Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Power surrounds the woman. It dwells within her, emanates from her, and yet, is very subtly hidden. Anyone who comes near Mrs. Fauset feels her greatness – in the sweep of her very alert glance, in the charm of her ready smile, in the warm sincerity of her hand clasp, and in her voice – like crisp staccato music, mellowed.”

Attracted by her magnetism, a writer for the Chicago Defender, a black newspa­per, extolled the character of Crystal Bird Fauset (1893-1965), the first black woman elected, in 1938, to the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. Not only was she the Commonwealth’s first black female legislator but the first in the nation. Her story suggests why some African Americans switched allegiance from the Democratic to the Republican Party. It is also part of the saga of how African Americans’ pan-Africanist dreams were finally realized with African indepen­dence.

Although Crystal Bird Fauset contributed indirectly to both causes, she was strictly neither a pan-Africanist nor a feminist. That she did might be attributed in part to her upbringing, which took place in a liberal, middle­-class environment in which gender and racial borders were rarely encountered. “I was born in [Princess Anne,] Maryland but grew up in Boston,” she once told a journalist, “being educated with white school there . . . The children always received me as one of them. This may explain, in part, why walls and barriers have never existed for me and why l have always thought in terms of people rather than race.”

It’s likely that Fauset’s philosophy was greatly influenced by her parents, both of whom were educators. She was born on June 27, 1893, the youngest of nine children, to Benjamin and Portia Bird. Her father headed the Princess Anne Academy, a school for African Americans, which later became part of the University of Maryland. When Benjamin Bird died in 1897, his wife succeeded him as principal and served until her death in 1900. Seven years old at the time of her mother’s demise, Crystal moved to Boston to live with her maternal aunt, Lucy Groves, who encouraged her to follow in her parents’ footsteps as an educator. After graduat­ing from Boston Normal School in 1914, she became a school teacher. Her work with youth led her to become the first secretary for African American girls with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) National Board in New York. Fauset later said her YWCA experience caused her to modify her liberal New England attitudes. “Problems cannot be segregated,” she declared, “wherever I went they appeared as interracial problems.”

During 1927 and 1928, while attend­ing Columbia University in New York, she Lectured on African American culture for the American Friends Service Committee. In her 1928 report to the committee, Fauset noted that “her 290 speeches had reached almost 50,000 people in a single year.” She graduated with a degree in education in 1931, the same year she met – and married­ – Arthur Huff Fauset. The match seemed ideal because the couple shared a keen interest in education, politics, and race relations.

Arthur Huff Fauset, who had earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania, belonged to an old, established Philadelphia family. His father Redmond Fauset (whose name appears as Faucett in city directo­ries published at the turn of the century) ran a furniture store. He married twice. Jessie Redmond Fauset, his daughter from his first marriage, was destined to become the best known member of the family. She was an accomplished Harlem Renaissance novelist, the literary editor of a black magazine, The Crisis, and the first African American woman elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Jessie was Arthur’s half-sister through their father’s second marriage.

Both Arthur and Jessie were writers, but Arthur was not as successful as his half-sister. Nevertheless, he is remem­bered for his contributions to African American studies with his book on religious cults, The Metropolis of the Gods, his research in black folklore in Nova Scotia, and his biography of abolitionist Sojourner Truth. A man of much talent, Arthur Fauset made his livelihood primarily as a principal in Philadelphia’s public schools.

The thirties was a busy decade for Crystal Bird Fauset. In 1933, she became executive secretary of the Institute of Race Relations at Swarthmore College, which documented the inequality of employment and housing opportunities for African Americans. She later told the Philadelphia Record that “three summers of that work impressed her with the necessity of reaching more people and going to the heart of the economic situation through political action.” Her first political appointment, as director of the Women and Professional Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), came in 1935. Through this project, a quarter-million dollars were allotted to African American women to sew and knit each month. However, a racial quota restricted black enrollment to thirty-three and a third percent. Fauset argued that fully one-half of African American women able and willing to work were stuck on relief rolls, and so she was able to increase the quota for blacks to fifty percent. As a result, half of the six thousand women trans­ferred from relief to the WPA’s project were African American. At the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Fauset organized a group of black women WPA workers to entertain convention delegates. From these WPA workers, she was able to organize the all-female Willing Workers Democratic Organization (WWOO) comprised of a thousand African Americans. The WWDO helped increase voter participation and Democratic Party registration in Philadelphia’s largely black Seventh Ward.

