Sarah J. Tompkins Garnet


Sarah J. Smith Tompkins Garnet was the first African American woman to found a suffrage organization and the first black woman principal in the New York public school system.  Her father Sylvanus Smith was one of the founders of Weeksville, one of the first all black communities in the 19th century.  Mr. Smith was one of the few black men allowed to vote, because in 1820 the New York State Constitution eliminated all property qualification for white men and introduced a $250 property requirement for black men. Weeksville was established, in part, as an answer to this discrimination.  Sarah J. Smith Tompkins Garnet would continue her father’s legacy, advocating both professionally and politically against racial discrimination and for the rights to vote.


In 1845, at the age of fourteen Garnet started working as a teacher’s assistant, this would mark the beginning of her professional career.  Nine years later she became a teacher at the African Free School of Williamsburg, which is now part of Brooklyn.  Garnet continued to adopt new pedagogical methods throughout her teaching career. All her hard work was recognized on April 30, 1863, she was appointed Principal in the New York public school system.  She would oversee two public schools, Grammar School Number Four and Public School Number Eighty until she retired in 1900.  Throughout her career in the education system, Garnet fought to abolish race discrimination for all colored teachers, equal pay for equal work performed by woman, and women’s rights.

In the late 1880’s Garnet help found the Equal Suffrage League, a Brooklyn-based club for black woman.  The league insisted that “women had the same human intellectual and spiritual capabilities as men and that the denial of women’s right to vote in a nation that was founded on the ideal on the people’s right to rule was unjust”(Mjagkij 105).  Later in the early 1900’s, after Garnet became the superintendent of the Suffrage Department of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the Equal Suffrage League would become affiliated with National Association of Colored Women.  Garnet along with the president of the league, Dr. Vienna Harris Morton Jones, supported the creation of the Niagaria Movement, which demanded equal rights for all Americans.

In a time where few African American women supported women’s suffrage, Sarah J. Tompkins Garnet did not follow the norm.  Her life was dedicated to teaching, not only in the classroom, but in her community.  Bring about awareness, and advocating not only for women’s right, but for the rights of all people.


Brown, Hallie Q. Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.

MacDonald, Meg M. Garnet, Sarah J. Smith Tompkins (1831-1911) | The Black Past:               Remembered and Reclaimed”. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

Mjagkij, Nina. Equal Suffrage League. Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations. New York: Garland, 2001. 194-95. Print.

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