By Tara Mae
Maritcha Remond Lyons was an African American civil rights activist, educator, and suffragist who spent her life fighting for racial and women’s equality. An assistant principal and cofounder of the Women’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn and the White Rose Mission, her profound yet understated legacy encompassed becoming an advisor for writer and anti-lyching advocate Ida B. Wells. Maritcha’s contributions, though less well-known than some of her peers, were integral to the amplification of frequently marginalized voices and social justice movements. Her practical experience, wealth of knowledge, and networking abilities made her an invaluable asset to groups that were striving for change.
Born on May 23, 1848 to Albro and Mary Joseph Lyons, she and her family resided in New York City’s free African American community. Maritcha’s father was a graduate of the African Free School in Manhattan. Founded in 1787 by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and other members of the New York Manumission Society, it was set up for the children of enslaved and free people of color. Involved in many organizations, Maritcha’s parents ran a seamen’s home and outfitting store. These businesses served as a cover for their involvement in the Underground Railroad.
From a young age, Maritcha loved learning and understood the importance of education. Her passion was fostered by her family and nurtured by her own motivation. In her unpublished memoir, Maritcha muses that she had a “love of study for study’s sake.” This hunger for knowledge informed both her professional career and her personal activism.
Her access to education was hampered by sickness and threatened by danger and discrimination. As a child, Maritcha suffered from an undisclosed illness that kept her out of school for a significant period of time. Her schooling was further interrupted by the violent New York City Draft Riots of July 1863. Led by incensed working-class New Yorkers, the unrest was ignited by a federal draft law that subjected to conscription all male citizens between the ages of 20 and 35 and all unmarried men between the ages of 35 and 45. They were entered into a lottery for war service, but wealthy individuals could buy their way out of participation, either by hiring someone to go in their stead or paying the government $300 (approximately $5,800 today.)
Resistance to the updated draft law was further complicated by opposition, including from within the Union Army, to the Emancipation Proclamation. Some anti-war politicians and newspapers consistently and insidiously cautioned their audiences, mainly Irish and German immigrants, that freeing enslaved individuals would cause them to come north and take their jobs. Originally directed at the police, the unrest quickly expanded to target African American businesses, homes, and citizens.
The Lyons fled to Massachusetts, briefly returned to New York, then temporarily relocated to Providence, Rhode Island. It was here that Maritcha faced yet another obstacle to her education; she was forbidden from attending Providence High School due to her race. The family joined the desegregation movement of the state and sued the school. At age 16, Maritcha testified before the state legislature, urging desegregation and “...the opening of the door of opportunity.” Aided by the strength of her statement, public schools were integrated. In 1869, she became the first African American student to graduate from Providence High School.
That same year she moved to Weeksville, a vibrant African American enclave in Brooklyn, and began what would develop into a long and illustrious career in education. Maritcha taught for 30 years before becoming an assistant principal for PS 83, where, drawing on her own experience, she helped integrate the school. Her responsibilities also included supervising and instructing other educators, which made her the second African American in the New York City public school system to train teachers.
She continued to further her own learning; Maritcha spent a decade studying languages and music at the Brooklyn Institute. She took public speaking courses, which were a great asset in her roles as advocate and advisor for different social justice platforms. Maritcha was a counselor and consultant to other women involved in these efforts.
Earning a reputation as a well-respected orator renowned for her speeches and lectures on topics like women’s suffrage and civil rights, Maritcha was very active in her community. She was vocal member of the Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn and participant in many different aid societies. It was through this involvement that she first met activist and journalist Ida B. Wells, who came to Brooklyn in 1892 as stop on her anti-lynching tour. Ida had recently published an editorial in the Memphis Free Speech, a newspaper she co-owned. It examined the lies that were used to justify lynchings of African Americans, particularly the stereotype that these killings were done in retaliation for black men raping white women.
An investigative journalist, she visited the scenes of lynchings and interviewed witnesses. She combined the information she gathered, which included incidents of consensual encounters between black men and white women, with statistics and quantitative data. Ida proved that the reasons given for lynchings were patently false. These homicides were acts of domestic terrorism designed to preserve economic, social, and political white supremacy. African Americans were lynched for reasons such as registering to vote, opening their own businesses, or not deferring to whites in a manner they deemed appropriate. Ida had personal motivation for her exposé. A close friend, Thomas Moss, and his business partners Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart, had been murdered by a lynch mob because their store, People’s Grocery, was believed to be diverting revenue from a white man’s store.
After her article was printed, an angry white mob destroyed the newspaper office and ran the co-editor out of town. Ida, who was in Philadelphia at the time for a conference, began traveling the country, speaking out about the circumstances of lynchings. When she arrived in Brooklyn, she got involved in the local outreach initiatives and began attending lyceums, where she met Maritcha. At a gathering of the Brooklyn Literary Union of the Siloam Presbyterian Church, Maritcha and Ida debated lynching. Maritcha won the debate, and Ida was so impressed that she asked Maritcha to advise her on how to become a better public speaker. She agreed and introduced Ida to her social circles, connecting her with a strong group of women who were prominent figures in the robust cultural life of the African American community. Maritcha invited her to join the ranks of the journalists, educators, and reformers who strove to enact positive change.
Having helped harness the support for Ida, Maritcha joined forces with friend and activist Victoria Earle Mathews. Together they assisted Ida in planning and arranging her impactful speech on anti-lynching at New York City’s Lyric Hall. This powerful testimonial was very well-attended and raised enough funds to finance publishing Ida’s editorial as a pamphlet. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases. Ida dedicated the piece to the “Afro-American women of New York and Brooklyn.”
Inspired by their achievement at Lyric Hall, Maritcha and Victoria co-founded the Women’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn, one of the country’s first racial justice and women’s rights organizations in the United States. Through this coalition, Maritcha continued to support the work of Ida and promote her anti-lynching pamphlet as well as other projects. Its success led to the formation of the National Association of Colored Women. Maritcha and Victoria also established the White Rose Mission, a settlement house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that was created to give shelter, food, and safety to African American women newly arrived from the southern states or West Indies. In an attempt to protect the women from unscrupulous characters of nefarious intent, Maritcha, Victoria, and other volunteers met them as they disembarked from ships and trains, and offered them refuge in their new city. The mission offered child-rearing classes, enrichment courses, and a Penny Provident Bank thrift program. Providing all of these services was particularly important since they were usually unavailable to African American women.
In 1901, Maritcha was invited to speak at the Constitution League to discuss the draft/race riots of 1863. Although she officially retired in 1918, Maritcha continued her activism. Four years after her retirement, she once again engaged in an anti-lynching campaign, led by Mary B. Talbert of the NAACP. Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction, published by Hallie Quinn Brown in 1926, contained eight biographical segments written by Maritcha. Her memoir and family photos are part of the Harry A. Williamson Papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library. She died in 1929, leaving behind neither partner nor children but a lasting and meaningful impact on history.