Elise Johnson McDougald – educator, writer and women’s rights activist

There is a beautiful portrait of Elise Johnson McDougald by Winold Reiss in the March 1925 edition of Survey Graphic magazine which would later be partly reprinted and edited by Alain Locke with much more historical significance as The New Negro. Ms McDougald is featured in a thoughtful pose in keeping with her status at the time and it is clear that she is a woman of mixed ancestry. In addition to the drawing, her article “The Double Task: The Struggle of Negro Women for Sex and Race Emancipation” is featured and later included in Margaret Busby’s phenomenal anthology “Daughters of Africa”.

Busby’s introduction to the essay captures and encapsulates McDougald’s remarkable career. “The daughter of a founder of the National Urban League, she graduated from Columbia University and taught in the New York elementary school system (1905-1911), resigning to marry and raise a family. She was the head of the Women’s Department of the United States Employment Bureau and a social investigator and career guidance expert for the New York City Board of Education. She also worked for a time with the Manhattan Trade School and the New York branch of the Department of Labor. She then became the first black principal of the New York public school system, until her retirement in 1954. Her writings have appeared in Crisis and Opportunity journals and with Jessie Clark she co-wrote “A New day for the color woman worker: a study of women of color in industry in New York “in 1919.

At the start of this provocative treatise, McDougald asks two questions: What are the problems black women face and how do they solve them. “To answer these questions, we must not have in mind a single black woman, but rather a colorful spectacle of individuals, each differently endowed like the red and yellow of the tiger lily, the skin of one is shiny. against the star lit the darkness of a racial sister, “she wrote.” From grace to strength they vary endlessly, with traces of race history left in them. physical and mental contours of each.With an insightful mind, one grasps the multifaceted charm, beauty and character of black women, and grasps the fact that their problem cannot be thought of en masse.

A careful reading of the paragraph may suggest a hint of autobiography and its own mixed heritage. Although she is listed as Elise Johnson McDougald in the article, she was born Gertrude Elise Ayer on October 13, 1884 in New York City. His father Peter Augustus Johnson was the third African American to practice medicine in New York City and one of the founders of McDonough Memorial Hospital. He was also a partner and organizer of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station and a member of the founding committee of the National Urban League. Above is some of his training which is expected to include his attendance at City College, Hunter College, New York University, and New York City Training School for Teachers. (It should be noted that she taught at PS 24 and that James Baldwin was one of her students. Later, she would mentor Olivia Pearl Stokes, the first black woman to earn a doctorate in religion.) Interestingly, she never graduated from college.

In 1911, the same year she retired from teaching (although she would later become principal of two schools in the city), she married Cornelius McDougald, a lawyer and Marcus Garvey’s first lawyer during his mail fraud trial in 1923. Some of his activities beyond the educational field are mentioned above, but most of his time has been spent writing and lecturing, particularly as a participant in various symposia organized by the National Urban League. And listing her many organizations she was a member of would use up the rest of the space allotted here.

She ended her 1925 article with this statement: “We find the black woman, figuratively speaking, struck daily in the face by the contempt of the world for her. In her soul, she knows little peace and happiness. Through it all, she stands courageously, developing within herself the moral strength to rise above and overcome false attitudes. She maintains her natural beauty and charm and enhances her spirit and opportunities. She lives up to the needs and demands of her family, community and race, and radiates from Harlem a hope that is cherished by her sisters in less auspicious circumstances across the country. The wind of the fate of the race is stirred more strongly because of his efforts.
Much of that wind belonged to McDougald, whatever the name. She died on June 10, 1971.