Southwestern University graduate tackled social causes that still make headlines today
Jessie Daniel Ames made a difference. A determined social activist during three decades of early twentieth-century America, Jessie’s influence spread beyond Georgetown as she worked first for women’s suffrage and then for racial justice. She traveled, wrote, spoke, and organized for issues that were not always popular or safe.
James Daniel, railroad agent, moved his family from Palestine, Texas, when Jessie was ten to allow his children better educational opportunities. Jessie’s independent mindset developed from a devout Methodist mother and a stern, non-believing father. Jessie entered Southwestern University at age thirteen, and despite her father’s outspoken lack of confidence in her abilities, she graduated in 1902. The family moved to Laredo in 1904, where Jessie met Roger Ames, an Army surgeon whom she married in 1905. Their marriage involved long separations as he researched malaria in Central America, and Jessie and their young children lived with her sister. Meanwhile, her parents returned to Georgetown to buy the local telephone company, which her mother continued to operate after Mr. Daniel’s death in 1911.
Jessie’s life made a sharp turn in 1914 when Roger died. Widowed and pregnant with her third child, she came to live with her mother and soon became the de facto manager of the phone company. She became friends with John Granbery, an outspoken Southwestern professor, and his wife, both ardent supporters of women’s voting rights. Jessie yearned to vote on issues affecting her business; by 1916, she organized Georgetown Equal Suffrage League and penned a related weekly column in The Williamson County Sun. As state treasurer for the Texas Equal Suffrage Association, Jessie mobilized coworkers in 1918 to register 3,800 Williamson County women, all first-time voters for a state primary, in only seventeen days!
After the Nineteenth Amendment achieved ratification in 1920, Jessie honed her leadership skills over the next few years, gaining a strong voice in the Texas League of Women Voters (and serving as founding president), American Association of University Women, Texas Joint Legislative Council, Texas Committee on Prisons, and Georgetown Woman’s Club. She was a delegate to Democratic National Conventions in 1920, 1924, and 1928. And . . . she oversaw the education of her children and nursed her daughter Lulu through severe polio.
In the mid-1920s, Jessie began devoting energy and expertise to a new cause. As race-related lynching increased, often initiated by the Ku Klux Klan, she joined the Commission for Interracial Cooperation (CIC). She moved to Atlanta in 1929 as CIC women’s director. Jessie founded the Association of Southern Women for Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) in 1930. A pledge she formulated against lynching was signed by 40,000 Southern women. Her speeches throughout the South were well-attended, addressing early concepts of “separate but equal” in race relations and always decrying racially-charged mob violence. The ASWPL remained her passion until her retirement in 1944.
Jessie then lived quietly in North Carolina for years, involved in Methodist activities, voter registration for blacks, and a women’s study group on world politics. She donated her papers to the University of North Carolina. Her personal library came to Southwestern in honor of her son Fredrick, a Houston pediatrician, who died in 1959.
In 1968, she moved to an Austin retirement home to be near Lulu. She never relinquished her ties to Georgetown and Southwestern. Her family home still stands, and her gravesite here bears an unremarkable stone. Yet Jessie was remarkable, and she made a difference in difficult arenas.
You can view the historical marker that graces Jessie’s home at 1004 Church Street near downtown Georgetown or read the text of the marker at the Williamson County Historical Commission website.
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