African American suffragist, voting advocate and long-time DuBois Circle member 

Augusta Gussie Theodosia Lewis Chissell was born in Baltimore around the year 1880 to parents William and Sarah Lewis. Chissell was the biracial daughter of two biracial parents. Chissell’s father, William S. Lewis, was born in Georgia in the year 1866. Chissell’s mother, Sarah S. Lewis, was born in Maryland in the year 1865. Augusta Lewis lived with her parents and worked as a milliner until she married Robert Garland Chissell between 1910 and 1920. Robert Garland Chissell was a doctor, and Augusta Chissell once stated in an interview that should she marry seven times again, every husband would be a medic. Although Augusta and Robert Chissell never had any children, they had many close extended family relationships and community ties.

In a profile of Chissell in the Baltimore Afro-American in 1931, the author stated that Chissell’s chief air is that of a go-getter. This air was obvious in Chissell’s widespread participation in activist groups and community organizations. One cause that drew Chissell’s support and energy was women’s suffrage. Chissell was an officer, for instance, in Baltimore’s Progressive Women’s Suffrage Club, also known as the Colored Women’s Suffrage Club. Chissell also served as a leader in the Baltimore Women’s Cooperative Civic League, which was also an organizing force for Black and biracial women’s suffrage in Maryland.

After the 19th Amendment was ratified, Chissell continued the fight for women’s equality by writing a column in the Baltimore Afro-American titled A Primer for Women Voters.” The column was structured as an advice section, where women submitted questions and Chissell responded. Although the self-help column has often been viewed as frivolous, Chissell used it as a platform for promoting electoral activism. Sometimes Baltimore women wrote in with general questions about the process of voting, and what to expect on Election Day. To these, Chissell responded with accurate nonpartisan information, empowering women to use their new-found power of the ballot. However, Chissell was not afraid of engaging in partisan politics in her column, sometimes giving directions about which politicians and parties to vote for. For example, Chissell instructed her readers not to vote for any candidate who opposed woman suffrage, not to vote for any candidate who opposed prohibition, and to vote only for Republicans.

 

In her column, Chissell also referred readers to another group she participated in, the Colored Young Women’s Christian Association, should they wish to attend a meeting and get more information about political platforms. Chissell chaired the CYWCA’s hospitality committee in 1927, and was on the board of managers in 1931.

Chissell was also deeply involved in the fight for racial equality. Chissell was one of fourteen founding members of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving as the first vice -president of the organization in 1912. Chissell also served on various NAACP committees during her involvement with the group, which lasted from the founding of the organization until her death in 1973. These committees included the Special Gifts committee, which Chissell chaired in 1935, and the Interracial Committee, which she chaired in 1941. Chissell attended the 27th annual conference of the national NAACP in 1936, which was held in Baltimore. Chissell attended as the Vice-Chair of the State Reception Committee, appointed by the Maryland Governor Harry Nice.

Another organization that Chissell was involved in was the Women’s Auxiliary of the Baltimore Urban League, of which she was the president in 1936. Under Chissell’s leadership, the group launched an intensive effort to interest civic and socially minded white women of Baltimore in interracial social justice issues. As part of this effort, the Women’s Auxiliary distributed 350 copies of a pamphlet titled, How Can the Missionary Societies of Maryland Assist in the Adjustment of the Negro Problems in Our State at the annual meeting of the Women’s International Missionary Union.

 
Chissell was a long-time member of Baltimore’s Dubois Circle, a group of prominent women of color who gathered once a month to discuss music, literature, and public problems. The Circle supported woman suffrage and opposed suffrage measures that would enfranchise only elite women. The Circle also engaged in philanthropic community pursuits, especially those involved in supporting community youth. In honor of the group’s twenty-fifth anniversary, for instance, the Circle dedicated a scholarship to the female graduating senior from the local Frederick Douglass High School who demonstrated the best moral character and was an overall outstanding senior. Chissell was a member of the organization from 1914 until her death in 1973. Chissell was a member of the Executive Committee from 1921 until 1935 and served as the organization’s Executive Secretary from 1930 to 1940.
 
Augusta T. Chissell was highly involved in other community groups as well. Her 1931 profile in the Baltimore Afro-American states that Chissell chaired the indoor flower show committee and the flower mart committee for the Women’s Co-operative Civic League. That same profile states that Chissell was an active member of the Trinity AME Church. In 1932, Chissell was on the Advisory Committee of the Baltimore City Recreation Department. 
 
