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Tompkins County has been home to many trailblazing Black female leaders, including nationally known names like Civil Rights leader Dr. Dorothy Cotton, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, Ruth Carol Taylorthe first Black flight attendant in the United States, as well as innumerable local female leaders and community groups that have shaped the culture of Tompkins County for decades. During Black Women's History Month we honor and recognize the contributions of Black women to the community, culture, and history of Tompkins County. 

Sha Battle established April as International Black Women's History Month in 2016 in the city of Atlanta to uplift and support the achievements of Black and minority women, and to build understanding and awareness of the contributions of Black women to the world. 

Maude Bracey of Newfield NY. ca. 1910

Learn about historic Black women in Tompkins County from the resources on our website, by visiting our Exhibit Hall, and through exploring our Archival Collections


In 1953 Beverly Jane Martin (1935-1993) became the first Black senior class president at Ithaca High School, and later served the Ithaca City School District for 36 years after her college graduation from Cornell University. In 1978 she became the school district's first Director of Affirmative Action, and was also the district's ombudsman. In 1992, a year before her death, Central Elementary School was renamed the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School in her honor. 

See 2017 Beverly j. Martin Book Project for a collection of oral histories about her compiled by fifth grade students in 2017.


Oral Histories available in our Research Library*

  • Dr. Nia Nunn (2019)
  • Jackie "Mama" Melton Scott (2008)
  • Marcia J. Fort Baum (2019)
  • Leslyn McBean Clairborne (2019)
  • Jenny Graham (2017)
  • Candace Edwards (2019)
  • Karen Yearwood (2019)
  • Akua Akyea (2019)

Explore our Women's Voices and Black Voices oral history collections through visiting our Research Library to listen to their interviews. 


    Photograph from the Club Essence Collection


      Dr. Dorothy Lee Forman Cotton (1930-2018) met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960 when he preached at a church she attended in Virginia. The two began working together with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which organized peaceful protests and worked for the rights of Black Americans during the Civil Rights era. From 1960-1968 Dr. Cotton was the Education Director for SCLC and directed the Citizenship Education Program ― one of the few high-level positions for women in the SCLC at the time.

      Dorothy remained an active civil rights educator throughout her career, and served as the Director of Student Activities at Cornell University from 1982–1990s.

      Dr. Cotton was awarded the National Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum in 2010. She lived in Ithaca until her death in 2018. Her legacy is carried on by the Dorothy Cotton Institute and Ithaca-based independent institute which offers popular education and training to inspire and support people who want to foster and protect human rights and to advance civic participation for social transformation

      Purchase Dorothy's Autobiography: 'If Your Back's Not Bent'

      There's Your Ready Girl, a short documentary film about Dr. Cotton's contributions to the Voting Rights Movement premiered in the fall of 2020.

      PhotoSynthesis Productions and the Dorothy Cotton Institute completed the full length documentary 'Move When the Spirit Says Move: The Legacy of Dorothy Foreman Cotton' in 2023. Find a screening near you at

      Follow us for posts highlighting Black women's history in Tompkins County. 



      Mabel Webb Van Dyke shown here as a young woman in the parlor of her home.

      Dorothy Cotton leading a Citizenship Education Program lesson in Alabama 1966. 

      Dr. Emma Corinne Galvin

      Women gathered as the Serv-Us League, the precursor to the Southside Community Center in 1930.

      • Beverly J Martin (1935-1993)  In 1953 Beverly Jane Martin became the first Black senior class president at Ithaca High School, and later served the Ithaca City School District for 36 years after her college graduation from Cornell University. In 1978 she became the school districts first Director of Affirmative Action, and was also the district's ombudsman. In 1992, a year before her death, Central Elementary School was renamed the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School in her honor. 
      • Mabel Webb Van Dyke (1870-1965) - Mabel Webb Van Dyke was the youngest child of Frederick and Lucina Barton Webb. She studied voice at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, and later became a music teacher, mother of two, foster mother of 21, Sunday School Superintendent, quilter, and more. Her cemetery marker attests to her long and illustrious life, much of which was spent living in the home in which she was born.
      • Ruth Carol Taylor (1931-Present)At the age of 26, Trumansburg High School graduate Ruth Carol Taylor became the first African American flight attendant in the United States in December 1957. Hired by Mohawk Airlines, a carrier originally headquartered in Ithaca, her first flight was from Ithaca to New York City in February of 1958. After being fired from Mohawk later that year due to gender discrimination, she raised her children and became active in civil rights, attending the 1963 March on Washington as a journalist. In 1977 she moved to New York City and resumed her career as a nurse. There she co-founded the Institute for Interracial Harmony, and helped develop the Racism Quotient, a test to measure racist attitudes (accessible on-line). In 1985 she penned "The Little Black Book: Black Male Survival in America: Staying Alive & Well in an Institutionally Racist Society,” written to help guide young black men to survive in racist America.
      • Emma Corinne Galvin (1909-1988) originally from Richmond, Virginia received her BA from Shaw University in 1929, and her MA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1931. A high school teacher, Galvin taught in schools in Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. She came to Ithaca and resumed her graduate work at Cornell University, where she was one of the first Black women to pursue a PhD, graduating in 1943. In 1969 she became the first Black faculty member at Ithaca College, hired in part due to the efforts of the Afro-American Society founded by students in 1967. In addition to her lecturing position at Ithaca College she served as an academic consultant to the Ithaca City schools, and taught at the Southside Community Center as well as serving on a number of local and national committees and boards. She received a local community service award in 1974, was named the Shaw University Woman of the Year and the Ithaca Business and Professional Woman of the Year in 1959. In 1971 President Nixon named Galvin to a three-year term on the Citizens Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality. Commenting on her appointment Galvin said "We seem to be losing citizen participation our government. I am delighted when the people are given an opportunity to be heard." (Ithaca Journal, July 10th 1971). 
      • Winifred Bailor (1891-1982) was one of 12 children born to Daniel Bailor who had been enslaved. She attended elementary school in the Town of Caroline, and fondly remembered sleep-overs at her white school mate's homes. She went on to be one of the first women enrolled in Cornell University's School of Agriculture. She graduated in 1921 and later taught at schools for African-American students in Mississippi and Georgia for a number of years. In 1961 Bailor retired from her position at the YWCA in Rochester NY and returned to Tompkins County to care for her brother who had recently experienced a stroke. Cornell Alumni news from February 1970 notes that from her home on White Church Road in Brooktondale "Winifred defies poor eyesight to continue reading, sewing, knitting and crocheting when she isn't puttering in the garden..."

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      Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫˀ Territory


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