In November 1936, Fauset strode resolutely into the political arena. She was appointed director of women’s activities for the National Democratic Committee and assistant personnel director of the WPA’s Philadelphia office. Although she came from a middle-class background, she had firsthand knowledge of problems affecting lower-class African Americans. As a member of the Federal Housing Advisory Board in 1935, she had advocated better urban housing. For a group of Philadelphia real estate brokers she offered not mere rhetoric but a possible, realistic solution.

The colored people, representing the most disadvantaged group in the city, would look with a great deal of joy to better home conditions. And low cost housing is the answer. Such a building program would provide them with employment, besides raising their level of existence. I have personally inspected some of the houses they live in and the conditions are deplorable. Backyard toilets, no bathrooms, and whole families living in one room, are some of the things I saw.

In 1938, Democrats asked Fauset to run for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a candidate from Philadelphia’s Eighteenth District, a district that was two-thirds white. Black males (the first of whom was Harry Bass of West Chester) had served in the state legislature since 1911, but no black woman had yet been elected. The Philadelphia Tribune declared the time was right for a change and that Fauset was politically shrewd, naturally charismatic, and gifted as an orator. “Her ability as a public speaker,” the newspaper reported, “first cause the powers that be to see Mrs. Crystal Bird Fauset as excellent timber for the Democratic Party.”

Fauset delivered only twenty-five public speeches during her campaign, preferring instead to deal one on one with voters in her district. Using the telephone every morning for weeks to solicit support, she became one of the first politicians in the United States to make telephoning a campaign tactic. On November 8, 1938, she was elected to the state legislature, winning by seven thousand votes. She was the first African American woman ever elected to a state legislature. However, there was irony in the timing of her victory. The Washington Post noted that “the number of women in state legislatures dropped from a peak of 149 in 38 states in 1929 to 127 in 27 states for 1939.”

Fauset promised to represent all her constituents. “I shall work for legislation that affects the general welfare of the people regardless of color,” she told the press. “I won’t fail the colored people but I won’t concentrate exclusively on their problems, because after all, I am being sent by both colored and white voters.”

During her term in the House of Representatives, Fauset introduced nine bills and three amendments on issues involving public health, housing, public relief, and working women. She sponsored an amendment to the Pennsylvania Female Labor Law of 1913 which protected women in the work­place. Fauset urged her colleagues to extend this protection to domestics, many of whom were African American. When male legislators resisted any restriction on moonlight employment of female factory workers, Fauset offered her distinctive point of view.

I do think that the men of this House (as they sit around and smoke their cigars, and as they get a great sense of well-being from doing so), should think what their ideas would be if some day their own economical status should change and their wives for some reason or other should be compelled to work, whether or not they would be willing to see their wives go out of their homes at four o’clock in the afternoon, with the knowledge that they would not return [home] until one or two o’clock the following morning. Certainly, a group of women, for the sake of bringing a few industries into the state of Pennsylvania, should not be subjected to the thing which we, as perfectly normal human beings, think of as being abnormal.

In January 1940, Crystal Bird Fauset resigned from the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. In her letter of resigna­tion she wrote that the “brief legislative experience was one of the most pleasant, most stimulating of my entire life,” but believed her new position offered more opportunity for public service. That new position was assistant state director of the WPA’s education-recreation program and its Advisor on Negro Affairs.

One of Fauset’s most conspicuous assets was her friendship with the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. Not only did Fauset correspond with the First Lady, she was a guest of the Roosevelts at their home in Hyde Park, New York. Since Eleanor Roosevelt often influenced her husband regarding public policy and race relations, it seems probable that she had a hand in securing for Fauset the position of assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD). It seemed natural, too, that Fauset was also placed in charge of racial relations for the agency.

