Stewart, Ella 1893–1987
Ella Stewart 1893–1987
Ella Philips Stewart was a pioneer on several fronts. At a time when most working-class women did not attend school beyond the primary level, Stewart not only finished her high school education at Storer College in West Virginia but entered a professional program in pharmacy as well. Finishing her graduate in pharmacy degree in 1916 at the University of Pittsburgh, Stewart also became one of the first African-American women to become a practicing pharmacist in the United States. A successful businesswoman, Stewart eventually settled in Toledo, Ohio, where she and her second husband, William Stewart, operated a pharmacy in the heart of that city’s African-American neighborhood. Prominent in social activities in the African-American community, Stewart was also a major force in local politics. As an inaugural member of the Toledo Board of Community Relations, Stewart helped to ensure that fair employment practices and other civil rights would be fully enforced in the city. She also served as president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs from 1948-1952. In the 1950s Stewart gained a number of appointments that took her to Asia as a goodwill ambassador for the American government. In her retirement she received numerous awards but said that the naming of a Toledo elementary school after her was the recognition that she valued the most.
The daughter of sharecroppers, Ella Nora Phillips was born on March 6, 1893, in Stringtown, West Virginia. Her family was a mixture of Cherokee and Massassoit Indians and white and African Americans. Identified as an African American during a period of strict racial segregation, Stewart attended high school at Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, which was the only school in the region that would accept students of all races. She graduated in 1910 and soon afterward married Charles Myers, whom she had met as a fellow student at Storer College. The couple’s only daughter, Virginia, died in childhood from whooping cough and the couple subsequently divorced.
Although she had initially planned on a career as a teacher, Stewart became interested in pharmacology while working as a bookkeeper for a pharmacist. Intent on becoming a pharmacist herself, Stewart was at first turned away when she applied to the program at the University of Pittsburgh. Undeterred, she insisted on being granted admission to the School of Pharmacy and its administration relented. Like other African Americans, however, Stewart was forced to suffer the indignities of racial segregation on the campus. In 1916 she completed her graduate in pharmacy degree, making her one of the first African-American women to earn such a distinction in the United States and the first of her race and gender to do so in Pennsylvania. She began working as a pharmacist in the Pittsburgh area and by 1920, when she married William Wyatt “Doc” Stewart, she was the owner and operator of a drug store at the General Hospital in Braddock, Pennsylvania.
The Stewarts moved to Youngstown, Ohio, around 1920. Once again refusing to submit to the strict racial
At a Glance…
Born Ella Nora Phillips on March 6, 1893, in Stringtown, WV; died on November 27, 1987, in Toledo, OH; married Charles Myers (divorced); married William Wyatt Stewart, 1920 (died 1976); children: (with Charles Myers) Virginia (deceased). Education: University of Pittsburgh, PhG, 1916.
Career: Pharmacist, 1916-1940s; Stewart’s Pharmacy, Toledo, OH, owner and operator, 1922-1940s.
Memberships: Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA); Enterprise Club; Ohio Association of Colored Women, president, 1944-1948; National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, president, 1948-1952; Pacific and Southeast Asian Women’s Association, 1954-1960s; Toledo Board of Community Relations, 1960s.
Awards: University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy, Distinguished Alumni Award, 1969; Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame, 1978; honorée, Ella P. Stewart Day, Toledo, OH, February 28, 1984; Toledo Civic Hall of Fame Inaugural inductee, 1999.
segregation of the period, Stewart got a job as a pharmacist at a Youngstown hospital even though the job was initially open only to white applicants. The Stewarts then moved to Detroit for a brief period but decided to open their own pharmacy in Toledo, Ohio, in 1922. The location of the pharmacy was at the corner of Indiana and City Park Avenues in the heart of Toledo’s Pinewood District. When it opened, the Stewart Pharmacy was the city’s only such establishment owned and operated by African Americans. The Stewarts lived above their first-floor pharmacy and soon their home and business became a gathering point for residents of the neighborhood. Visitors from out-of-town who could not stay in one of the racially segregated elite hotels in the city also made their way to the Stewart home during their time in Toledo.
