African-American women prominent in Mecosta, Osceola and Lake county history

Local history brings to life the story of individuals who with strength, character and integrity made their own way in settlement of the area and left memorable impressions.

Among local notable citizens were three African-American women in Mecosta, Osceola and Lake counties.

The first African-American settler in Mecosta County and Big Rapids was Catherine Tanner, who was born about 1820 in Pennsylvania, and died Oct. 13, 1884, in Owego, N.Y. She came to Big Rapids as a servant to Fred Rainsford in 1867.

A local Big Rapids newspaper clipping archived at the Mecosta County Genealogical Society noted her passing and included an excerpt of her obituary from the Owego Times.

“Aunt Katy Tanner, a well-known colored woman of this town, died on Monday evening last, at her residence in the rear of A. H. Keeler’s office on North Avenue. She was said to have possessed considerable property, and she made a will on Saturday last, bequeathing all of it to her legal adviser, E. F. Goff, Esq., of Waverly. Mr. Goff had only known Mrs. Tanner about a month.”

The article noting her death continued to tell about her ties to the Big Rapids area.

“Aunt Katy Tanner was a worthy colored woman who was one of the early celebrities of Big Rapids, and will be kindly remembered by many of the old inhabitants. She came here with Fred Rainsford from the State of New York in 1867. Mr. Rainsford was a bachelor, who, it will be remembered, owned and cleared (with Aunt Katy’s help) the land known as Fuller’s Addition to this city, and also that whereon now stands the residence of Judge Fuller.”

According to Maureen Nelson, of the Mecosta County Genealogical Society, the Fuller addition was located in the area of Fuller Avenue — encompassing the area between Springs Street and Morrison Avenue along State Street where Taco Bell and the Marathon Gas Station are located.

Catherine Smith helped clear land on the Fuller Addition in Big Rapids, which was located in the area of Fuller Avenue — encompassing the area between Springs Street and Morrison Avenue along State Street where Taco Bell and the Marathon Gas Station are located. (Pioneer photo/Shanna Avery)

The article continued to tell about Tanner’s life in Big Rapids.

“The woman was never a slave, but was a servant in the Rainsford family at an early day, and we are told that Mr. R. says she is the first woman he remembers seeing.

He brought the old lady with him to this new region as cook and general housekeeper, and right royally and well did she perform that duty. Dr. Woolley and others speak highly of her and say that, although an unlettered colored woman, she was entitled to great respect for her many virtues.

“Dr. W. recollects seeing her working in the fields, seemingly happy with her lot. When Mr. Rainsford sold his farm to C. C. Fuller he took Aunt Katy back to Owego from whence she came, purchased her a home, and rewarding her well for her faithful labors, returned to make Grand Rapids his home. The Boyer family (colored) of this city have always supposed Aunt Katy was a relative of theirs. She was probably 65 or 70 years old at her death.”

North of Big Rapids, another African-American was making her mark in the early settlement of the Reed City area, known then as Todd’s Slashing. Harry Smith and his wife Hagar, both former slaves, settled in Reed City in 1873.

During the winter of 1891, Harry wrote a book of his life experiences, “50 Years of Slavery in the United States,” also documenting the couple’s time in Osceola County.

Hagar Smith’s life was documented in her husband’s book, “50 Years of Slavery in the United States.” (Courtesy photo)

After living in town on Chestnut Street for two years, where Hagar and her daughter were launderers, the Smith family bought 20 acres three and one-half miles north of Reed City on the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railway in Lincoln Township. The family continued their laundry business with Harry carrying large laundry baskets to and from Reed City and Hagar and her daughter doing laundry. A few years later, they opened a dance hall.

There is no known photo in existence for Hagar Smith, but an illustration of her husband, Harry, is included in the book he wrote. (Courtesy photo)

In his book, Harry wrote about Hagar’s early life. She was born in Bullet County, Ky. in 1822. In 1841, she married George Samuel and had six children. In 1852, she married Harry Smith and had four children. Harry told about his wife’s great physical power. Weighing 280 pounds, she was considered the strongest woman in Bullet County and Smith speculated she was the strongest woman of her age in Michigan. She could pick up a bag of wheat or sack of potatoes “as a child could hold a rubber ball.”

When she was living in the south, she had an encounter with a white man who spoke rudely to her and struck her with a whip, according to Harry’s book. She said if he repeated it she would knock him down. As the fight ensued, he struck her again and she struck him a horrible blow with a sad-iron, (a heavy cast-iron version of a clothing iron which was heated on the stove or fireplace.)

“He fell to the ground. When he retaliated she seized him with her left hand and dealt him several terrific blows,” the account continued. “A child went to get help for Mrs. Smith, and several appeared on scene to see her still beating him severely. Finally, when they were separated, he was very glad to get free of Mrs. Smith. He was considered a champion fighter in Washington County, Ky., and a terror to all who knew him. Mrs. Smith was cheered all over that country for whipping the notorious white man, and he faced great ridicule for being whipped by a woman.”

Hagar died March 1, 1903, and Harry died one month after. An excerpt from Hagar’s obituary in the Reed City Clarion is as follows: “Aunt Smith, as she was fondly called, was kind hearted and generous to a fault. She had a large circle of friends in this area and was a devout Christian.”

A jog west of Reed City, decades later, a woman connected with Idlewild made her mark on the world.

With the settlement of Idlewild in Lake County in 1912 as an African-American resort community, many prominent African-American individuals owned property there throughout the decades following. Among these notable citizens was Violette Neatley Anderson, who became the first African-American female attorney admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court in 1926.

Violette Neatley Anderson became the first African-American female attorney admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. (Courtesy photo)

She was born in London, England, on July 16, 1882, to Richard and Marie Neatley, who immigrated to America and settled in Chicago when Anderson was a young child. After high school, she attended the Chicago Athenaeum and the Chicago Seminar of Sciences. She served as a courtroom reporter for 15 years before attending Chicago Law School, graduating in 1920.

Anderson established a practice and was one of the first women in Illinois to have a private law practice. Due to her success defending a woman accused of murdering her husband, in 1922, she was appointed assistant prosecutor in Chicago, the first woman and African-American appointed to that post.

Attorney Violette Neatley Anderson owned property in Idlewild. (Courtesy photo)

She was admitted to practice before the US Supreme Court on Jan. 29, 1926. She also was a member of the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and the Chicago Council of Social Agencies. She also served as the vice-president of the Cook County Bar Association and was the eighth Grand Basileus (President) of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated.

Violette Neatley Anderson’s legacy continues with her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta, in Idlewild. (Pioneer file photo)

Anderson died Dec. 24, 1937, in Chicago, her will bequeathing her property in Idlewild to her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta, whose members continue to honor her legacy.


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