Mossell, Gertrude Bustill 1855–1948
Gertrude Bustill Mossell 1855–1948
Educator, journalist, feminist
In a time when women were gaining new privileges in a male dominated society, Gertrude Bustill Mossell was fighting for the equality of all women to share in these privileges. Using her background as a journalist as well as an author, Mossell dedicated everything she did to the cause of making the public aware of the accomplishments of black women. She also was a force within the black community, rallying both women and men to her cause by giving back to the community. She headed up such committees as the Social Service Auxiliary and the National Afro-American Council in Philadelphia as well as raising the money to build the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School that serviced mainly black patients. While she was by no means the first black feminist of her time period, Mossell was one of the most active as well as one of the most vocal.
The Philadelphia of 1855 was a fertile ground for out-spoken, educated, free blacks when Gertrude E.M. Bustill Mossell was born on July 3. She was born into the prominent Bustill family to Charles H. Bustill and Emily (Robinson) Bustill. Her parents were among the free black elite of the time. The Bustill family contained generations of prominent blacks, stemming from her great-grandfather, former slave Cyrus Bustill. Cyrus Bustill won his freedom and worked on General George Washington’s staff during the War for Independence. He later opened his own bakery. During the later part of the eighteenth century, Cyrus became a schoolmaster, helping to educate and improve the lives of many free blacks. He co-founded the first black mutual aid society in America, the Free African Society.
Sifting through the striking Bustill relatives that probably influenced Mossell’s life, her great-aunt Grace Bustill Douglass and Grace’s daughter, Sarah Mapps Douglass, both stand out. Grace Douglass was a noted abolitionist and educator of the time. She was also an officer of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Her daughter followed in her footsteps as an abolitionist, feminist, and well-known educator. In a time when women had very little control over their lives and couldn’t vote and most black women were still slaves in America, the women of the Bustill family stood out prominently. With this kind of family background and expectations, Mossell seemed predestined to be what she became—an educated free thinker who was dynamic, motivated, and a high achiever. She spent her life working to educate and improve blacks and especially black women.
Mossell had one sister who later married William D. Robertson. The girls were raised as Quakers, but eventually joined the Presbyterian Church. They were both educated in the Philadelphia “colored schools” while living in the home of family friends because their mother had died when they were still very young. Mossell didn’t return to her father’s home until she was a teenager. After Mossell graduated from the Robert Vaux Grammar School, she taught school for seven years in various places, including Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware. Her writing skills and her ability
At a Glance…
Born on July 3, 1855, in Philadelphia, PA; died on January 21, 1948, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Charles H. Bustill and Emily (Robinson) Sustill; married Dr. Nathan Frances Mossell, 1893; children: four children including Mazie Mossell Griffin and Florence Mossell Holmes.
Career: Journalist, 1880s-1920s; women’s suffrage activist, 1880S-1948; author, 1894-1902; Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital, founder, 1895.
Memberships: President, Social Service Auxiliary; founder, National Afro-American Council of Philadelphia.
to speak out developed early. She delivered a speech entitled “Influence” at her high school commencement. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner heard the speech and was so impressed that he published it in his Christian Recorder. This ability blossomed in later years and Mossell’s writings were published in many periodicals. At a time when women journalists were almost unheard of, Mossell would become a distinguished journalist.
In 1893 Mossell married a leading Philadelphia physician, Nathan Frances Mossell, ending her career as a teacher since married women were not allowed to teach. In a pattern common among Philadelphia’s black elite, Nathan Mossell and Gertrude Bustill were distantly related. The Mossell’s had four children, but only two daughters, Mazie and Florence, lived to adulthood. Marriage and motherhood did not stop Mossell.
In 1894 she published the first of her books, The Work of the Afro-American Woman. This book is a collection of essays and poems illustrating the contemporary work of black women. It also chronicled the achievements of thousands of black women in all different fields and leaves us with a wonderful history of outstanding black women that were scarcely known or recognized at the time. Her very impressive list included information about black women’s achievements in education, literature, journalism, medicine, law, missionary work, art, business, and music as well as the “uncrowned queens of the fireside.” She included in the book many poems and essays by black women describing their lives and the issues of the times. Of particular interest also, is a chapter discussing the deplorable caste prejudice in black universities who hired very few of their own graduates or other black professors to teach.
Rather ironically for one of the leading and most vocal black feminists of the time, Mossell published her book, The Work of the Afro-American Woman as Mrs. N. F. Mossell. Noted scholar Joanne Braxton, in her introduction to the work, explained this tactic: “By this strategy of public modesty, the author signaled her intention to defend and celebrate black womanhood without disrupting the delicate balance of black male-female relations or challenging masculine authority.” It was still very much a man’s world and Mossell was intelligent enough to realize that she needed male support to be sure her message would be heard. In 1902, she wrote her only other book, a children’s book entitled, Little Dansie’s One Day at Sabbath School.
