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A century later, a Black activist who fought to let women vote is being honored in Rochester

Robin Nowell dressed as Hester C. Jeffrey
April Franklin
Robin Nowell portrays Hester C. Jeffrey during a dedication ceremony at Memorial AME Zion Church on Clarissa Street.

A forgotten fighter for women’s suffrage is being honored in Rochester almost a century after her death.

During her time in Rochester, activist Hester C. Jeffrey worked toward equity for women and Black residents. Her recognition is part of a national project honoring the people and groups of the women’s suffrage movement.

A dedication ceremony was held on Sunday honoring Jeffrey with a plaque at Memorial AME Zion Church. Her plaque is one of hundreds of markers that can be found on the National Votes for Women Trail.

According to historian Judy Wellman, Jeffrey left her mark on Rochester history.

“Hester Jeffrey is the one who raised the money for the (Harriet) Tubman stained glass window," Wellman said. "And for the stained glass window in honor of Susan B. Anthony, which was the very first public monument to Anthony anywhere in the country, and it's in a Black church.”

Jeffrey was good friends with Susan B. Anthony. Wellman said Jeffrey also served on the committee that helped bring the first public monument of Frederick Douglass to the city.

Memorial AME Zion is the site where Jeffrey held many of her fundraisers. She was one of many notable Black parishioners; others included Charles D. Landford, Rochester’s first Black doctor.

Pastor Derrill Blue said he is honored to serve in a church with a rich history.

“It's a beautiful thing to see so many people who have come out of this church as, so many positions that are necessary within our community," Blue said. “One of the things I love about each of those individuals is that they pave the path for someone else.”

Blue said Jeffrey’s life can inspire women today.

“People like Hester C. Jeffrey, they exemplify knowing their calling and not allowing limitations of the world to hinder them because they are a woman,” Blue said.

Wellman said Jeffrey crossed gender and color lines as she worked toward equality and voting rights. She said Jeffrey would be pleased to see the community today.

“She's speaking to us,” Wellman said. “She's saying thanks for doing this. Keep going.”

Jeffrey’s plaque is one of over 200 funded by Pomeroy Foundation and the Federal Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. A map of other Rochester sites in the National Votes for Women Trail can be found here.

April Franklin is an occasional local host of WXXI's Weekend Edition.