This biographical sketch first appeared on the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States and appears here by courtesy of the publisher, Alexander Street.
Biography of Mary Frisby Handy, 1848-1932
By Christine R. Valeriann, Principal at Marcom360 Consulting; Marketing Adjunct Instructor at Johns Hopkins University, Towson University, University of Baltimore
Missionary, suffragist, leading figure in the Black women’s clubs movement
One of 13 children, Mary Nicholas was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1848. She left her hometown at the age of 17 after her mother died, to become a tailor in Newark, New Jersey. She later moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she met and married Dr. S. Clark Frisby, who died six years later. After four years of widowhood, she married Elder (then Bishop) James A. Handy, who died in 1911, one month before their 25th wedding anniversary.
As a Bishop’s wife and then widow, Handy was expected to be a pillar of strength and a leader of the church, not just a participant. In her own words, she believed herself to be “an assistant pastor” to the congregation and community, and unselfishly devoted her life to this role. As “Mrs. Bishop Handy,” she was deeply involved with the Women’s Parent Mite Missionary Society (WMS) of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church and “on the ground floor of the whole organization,” first serving as vice president in 1892 and then as president in 1906. She was elected president of the WMS every subsequent Quadrennial Session for 24 years until 1931, when, due to failing health, she was elected president emeritus.
According to The Baltimore Sun, the A.M.E. Church was the “largest negro organization in the world and the most influential.” First formed to give assistance to Haiti, the WMS quickly expanded its scope. During her tenure, Handy directed the WMS’s efforts to fund missionary activities in South Africa, West Africa, the West Indies, and the United States. As the nation was struggling with the issue of women participating as equals in government, Handy (and other like-minded WMS leaders) “seized the opportunity to advance AME women’s long struggle for religious rights.” For at least three decades, these women pushed to be able to participate as equals in religion, and at the 1924 General Conference, at least five hundred women demonstrated for “religious suffrage.”
In addition to her influential missionary work, Handy was a leading figure in the Black women’s club movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Following her husband’s election as bishop and assignment to the Fifth Episcopal District covering Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado, the Handys moved to Missouri. Mary quickly became actively involved in a number of organizations, serving as president of Kansas City’s Colored Woman’s League, vice president of the National League of Colored Women, and treasurer of the National Association of Colored Women, which had a “department of suffrage.” Missouri was one of the Western states where women could vote at the time, and in 1895, Handy voted in the Kansas City municipal election.
After the Handys returned home to Baltimore in 1896, Mary worked with the Baltimore Colored Young Women’s Christian Association, the Old Women’s Home of the A.M.E. Church (AME Home), and other organizations. She was president of the Maryland Federation of Christian Women’s Clubs (Federation), and among the leadership of both the Women’s Cooperative Civic League and the National Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. While these organizations were concerned broadly with “uplift” work, they all addressed the issue of women’s suffrage at some point.
Local newspapers reference several meetings at which suffrage was discussed, “urged,” or voted upon. For example, at a meeting in 1915 with Handy as president, the Federation endorsed women’s suffrage. At a meeting in March 1916 at which she co-presided, the Women’s Cooperative Civic League went on record as “favoring woman suffrage.” The biennial session of the National Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs featured a symposium on suffrage that included presentations by several delegates from states where women could vote. It was held in Baltimore in August 1916 and hosted by the Federation; Handy was president at the time and instrumental in the preparations for this important convention.
Additional evidence of Handy’s suffrage sentiments can be found during her tenure as superintendent of the AME Home. In 1920, she made sure that the (female) residents of the home were taken to the polls, where “they were expected to cast their votes for Warren G. Harding, the Republican candidate for president.”
Handy had a high profile and was widely recognized and celebrated for her charming personality, charitable deeds, and unselfish piety. Before she left to attend an A.M.E. conference in 1912, the Bishop’s widow was honored by a “host of admirers” at a “fine reception” at the residence of Mrs. E. J. Cummings (1234 Druid Hill Avenue). In 1916, Handy was the subject of a “Woman’s Column” tribute in the Baltimore Afro-American: “She is a woman that in charitable deeds never lets her left hand know what the right hand has done, a woman of high moral standing, of the strictest integrity, and thoroughly alive to every opportunity.”
After a stroke and brief period of paralysis, Handy died in 1932 at the age of 84. She was eulogized as a “great missionary spirit” and a “leader of men and a worker among women” who was “unafraid to tell ministers and laymen alike when they were wrong.” She is buried in Baltimore’s historic Laurel Cemetery. In 1935, several hundred delegates and admirers attended a tribute to Handy at Bethel A. M. E. Church in Baltimore, at which a memorial tableau was unveiled by her two great-great-granddaughters. There are several Mary F. Handy Women’s Missionary Society chapters across the nation, continuing good works in her name.
Handy’s missionary work and community activities are documented in The Baltimore Afro-American, The Baltimore Sun, and The Chicago Defender. The importance of the African American church and the role of minister’s wives in the church and missionary societies is documented in Sparks from the Anvil of Oppression: Philadelphia’s African Methodists and Southern Migrants, 1890-1940; Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion; and the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center (Women’s Missionary Society, African Methodist Episcopal Church – Indiana Conference Branch, Mary F. Handy Women’s Missionary Society Annual Missionary Day, 1993). The importance and history of Black women’s clubs is from The History of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Inc.: A Legacy of Service. Background on the Women’s Parent Mite Missionary Society of the A.M.E. Church is from the 1st [sic] Episcopal District Women’s Missionary Society website. Documentation about the Mary F. Handy Women’s Missionary Society is from the websites of the First African Episcopal Church of Seattle, Washington and the Bethel A.M.E. Church of San Diego, California.
“Mrs. Mary F. Handy”
Photo Credit: “Touring in the South: Mrs. Mary F. Handy Writes Entertainingly of a Trip,”
Special to The Afro-American Ledger, The Baltimore Afro-American, January 18, 1902.
“Mrs. Mary F. Handy”
Photo Credit: “Woman’s Column” by Margaret Black, The Baltimore Afro-American, March 18, 1916.
Mrs. Mary F. Handy
Photo Credit: Documenting the American South, from The Church in the Southern Black Community collection: Centennial Encyclopaedia of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, by Richard R. Wright. (Philadelphia: [Book Concern of the A.M.E. Church], 1916). Accessible online at https://docsouth.unc.edu/church/wright/ill105b.html.