Chissell died on May 14, 1973. She was survived by her nieces and nephews, Dr. H. Garland Chissell, Dr. John T Chissell, Mrs. Connie Young, Dr. Robert Brown, and other members of her extended family. She is buried next to her husband in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Baltimore. In March 2019 Chissell was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. A photo and brief biography can be accessed at page 7 at http://dhs.maryland.gov/documents/Initiatives/Maryland%20Womens%20Commission/Women%20of%20Tomorrow%20Awards/MCW_Program_Final-V2_2019.pdf.

Augusta T. Chissell photographed for the article Silhouettes, Baltimore Afro-American. August 1, 1931. Proquest Afro-American Historical.

 

Augusta T. Chissell as a Sister in the play The Miracle at the St. James Episcopal Church Christmas play.

Henderson, Paul. “They Portrayed Roles in St. James Episcopal Church Christmas Play.” Baltimore Afro-American, December 27, 1941. Proquest Afro-American Historical.

Augusta Chissell’s signature at the bottom of the Dubois Circle minutes, October 1930.

Sources

Ancestryheritagequest.com. 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Census Place: Baltimore Ward 17, Baltimore (Independent City), Maryland; Roll: T624_558; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 0293; FHL microfilm: 1374571.

Ancestryheritagequest.com. 1920 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Census Place: Baltimore Ward 14, Baltimore (Independent City), Maryland; Roll: T625_663; Page: 5B; Enumeration District: 227.

Chissell, Augusta. “A Primer for Women Voters.” Baltimore Afro-American, September 10, 1920. Proquest Afro-American Historical.

Chissell, Augusta. “A Primer for Women Voters.” Baltimore Afro-American, September 24, 1920. Proquest Afro-American Historical.

Chissell, Augusta. “A Primer for Women Voters.” Baltimore Afro-American, October 1, 1920. Proquest Afro-American Historical.

“Deaths.” Baltimore Sun, May 17, 1973. Proquest Baltmore Sun Historical.

DuBois Circle Minutes. October 1930. DuBois Circle Records. Private Collection.

DuBois Circle Minutes. 1931. DuBois Circle Records. Private Collection.

DuBois Circle Minutes. February 1932. DuBois Circle Records. Private Collection.

Find a Grave. Augusta Chissell. Last modified October 28, 2007. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/22517290/augusta-chissell

Henderson, Paul. “They Portrayed Roles in St. James Episcopal Church Christmas Play.” Baltimore Afro-American, December 27, 1941. Proquest Afro-American Historical.

“Mayor Leads 0ff in NAACP Drive with $25 Gift.” BaltimoreAfro-American, October 05, 1935. Proquest Afro-American Historical.

Membership Lists, 1914-1974. DuBois Circle Records. Private Collection.

“Members Named to Recreation Board.” Baltimore Afro-American, November 12, 1932. Proquest Afro-American Historical.

National Urban League. Opportunity: Volumes 14-15. January 1, 1936. Google Books.

Officers Lists, 1921-1940. DuBois Circle Records. Private Collection.

“Other 8 -No Title.” Baltimore Afro-American, January 1966. Proquest Afro-American Historical.

Program of the NAACP 27th Annual Conference. 1935. A. Quinn Jones Collections. The University of Florida Digital Collections. http://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00063532/00002/2j.

Rohn, Kacy. Suffrage Leader Augusta Chissell to Be Inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. Last modified March 20, 2019. https://mdhistoricaltrust.wordpress.com/2019/03/20/suffrage-leader-augusta-chissell-to-be-inducted-into-the-maryland-womens-hall-of-fame/

Sartain, Lee. Borders of Equality: The NAACP and the Baltimore Civil Rights Struggle, 1914 -1970. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2013. Pg 52.

“Silhouettes.” Baltimore Afro-American, August 1, 1931. Proquest Afro-American Historical.

Weaver, Diane E. “Maryland Women and the Transformation of Politics, 1890s-1930.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Maryland, College Park, 1992.

“Victory at Home Too.” Baltimore Afro-American, November 28, 1942. Proquest Afro-American Historical.

“Y. W. C. A. Notes.” Baltimore Afro-American, October 22, 1927. Proquest Afro-American Historical.