As assistant director, Fauset worked under Fiorello (“Little Flower”) La Guardia, mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945, who served as the national director of OCD from 1941 to 1942. Although La Guardia headed the OCD, the files of the agency, now safeguarded by the National Archives, suggest that Crystal Bird Fauset had more profession­al contact with Eleanor Roosevelt, who had served briefly as assistant director of the OCD. Officially, Fauset worked to recruit African American civilians during World War II; she urged communities­ – especially in the South – to allow blacks to participate in local civil defense planning. She also sought to resolve many complaints of racial discrimina­tion, such as the exclusion of African American servicemen from U.S.O. canteens.

More importantly, Fauset wanted to convince the Roosevelt administration that both black men and women were willing and able to serve in the military during World War II. At the beginning of the war, less than five thousand of the two hundred and thirty thousand men in the U.S. Army were African American. The military reluctantly allowed blacks to serve in segregated regiments and of these most were confined to noncombat missions. Fauset fought that restriction too. She grew increasingly impatient with the Roosevelt administration’s record in civil rights. It was not until 1948 that President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order barring racial discrimination in the military service. But Crystal Bird Fauset could not wait. In July 1940, she voiced her anger to the press: “America is not and never has been a real democracy.” She argued that the nation’s founders, contrary to common belief, did not have the interest of the masses at heart, but rather their own upper-class concerns. She also claimed blacks were not regarded as first-class American citizens.

The year 1944 proved to be a turning point for Crystal Bird Fauset. Her husband sued for divorce. Although the couple officially resided at 5403 Vine Street in Philadelphia, they rarely spent time at home. Posts in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., kept her away for long periods of time. The Fausets began experiencing sharp political differences, too. While Crystal worked within “the establishment” through the Democratic Party, Arthur worked through “third party” channels. He and labor leader A. Philip Randolph were for a time officials in the National Negro Congress, but both resigned when the organization’s leadership was seized by members of the American Communist Party. The couple did not enjoy a traditional family life; they had no children and were essential­ly married to their careers – Arthur as school principal, businessman, and social activist, and Crystal as politician and public servant.

Crystal Bird Fauset sublimated her private life by concentrating on being a leader for African Americans. When Eleanor Roosevelt spoke to a convention of five thousand members of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in 1944, Fauset introduced her. “This is the proudest moment of my life,” said Fauset and, pointing to the First Lady, added, “This is the greatest woman in the world.” In her speech, Eleanor Roosevelt observed that America was changing because of the war, explaining “we must face the fact that in the future, we have to work with people of all races.”

Blacks seemed to see Eleanor Roosevelt’s opinions as hers alone-and not those of the president. They, too, had grown tired of waiting for the Democrats to give African Americans equality in the armed forces. A straw poll of fifteen hundred women attending the A.M.E. convention showed blacks choosing New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey over Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the presidency in November. A similar poll conducted by the National Negro Council among one hundred and fifty thousand blacks in twenty-three states favored Dewey over Roosevelt by a margin of three to one! It’s more than likely that the results of these polls prompted Fauset to switch allegiance from the Democratic to the Republican Party.

Her decision to join the Republican Party – to which few African Americans belonged in the 1940s – was daring. Perhaps she mistook fellow African Americans’ frustration with Roosevelt’s civil rights record and informal polls showing black support for Dewey as rejection of the entire Democratic Party. But the fact that Fauset made her decision secretly, and without consulting Democratic leaders, suggests that something more personal was at the root of her discontent. In fact, it was the Democrats who felt betrayed by Fauset. “What burned Democratic headquarters most,” a Philadelphia newspaper article explained, “was the fact that they found out about Crystal Bird Fauset’s resigna­tion in the newspapers, [and] learned also that she sat on the platform during Governor Dewey’s Philadelphia speech, although she was still on the Democratic Party’s payroll.”

When apprised of Fauset’s defection, Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly replied, “the desertion of one sheep shouldn’t condemn the whole flock.” Nonetheless, Dewey’s defeat by Roosevelt in the November 1944 elections made Fauset a political pariah. The Republicans had little to offer and she had broken her ties with the Democratic White House. Realizing her limitations in domestic politics, she concentrated instead upon. the international scene. In an unpub­lished autobiographical essay (contained in the Crystal Fauset Papers at Howard University in Washington, D.C.) she wrote, “I decided to focus all of my attention and efforts upon the realization of a long-cherished dream – more personal knowledge about the continent of Africa . . . I began by becoming a volunteer in the work of the United Nations Council of Philadelphia.” As an observer for the Council, she attended the founding ceremonies of the United Nations in San Francisco in April 1945. She worked with the United Nations Council of Philadelphia for eight years, organizing programs to increase multi­cultural and racial awareness among school students in Philadelphia.

