Naomi Anderson was an important and well-known leader in the fight for women’s and African Americans’ rights in the 19th Century. Yet she is barely known nationwide and hardly at all in her hometown of Michigan City, Indiana. Internet research reveals the rich and rewarding life that Naomi Anderson led, and which deserves to be recognized.
Naomi Bowman Talbert Anderson was born in Michigan City, Indiana on March 1, 1843, into a free African American family, just seven years after the city was incorporated. At that time, census records did not include addresses and we have been unable to determine where she lived. She was educated in Michigan City after the public school noted her writing ability and invited her to enroll in the otherwise segregated school. She later credited Michigan City for providing her with an education.
Naomi lived in Michigan City until 1863, and she and her husband, William Talbert, and sons moved to Chicago in 1868. There she worked for the International Organization of Grand Templars on their temperance campaign. During this period, she wrote about the harsh effects alcohol had on people of color, especially teenagers, because of the harm already done to them by slavery and lack of education. In 1869, Naomi Talbert gave a fiery, controversial speech for women’s suffrage at the first Women’s Rights Conference held in Chicago. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution had just been ratified by Congress giving African American men the right to vote. She advocated for women’s right to vote, stating “What is the difference between a slave and a free man other than the rights one has? And black women have no more rights now than they had before the abolition of slavery.”
This speech was covered in newspapers across the country, making her a public figure overnight. In the weeks that followed, she sent copies of the speech, along with letters to the editors and guest editorials explaining it, to newspapers throughout the United States. This opened the door to having her writings published and her appearances and public activities covered in newspapers for the rest of her life. She was one of the only women, and especially women of color, to have a voice in the nation’s major newspapers in 19th Century America.
The Talberts moved to Ohio where Naomi worked as a hairdresser, raised her children, and cared for her husband until his death in 1877. During this time she continued to advocate for temperance and women’s suffrage by lecturing throughout the mid-west. In 1881 she married Lewis Anderson, a former slave, and in 1884 they moved to Wichita, Kansas during the Black Exodus of ex-slaves from the Deep South. In 1895 Naomi Anderson and her family moved to Sacramento, California, and she was the co-lead, along with Susan B. Anthony, for the campaign supporting a California Ballot Proposition to give women the right to vote, even headlining above Anthony on one occasion. She accomplished all of this while confronting the obstacles of a woman of color living in 19th Century America. Naomi Anderson died on June 9, 1899, at the age of 56.
Naomi Anderson was fiercely independent, moving around the country, speaking at hundreds of suffrage events. From her first public speech, her eloquent and empowering words acknowledged the need for women’s right to vote. She poetically described the early stages of the suffrage movement in 1869 stating
“Miss Anthony and Mrs. Stanton, with their high moral and intellectual power, have shaken the states of New England, and the shock is felt here today. The echo comes back from St. Louis and all through the west; a sensation is aroused in England, and soon the whole world will be awakened to a sense of the value and importance of our cause”.
Mrs. Anderson also worked tirelessly to empower people who lived in a society set up for their oppression. In her speech titled “The Solution to the Race Problem”, she stated
“We should insist on being called Americans of Color….there should be no German-Americans, Irish-Americans, or Afro-Americans. All who were born in this country are Americans. And I, a person of color, have just as much right to claim that as does any white man or woman.”
Naomi Anderson lived a life of activism and brilliance. Yet possibly even more impressive were her civic activism and compassion, shown in newspaper stories that covered her where ever she lived. She founded three orphanages, trained women in business, established a seamstresses’ union to assure fair wages, and spoke up at city council meetings. She served as the Kansas state representative to the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and as the representative from her church to the Kansas Statehouse to fight against school segregation. She fought for educational opportunities for girls, and for food for orphans in Wichita, calling them “God’s little black lambs”.
Written by Bonnie Schaaf