In addition to establishing the Stewarts as one of the leading families in Toledo’s African-American community, the business represented another gain for professional African Americans in the city. The African-American population in the industrial city had doubled between 1915 and 1920, yet the persistence of racial discrimination kept most of the migrants in low-wage, semi-skilled or unskilled jobs. Residential segregation was also the norm, with the Citizens’ Realty Plan, a group that endorsed racial restrictions in property ownership, often threatening violence against African Americans who attempted to buy homes outside of the Pinewood District. By the end of the 1920s, two-thirds of Toledo’s African Americans lived in the Pinewood District; despite the economic challenges, about one-fourth of them owned their own homes.
In the decade after arriving in Toledo, Stewart became a leading member of several community groups, including the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Enterprise Charity Club, a social-service organization run by African-American women. In 1944, around the time Stewart retired from operating her pharmacy, she was elected president of the Ohio Association of Colored Women. In 1948 she advanced to the presidency of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW), one of the most influential social-service organizations of the period. Her tenure as president of the NACW from 1948-1952 confirmed Stewart’s status as a national spokesperson on issues of race and gender. In the tradition of past NACW presidents such as Mary McLeod Bethune, the NACW under Stewart continued to speak out against segregation, discrimination, and negative, racist stereotypes. Stewart was also an inaugural member of the Toledo Board of Community Relations in 1961, a public agency that worked to improve the city’s racial climate as well as to ensure that the city was fulfilling its commitment to civil-rights enforcement.
At the end of her NACW presidency, Stewart’s activities expanded to the international arena. Appointed as an American delegate to the International Conference of Women of the World for its 1952 meeting in Athens, Greece, Stewart spent much of the 1950s touring as a goodwill ambassador for the United States. A 1954 U.S. State Department tour took her to several nations in Southeast Asia and Stewart served through the 1960s as the vice-president of the Pacific and Southeast Asian Women’s Association. Stewart also served on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Advisory Board in the early 1950s. Her commitment to voluntarism and philanthropy were best summed up by the motto that Stewart frequently invoked, “Fight for dignity and world peace.”
Despite her accomplishments, Stewart continued to confront the prevalent racism of American society. In 1957 an invitation to address the Virginia Chamber of Commerce was abruptly withdrawn by the group after it found out that she was an African American. Stewart was fortunate, however, to see many positive changes in American society and received numerous awards for her activism. In 1961 she was honored by having a grade school in Toledo named after her and subsequently became a regular volunteer there. The city also declared February 28 as “Ella P. Stewart Day” in 1984, an honor few other Toledoans had earned. In 1969 Stewart was named a Distinguished Alumni of the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy. She was also inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1978.
William Stewart died in 1976; he and Ella Stewart had been married for over fifty-five years. In 1980 she moved into a retirement home, Pelham Manor, in Toledo and she remained an active volunteer and philanthropist. Ella P. Stewart died on November 27, 1987, at the age of ninety-four. In 1999 she was posthumously honored as an inaugural inductee into the Toledo Civic Hall of Fame.
Porter, Tana Mosier, Toledo Profile: A Sesquicenten-nial History, Toledo Sesquicentennial Commission, 1987.
Toledo Blade, January 22, 1999; December 26, 1999.
“Archival Chronicle,” Bowling Green State University, www.bgsu.edu/colleges/library/cac/ac9812.html (March 13, 2003).
“Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient,” University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy, www.pharmacy.pitt.edu/alumni/profiles/Stewart.html (March 13, 2003).
“Ella P. Stewart Collection,” Bowling Green State University Center for Archival Collections, www.bgsu.edu/colleges/library/cac/ms0203.html (March 13, 2003).
“Ella P. Stewart Papers,” University of Toledo-Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, www.cl.utoledo.edu/canaday/mssguide/mss-052.html (March 13, 2003).
“Records of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, 1895-1992,” Lexis-Nexis, www.lexisnexis.com/academic/guides/african_american/nacwc/nacwcl.htm (March 13, 2003).
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