A hardworking, compassionate woman
about whom is little known today - but
whose work reflects a perspective few
had in her time. We have the events,
the dates, but few details of the cause,
or more importantly, the emotional
impact; the true shape and shade of
a person lost to time.
Mrs. Mary A. McCurdy; Image in Public Domain
Tragedy whispers between the facts of Mary A. McCurdy’s life. We have the events, the dates, but few details of the cause, or more importantly, the emotional impact; the true shape and shade of a person lost to time.
Martha Ann “Mary” Harris was born August 10, 1852, in Carthage, Indiana in Rush County to Alexander and Martha Brooks Harris. She attended the county’s few integrated schools during her childhood, but the family was unable to afford to send her to college, especially after her father’s death in the 1860s. Mary, however, continued to pursue education through less formal means. By age 19, she’d been hired as a teacher in her county.
In 1875, at age 23, Mary married J.A. Mason and the couple moved to Richmond, Ind. They had four children together and were married eight years.
By 1883, her husband and children had died, though the circumstances are not recorded. “During the course of time mentioned the all-wise Giver of good gifts and one who doeth all things right took to heaven her four jewels and suffered her to become deprived of her husband,” wrote A.B. Allen in the Afro-American Encyclopaedia or, The Thoughts, Doings, and Sayings of the Race in 1896. “Thus left to herself she became more anxious to do something to elevate humanity, and accordingly became identified with other ladies of Richmond, Ind., in the temperance cause.”
Mary used her hard-won education in her role as a secretary of Richmond’s temperance newspaper. “In the year 1884,” A.B. Allen wrote, “she became first the secretary, and in a few weeks the editress of the only temperance paper at that time in the city.” The temperance movement in Richmond and elsewhere sought the widespread control—and even prohibition—of alcohol. This was often at the center of their fight for women’s suffrage as well. Women, they asserted, were the “moral compass” of the country. If they could vote, they would surely vote against the interest of the liquor industry.
If it is not taken in context, hindsight can render the temperance movement woefully misguided, if not frivolous. The women of the various organizations, but namely the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, can easily seem like fun-hating busybodies. Why else would they try to take away a good whiskey or shut down a local bar? And after all, we know how Prohibition worked out.
Some of the WCTU women probably were fun-hating busybodies; all groups of humans are complex; but “laws which affect women are now passed without consulting them,” read a suffrage flyer from early 1900s. The laws regarding alcohol—or often, lackthereof—impacted women’s lives. A drunk husband could abuse his wife and children and the woman had no path to improve her situation.
The Anti-Saloon League of America, a contemporary temperance organization, “view[ed] prohibition as the cure for several problems related to health, family disorder, child and spousal abuse, political corruption, and workplace inefficiency.”
Mary also saw alcohol as a means by which African American people were kept powerless. With the goal of improving the state of Black people in the United States, Mary moved south in 1886. Settled in Atlanta, Georgia, she continued work as a writer and secretary for the Southern Recorder. She wrote multiple articles, some under her nickname “Mattie” and others under the name of Bishop H.M. Turner, the paper’s owner. According to A.B. Allen, “The good bishop enjoyed frequent hearty laughs over many things said in other papers concerning the wise sayings in his paper that were thought to be his but were things said by Mrs. M.A. Mason, the secretary.”
During this time, she attended the local Bethel A.M.E. church, served as the Sunday school’s superintendent, and continued her advocacy for temperance and prohibition. In July of 1890, Mary married Reverend Calvin McCurdy and the couple relocated to Rome, Georgia.
In Rome, A.B. Allen poetically says, “She visits daily damp and dark cellars where the people are found in squalor and destitution, and like the good Samaritan she comforts the sorrowing, pours oil upon the wounds of the wounded, feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and like a messenger from the celestial world points the lost and straying to Jesus.”
In more concrete terms: Mary continued her work for temperance, now as the corresponding secretary for the Georgia WCTU, going so far as to extol its virtues to prisoners on a chain gang. She supported the decision of Rome’s mayor to close the barrooms in 1895, and she joined the Rome branch of the Needle Work Guild of America, an organization which made clothes for Atlanta orphanages and poor residents.
Around this time, Mary became the “editress” of Woman’s World, wherein she advocated heavily for women’s suffrage. “Emancipate the Anglo-Saxon and the Afro-American women who are wearing a yoke of oppression,” she wrote in her 1895 essay “Duty to the State of the Negro.” “Do this and cause such changes to take place as will result in the annihilation of many evils.”
Of the government’s failure to “embrace” its Black citizens, Mary wrote, “We realize that the Constitution of the United States is beautifully constructed and its diction perfect in every part, yet there is a lack of conformity to the spirit of the law practiced by many who profess to be one of its supporters, and it is the Negro who suffers most from the result of the non-conformity.”
In 1905, husband Calvin died. Mary lived in Rome for a few years before returning to Richmond, Ind., to be with family. In 1913, she was the Indiana delegate to the National WCTU convention in New Jersey, and in the years following, she organized meetings for both prohibition and women’s suffrage in Indianapolis churches.
She died at age 81 in June 1934 in Reid Memorial Hospital in Richmond from complications relating to a bout of pneumonia and was buried in Earlham Cemetery.
“She unconsciously throws herself into all she says and does,” A.B. Allen wrote of her in 1896. “...She is laying the foundation of unperishable excellence and happiness. Her work will outlive empires and the stars.”
Indiana History: The Road to Prohibition
Biography of Mary McCurdy (Martha ‘Mary’ Harris Mason McCurdy) 1852-1934
Wikipedia: Mary A McCurdy
Indiana History: Temperance and Prohibition Time Line
Afro-American Encyclopedia: Or, The Thoughts, Doings, and Sayings of Race