Crystal Bird Fauset made the first of several trips to Africa in November 1952. During her journeys, she inaugurated lasting friendships with future presi­dents Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria. Her interest in the United Nations brought her into contact with Ralph Bunche, the African American diplomat who won the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize. Bunche’s support helped Fauset achieve her goals with the United Nations Council of Philadelphia, and to make a special tour of the Middle East. She later recalled seeing “Jerusalem with its barbed wire barricades separating the old and the new sections of that ancient city, and … en route to Jerusalem from Amman, the crowded Arab refugee camps which are still the cause of so much trouble in that part of the world. I had seen the refugee cities in India and Pakistan but nothing as bad as the Palestine camps.”

Throughout her later years, Africa remained the focus of her attention. In 1955, she began lobbying foundations, American government officials, and African diplomats to consider opening an Africa House in New York. She envisioned Africa House as not only a place for African Americans to explore their heritage, but also as a forum where white American politicians and business­men could interact with Africans and learn about their countries firsthand. When Ghana realized independence in 1958, Fauset declared the time had arrived for Americans to become familiar with Africa. “Today, Ghana represents the first step in a momentous historical process which will next involve Nigeria, and then the entire continent; Africa will be [in] a state of nationalistic ferment such as the world has never before experienced.” With her knowledge of Asia and Africa and her political experience, she longed for an ambas­sadorship to Ghana or Nigeria, but she was overlooked by President Dwight D. Eisenhower for civil service and civilian appointments overseas. When Fauset decried the exclusion of black women from the American delegation at the first anniversary of Ghana’s independence, she was named to the delegation to Ghana’s second celebration.

Despite her affiliations with interna­tional organizations, Fauset remained involved in Pennsylvania public affairs until the end of her life. She sat on the board of trustees of Cheyney University in Delaware County, and was appointed by Philadelphia Mayor James H. Tate to the board of directors of the Small Business Opportunities Corporation.

On Sunday, March 27, 1965, Crystal Bird Fauset died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-one in Philadelphia. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had twice bestowed upon her its highest honor, the Meritorious Service Medal. She had been given the award in 1939 for her civic and community work in Philadelphia and again in 1955 for her educational activities as a member of the American-Korean Foundation. In 1991, after nearly thirty years of relative obscurity, her name was once again thrust into the limelight when the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, in association with the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection and the William Penn Foundation, unveiled and dedicated a state historical marker honoring Fauset in front of her former Vine Street residence in Philadelphia.

Even though honored by the Commonwealth, the influence and impact of Crystal Bird Fauset, the nation’s first black female state legislator, were felt far beyond Pennsylvania. Whether boldly urging her colleagues in the state legislature to reconsider their views on the restriction of moonlight employment of women factory workers, fighting for equal rights for blacks in the military, or developing relations with African nations, her voice was raised for one purpose: to further human rights. And it was her unflappable dedication to human rights that touched hearts throughout the United States and the Third World.

 

For Further Reading

Banner-Haley, Charles Pete T. To Do Good and To Do Well: Middle-Class Blacks and the Depression, Philadelphia, 1929-1941. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993.

Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, Inc., 1993.

Sicherman, Barbara, ed. Notable American Women: The Modern Period – A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1993.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1992.

Weatherford, Doris. “Crystal Bird Fauset.” American Women’s History. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1994.

 

The author wishes to acknowledge and thank the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University, Washington, D.C., for permission to include selected excerpts from an autobiographical essay contained in its Crystal Bird Fauset Papers.

 

Eric Ledell Smith is an associate historian with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). He is the author of Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian (1992) and Blacks in Opera: An Encyclopedia of People and Companies, 1873-1993 (1995). He co-authored with Leroy Hopkins The African Americans in Pennsylvania (1994). The author is co-editor, with Joe W. Trotter, of The African American Experience in Pennsylvania: An Anthology of Historical Scholarship Past and Present, which will be co­published by the PHMC and the Pennsylvania State University Press later this year.