Question of the Week
Who was the first African American woman to be elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature?
Answer: Crystal Bird Fauset
In 1938, Crystal Bird Fauset was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, making her the first female African American state representative in the United States. She represented Philadelphia’s 18th Ward (which today encompasses much of Lower Kensington) as a Democrat. Throughout her career as a legislator, she focused on women’s employment issues, health care, housing, and relief work.
Crystal Bird was born in Maryland in 1894 and was raised in Boston. She worked for the newly established Interracial Section of the American Friends Service Committee and the YWCA before being named executive secretary of the Institute of Race Relations at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1933. Bird rallied African American women to vote, and her efforts were recognized by the Roosevelt Administration, which named her director of the Women and Professional Project in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Philadelphia.
She also became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped Fauset obtain the roles of assistant director and racial relations director of the Office of Civil Defense in 1941. Along with her many tasks, Fauset addressed segregation in the armed forces and the USO and promoted civil defense planning in the South, particularly among African Americans. Despite her efforts, Fauset felt that the Roosevelt Administration was not moving fast enough with desegregation policies, and realigned herself with the Republican Party in 1944. She supported presidential candidate Thomas Dewey and became a member of the Republican National Committee’s division on Negro Affairs. She died in Philadelphia in 1965. There is a historical marker outside of her home at 5403 Vine Street in Philadelphia that was dedicated in her honor in 1991; the house is the planned site of The Political Black Women’s Memorial of Pennsylvania.
HSP's library contains several books highlighting the history of African American women and politics. Among HSP's collections are several from mid 20th-century politicians and political thinkers, such as Richardson Dilworth (#3112) and Joseph Sill Clark (#1953).
Image: Crystal Bird Fauset with Eleanor Roosevelt, Associated Press photograph (1942)
About the Author
Look for these history stories every Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The stories, called Memory Stream, are published in the Currents section of the newspaper.