Bearden, Bessye (1888–1943)

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Bearden, Bessye (1888–1943)

African-American political and civic worker, known particularly for her work with the Democratic Party. Born Bessye Jeanne Banks in Goldsboro, North Carolina, in October 1888; died on September 16, 1943, in New York, New York; daughter of George T. and Clara (Carrie Ocott) Banks; attended Hartshorn Memorial College in Richmond, Virginia; graduated from Virginia Normal Industrial Institute in Petersburg, Virginia; post-graduate work at the University of Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh; studied journalism at Columbia University, New York, New York; married Richard Howard Bearden; children: son Romare (b. 1914, who became an artist).

Bessye Bearden settled in Harlem with her husband and young son shortly after World War I. Active in the political, civic, and social activities in her community and nationwide, she was appointed to the New York City Board of Education in 1922, where she was elected chair of the 12th District, becoming the first black woman member of the board. Bearden subsequently wrote a society column for the Chicago Defender, a weekly African-American newspaper. In 1935, she was named deputy collector in internal revenue for the Third New York Collection District, the first African-American appointed to that position. She later worked in tax processing and as an auditor.

In the 1930s, Bearden became active in Democratic Party politics as founder and president of the Colored Women's Democratic League in New York. In 1937, she was elected delegate to the First Judicial District Convention, where she was involved in congressional campaigns and rallies to reelect President Franklin Roosevelt. Bearden was also aligned with the National Council of Negro Women, of which Mary McLeod Bethune was the national president. Bearden served as well in the advisory committee of the Emergency Relief Bureau, working for economic justice for blacks in New York City. She chaired the New York State Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax and was on the executive board of the New York Urban League.

On the community level, Bearden served on numerous boards, including the Citizens Welfare Council, the Harlem Community Council, the NAACP, and the Utopia Neighborhood Club. She received a number of honors for her devoted service, including medals from the Citizens' Welfare Council and Veterans of Foreign Wars. After a long illness, Bessye Bearden died on September 16, 1943.