver and choice china.” Guests were served refreshments, described as “delicacies of the season.” Few Alabamians could entertain in this style.

As an indication of the respectful relationships between Huntsville’s prominent Black and white citizens during this time, owners of Huntsville’s opera house allowed Blacks to hold a memorial service for the great abolitionist, orator and social reformer Frederick Douglass, when he died in February 1895.

Finding their footing in a separate and unequal Alabama

After the ratification of Alabama’s Constitution, Black Alabamians had little ability to thwart laws that furthered the goals of white supremacy. The actions of Huntsville’s all-white Board of Aldermen elected in 1905 is a clear illustration of the problem. Prior to 1901, Black men regularly served in elected office. In fact, Henry C. Binford and Daniel Brandon were elected to the Board of Alderman in 1901, before the Constitution’s ratification.

With Binford and Brandon’s terms expired in 1905, the first action of the now all-white Board of Aldermen was to increase inequities in Huntsville’s educational system. The Aldermen voted to decrease the salaries of Black teachers from $35 to $25 per month, while raising the salaries of white teachers to $50 per month. Mr. Binford’s son, Henry. C. Binford Jr., was the principal of Huntsville’s Black school. In an apparent insult to the Binford family, the Board lowered Principal Binford’s salary from $75 to $50 per month. Principal Binford then resigned and accepted a teaching position in Maryland.

Black leaders skillfully navigated the waters of separate but equal. Fearful of white violence, they actively tried to diffuse any racial tensions. Following the Atlanta Riot of 1906, when white mobs attacked Black residents and destroyed their businesses, 17 prominent Black men, including William Hooper Councill and Henry C. Binford, penned an open letter to the “White People of Madison County and Surrounding Country” in the Morning Mercury newspaper. They pledged loyalty to their neighbors and asked “…. every white man in this community to sympathize with us and extend to us the protection to which our hitherto good citizenship has entitled us.”

Retreat, regroup and full steam ahead

To minimize potentially contentious interactions with white neighbors, influential Blacks created their own social institutions and business organizations so they could move freely in a world without the overbearing restrictions of segregation. Working with Black professional leaders across North Alabama, Daniel Brandon chaired an effort to establish the North Alabama Colored Fair in 1908. The following year, Huntsville’s Black business community formed a chapter of the National Negro Business League that promoted the commercial and financial interests of Black citizens.

Binford Family Black History

Left to right, seated: Henry Connard Binford, Sr., Frances Ann Hendley Binford, Henry Connard Binford, Jr. Left to right, standing: John Allen Binford, Pearl Amanda Binford, Charles King Binford.

Huntsville’s leading Black women formed clubs and charitable organizations, practicing their version of the “Lifting as We Climb” motto.  Ellen Brandon and Mary Binford held leadership positions in the United Sisters of Charity, founded in 1901. The women frequently hosted fundraisers, where members offered food for sale with proceeds helping the poor. Delicacies offered at a 1902 bazaar included boiled ham, beaten biscuits, turkey and cranberry sauce, chicken, pickles and ice cream cake. These events were more than a social event; they indicate Huntsville’s future suffragists were moving towards social activism.

Through these efforts, a younger generation of Black leaders emerged by 1920, beneficiaries of a strategy that fostered Black businesses, economic independence and cultural pride. Over the next two decades, their families challenged the political and economic system of white supremacy, using their financial resources, business acumen and the strength of a unified Black community as their tool.

Would it surprise you to know that the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Black businessman and against the City of Huntsville in a 1947 case, and that the object of the dispute is a building that still stands today? The next installment of Donna Castellano’s blog discusses the legal victory of Lou Bertha and Shelby Johnson, and how it energized the political activism of the Black community.