Black History — The Gilded Age

One of the main characters in the television series The Gilded Age is an educated young African American woman with literary ambitions, carefully finding her way in New York City society. Should Peggy Scott end up in Newport, she might find more to her liking in the vibrant community of Black professionals and middle class families already in place there.

The website The Gilded Age in Color covers the “African American summer experience in Newport, RI from 1870 to 1925” and it makes for an edifying and entertaining scroll. (The site is hosted by the 1696 Heritage Group, an historical consulting firm in Newport.)

So who might be making dresses for the fictional Agnes van Rhijn . . . or the very real Mrs. Astor? Seen here is the executive board of the Women’s League in Newport, with founder Mary H. Dickerson at top center. (The Library of Congress dates the photo on or around 1899.)

Before getting into her impressive political organizing and advocacy activities, Dickerson’s biography at the African American Registry explains how she got started in Newport:

Mary H. Dickerson . . . grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. Dickerson and her husband, Silas, moved to Newport, Rhode Island sometime around 1865. She opened a dressmaking shop in the early 1870s. She was the first Black woman to open a store in that location on Bellevue Avenue and her clients were “prominent people in the city” of Newport. In 1895, Dickerson founded the Women’s Newport League.

On Bellevue Avenue! What a bold move, and smart. She clearly had a plan.

In 1903, she founded the Rhode Island Union of Colored Women’s Clubs. Dickerson was the honorary president of the New England Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1904.

In 1900, Dickerson provided photos of African American clubs, organizations, and individuals from Newport to be included in the “negro exhibit” for the Worlds Fair Paris Exposition.

Dickerson died in 1914.

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