Elise Johnson McDougald

There is a beautiful portrait of Elise Johnson McDougald by Winold Reiss in the March 1925 edition of Survey Graphic magazine that would later in part be reprinted and edited by Alain Locke with considerable more historic importance as The New Negro. Ms. McDougald is rendered in a thoughtful pose in keeping with her status at that time and it’s clear she is a woman of mixed ancestry. Along with 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 summarizes 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 head of the women’s department of the U.S. Employment Bureau and a social investigator and vocational 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 later became the first Black principal in the New York City public school system, until her retirement in 1954. Her writings were published in the journals Crisis and Opportunity and with Jessie Clark she co-authored “A New day for the colored woman worker: a study of colored women in industry in New York City” in 1919.

At the start of this provocative treatise, McDougald posits two questions—what are the problems that Black women face and how are they solving them. “To answer these questions, one must have in mind not any one Negro woman, but rather a colorful pageant of individuals, each differently endowed like the red and yellow of the tiger-lily, the skin of one is brilliant against the star-lit darkness of a racial sister,” she wrote. “From grace to strength, they vary in infinite degree, with traces of the race’s history left in physical and mental outline on each. With a discerning mind, one catches the multiform charm, beauty and character of Negro women, and grasps the fact that their problem cannot be thought of in mass.”

A close reading of the paragraph may suggest a hint of autobiography, and her own mixed heritage. Although she is listed as Elise Johnson McDougald in the article, she was born Gertrude Elise Ayer on Oct. 13, 1884 in New York City. Her father Peter Augustus Johnson was the third African American to practice medicine in New York City and a founder of the McDonough Memorial Hospital. He also was a partner and organizer of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station and a member of the founding committee of the National Urban League. Cited above is a portion of her educational background that should include her attendance to the City College, Hunter College, New York University, and the New York City Training School for Teachers. (It should be noted that she taught at P.S. 24 and James Baldwin was one of her students. Later she would mentor Olivia Pearl Stokes, the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in religion.) Interestingly, she never received a college degree.

In 1911, the same year she retired from teaching (though she would become a principal later at two schools in the city) she married Cornelius McDougald, an attorney and the initial counsel for Marcus Garvey during his trial for mail fraud in 1923. Some of her activities beyond the educational realm are mentioned above, but most of her time was devoted to writing and lecturing, particularly as a participant at various symposiums hosted by the National Urban League. And to list her numerous organizations in which she was a member would exhaust the remainder of the space allocated here.

She closed her 1925 article with this statement: “We find the Negro woman, figuratively, struck in the face daily by contempt from the world about her. Within her soul, she knows little of peace and happiness. Through it all, she is courageously standing erect, developing within herself the moral strength to rise above and conquer false attitudes. She is maintaining her natural beauty, and charm and improving her mind and opportunity. She is measuring up to the needs and demands of her family, community and race, and radiating from Harlem a hope that is cherished by her sisters in less propitious circumstances throughout the land. The wind of the race’s destiny stirs more briskly because of her striving.”
Much of that wind belonged to McDougald by whatever name. She died June 10, 1971.

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