Working for Higher Education: Advancing Black Women’s Rights in the 1850s

Lucie Stanton Day Sessions

Black and white photograph of Sessions

Lucie Stanton Day Sessions. Image Ownership: Public Domain. Accessed on

Lucie Stanton Day Sessions was a devoted, educator, anti-slavery activist, and reformer. While her name does not appear in the 1853 convention minutes, her spousal relationship to William Day and her commitments to education would uniquely center her within the manual labor school debate. She was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 16, 1831 and was the only daughter of Margaret and Samuel Stanton. After her father’s death her mother remarried to John Brown, an active abolitionist and successful businessman.[1] The restriction of education to white children in Cleveland led Brown to found the Cleveland Free School, which Sessions attended.

By 1847 Sessions was enrolled in Oberlin College’s Ladies Literary Course (equivalent to a BA).[2] Sessions’ time at Oberlin culminated with her 1850 election as the first Black president of the Ladies’ Literary Society and her graduation as the first Black woman to earn a college degree. She was chosen to deliver the commencement address, which was reprinted in the Oberlin Evangelist.[3] Session left Oberlin and found employment in Columbus, Ohio, teaching in the newly established public schools for black children. In 1852 she married William Howard Day who had met her when he was a senior at Oberlin. The couple moved to Cleveland where William established the Aliened American.[4]

In 1854 Sessions wrote and subsequently published a story about a brother and sister’s escape from slavery. The story, entitled “Charles and Clara Hayes,” is one of the earliest pieces of published fiction by a Black woman.[5] In 1859 William Howard Day left the US to found a newspaper in England. The five-year separation led to the couple’s divorce. Sessions challenged the stigma of single motherhood and continued to support her child through dressmaking and occasional teaching jobs.[6] In 1871 she moved south to Mississippi where she married Levi N. Sessions. She continued to teach in the southern states until 1903, when she moved to California. An active officer of the Women’s Relief Corps and the local temperance society, she died in Los Angeles in 1910.[7]


[1] Jessie C. Smith, Notable Black American Women, Book 2, (New York: Gale Research Inc., 1996), 589.

[2] Smith, Notable Black American Women, 589.

[3] Smith, Notable Black American Women, 590.

[4] Ron Gorman, “William Howard Day & Lucie Stanton,” (2014) Oberlin Heritage Center, day-lucie-stanton/ (accessed 27 February 2016).

[5] Lucie S. Day, “Charles and Clara Haynes,” Aliened American, 9 April 1853, accessed on Black Abolitionist Papers.

[6] Lisa Hoak, Dan Quigley, and Essie Weiss-Tisman, “’I Shall Have Your Sympathy, If Your Judgment Refuses Me Your Support’: Lucy Stanton Day, the American Missionary Association, and the Politics of Respectability.” 2012, Oberlin College Archives.

[7] William Day, “William Howard Day to Salmon P. Chase,” 30 March 1863, accessed on Black Abolitionist Papers.


Written by Lindsay Drapkin, History 213 taught by Sharla Fett, Occidental College, Spring 2016.

Edited by Simone Austin and Samantha de Vera, University of Delaware.