With these successes behind her, Mossell began what was to become an outstanding career in journalism. As a feminist and political activist, her articles on political and social issues were published in a number of periodicals including the AME Church Review, the Philadelphia Echo, the Indianapolis Freeman, the Franklin Rankin Institute, and Our Women and Children. She was known for speaking out strongly on women’s rights and responsibilities. She also edited the Women’s Department of the New York Freeman, the Indianapolis World, and the New York Age. In Philadelphia, she wrote syndicated columns in the Echo, the Philadelphia Times, the Independent and the Press Republican. Mossell also assisted in editing the Lincoln Alumni magazine, a journal of the Lincoln University, a prestigious institution for educating black men, such as Mossell’s husband.
Mossell was an active and vocal member of the women’s suffrage movement. She encouraged women to learn about the issues and to support the movement. She was also a very strong propionate of women educating themselves by reading books and periodicals. Mossell was also singular in her beliefs that women—particularly black women—should develop careers in business and the professions along with maintaining their family lives. In views at least a generation ahead of others, she strongly encouraged women to look at careers in the restaurant industry and in professions such as medicine and journalism. She consistently pushed forward black role models in her columns and her book, quoting poets such as Sarah Forten, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Cordelia Ray, and noted journalists such as Ida B. Wells. Her philosophy shined through in a quote from the section of her book entitled “Our Women in Journalism:” “Have an intelligent comprehension of every department of work on the paper. As a reporter I believe a lady has the advantage of the masculine reporter in many aspects. She can gain more readily as an interviewer access to both sexes.” She continued in her advice: “In seven years’ experience as an interviewer on two white papers I have never met with a refusal from either sex or race. If at first for some reason they declined, eventually I gained my point.” This seems to personify Mossell’s philosophy—all things are possible with ability, knowledge and perseverance.
In another of the ironies of the time, Mossell found that she needed to fight against two separate areas of prejudice—those of the male members of society and those of the white females. She wrote many pieces diplomatically suggesting the end of male prejudice against women, especially in the field of journalism. Her criticisms of white female prejudice and refusal to recognize their black sister suffragettes was more pointed, however. By the end of the nineteenth century the women’s movements were supporting books about the accomplishments of women, but these books notably did not recognize the black women of the period. This major oversight was one of the reasons that Mossell published The Work of the Afro-American Woman. Her purpose is clear in both the beginning and ending of the book. She begins with a quote: “The value of any published work … must be largely inspirational; this fact grows out of the truth that race instinct, race experience lies behind it, national feeling or race pride always having for its development a basis of self-respect.” Then after nearly fifty pages of names and accomplishments of black women, she closes with: “Will not our more favored sisters, convinced of our desires and aspirations because of these first few feeble efforts, stretch out the helping hand that we may rise to a nobler, purer womanhood?”
In her later years, Mossell actively worked to support what she so eloquently wrote about. Because most hospitals in Philadelphia refused care to black patients, she and her husband worked to found a new black hospital. They were the major forces behind the fund raising necessary to open the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School. The fundraising effort that she led brought in $30,000 and erected a three-story building. The hospital opened in 1895 with, not surprisingly, an academic program to help black women become nurses. Mossell went on to serve as president of its Social Service Auxiliary. Much of her community efforts in the fifty years the hospital was in existence went toward fund raising for the institution. She also organized the Philadelphia branch of the National Afro-American Council, a precursor to the NAACP. Mossell and her husband worked together in a life of activism, strongly supporting human rights and equality for black Americans. Dr. Mossell died in 1946 at the age of ninety. Gertrude Bustill Mossell died in the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital on January 21, 1948, at the age of ninety-two. They were survived by their two daughters, Mazie Griffin and Florence Holmes, four grandchildren, and other relatives, including Gertrude’s nephew, singer and Broadway actor, Paul Robeson.
“Our Woman’s Department.” The Freeman (New York), January 9, 1886; December 25, 1886.
The Work of the Afro-American Woman, Philadelphia: George S. Ferguson Co., 1894.
Little Dansie’s One Day at Sabbath School, 1902.
Dictionary of American Negro Biography, New York: Norton, 1982, pp. 457-458.
Majors, Monroe A. Noted Negro Women. Chicago: Dononue and Henneberry, 1893, pp. 129-33.
Mossell, Mrs. N.F. The Work of the Afro-American Woman. Philadelphia: George S. Ferguson Co., 1908.
Penn, Irvine Garland, The Afro-American Press and Its Editors. Springfield, Mass.: Wiley, 1891, pp. 405-407.
Streitmatter, Rodger, Raising Her Voice: African American Women Journalists Who Changed History, Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
Freeman (New York), January 9,1886; December 25, 1886.
“Biographies: Gertrude Mossell,” PBS-The Black Press, www.pbs.org/blackpress/news_bios/mossell.html (July 17, 2003).
“Mrs. N. F. Mossell,” Digital Schomburg African American Women Writers of the 19th Century, http://digital.nypl.org/shomburg/writers_aal9/biographies.html (July 17, 2003).
—Patricia A. Donaldson