Augusta T. Chissell was one of the most influential activists in the women’s suffrage movement in Maryland. She lived in the red painted row house at the corner of Druid Hill Ave and McMechen St. Through her tireless participation in important civil rights organizations, she was able to give women of color a voice in the movement.
Born in Baltimore in 1880, Augusta Theodosia Lewis briefly worked making hats for friends before she married Dr. Robert Garland Chissell in the 1910s. Robert Chissell was a prominent physician and an executive committee member for the Maryland Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical Association. By 1917, the Chissells had moved into the house at 1534 Druid Hill Ave. At that point, Augusta was already heavily involved in advocating for civil rights for African Americans. She was one of the founding members of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, and was its first vice-president in 1912.
Beyond this already impressive achievement, she also established herself as one of the most important African American activists in the women’s suffrage movement. White women’s suffrage activists often excluded the voices and interests of women of color. This led many African American women to form their own suffrage organizations. One of these organizations was the Progressive (or sometimes Colored) Women’s Suffrage Club (PWSC), which Chissell’s friend, Estelle Young, founded in 1915. The PWSC stressed the importance of women of all races being given the right to vote. Yet another group was the DuBois Circle, which was (and still is) a group of prominent women of color from Baltimore and Washington D.C. that met to discuss arts such as literature and music. More importantly, it was involved in supporting suffrage and other rights for women of all backgrounds. It did this mainly through academically supporting community youth, especially through scholarships. Chissell’s next door neighbor, Margaret Hawkins (1532 Druid Hill Ave), was the Circle’s first president when it was founded in 1906.
Chissell served in important roles in both of these groups. She was an officer in the PWSC, as well as a member of the Dubois Circle’s Executive Committee from 1921 to 1935, and its Executive Secretary from 1930 to 1940. She also dedicated her time to serving with the Women’s Cooperative Civic League, which organized grassroots efforts to bring about change by spreading awareness about a variety of issues affecting Baltimore. They did this mainly by handing out pamphlets and organizing committee fundraisers to get Baltimoreans interested and involved in supporting their cause. They also organized a flower mart in West Baltimore. Chissell served as the chair of the Flower Mart committee in the 1930s, as well as of the indoor flower show committee. She was a networker and a prominent member in her community. Because of this, she had connections with many other important African American women’s rights activists. She would even invite Hawkins, Young, and other activists to her house for meetings and organizing events.
Once the 19th Amendment was adopted into the Constitution in 1920 securing a woman’s right to vote, Chissell continued to be an advocate for other fundamental women’s issues. For instance, she wrote a weekly column in the Afro-American called “A Primer for Women Voters.” The column focused on giving advice and answering questions about voting for women of color. She was also involved with the Women’s Auxiliary of the Baltimore Urban League, serving as its president in 1936. During Chissell’s time as president, the Women’s Auxiliary focused heavily on getting white women involved with combating racial inequity. Her involvement with many different activist groups led the Afro-American to describe her as a “go-getter” in 1931.
Augusta Chissell passed away on May 14th, 1973 around the age of 92. Her devotion to social justice and humanitarianism never wavered throughout her long life. Up until her death, she continued to be an important part of the NAACP and the DuBois Circle. Because of the sheer influence and scope of her work, Chissell was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in March 2019. Later that year, the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center dedicated a historical marker to both Chissell and her neighbor, Margaret Hawkins. The marker was placed in the front yard of 1534 Druid Hill Ave, Chissell’s home for much of her nearly 60 years of activism.The research and writing of this article was funded by two grants: one from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and one from the Baltimore National Heritage Area.