Remarkable Women of Color in Worcester

Research and writing by Kimberly Barros

In the 1890s only a thousand Blacks lived in Worcester, MA. The small population of African American people made it hard for their community to succeed.

In this paper, I will  highlight the remarkable lives of women who have made significant contributions by challenging  gender and racial systems. Understanding their stories is crucial, as we continue to share information to raise awareness. We are able to see and perceive who these women were, why we are standing here today, and how we can continue moving forward for the sake of future generations.

This document helps us to understand what were the sacrifices that women such as Sara Ella Wilson, Jennie Cora Clough, and Inez Clough had to make, to be seen as equally respected among other women.

Since the beginning of the civil rights movement, women have been fighting to collect signs and speak on the front for Worcester’s history, working to support the rights of people of color, mothers, immigrants, and Native Americans. They established clubs and organizations from Christian, Baptist, and Catholic denominations with the backing of their husbands or through funds collected within their communities.

Even before associations were formed, African American women organized their own groups and started to support families, neighborhoods, and businesses in their community. Women’s suffrage and black rights were of importance to them.

The following are some of the clubs that contribute to the development of Women’s rights.

The YWCA formed in October of 1898, It started with a group of black women with hard work and dedication. They decided to focus their intentions on supporting aged colored men and women who needed a place to live. Their goal was to secure cooperation between all the members, mutual improvement, and the establishment of a Day Nursery and home for needy indigent Women of color.

The Women’s progressive club, in conjunction with the A.M.E. Zion churches were created by women to support and benefit the black members of their community. At this time, black neighborhoods faced more segregation and disenfranchisement because of their race and sex. As a consequence of these factors, they created a service for their community. It became a tradition in which black women’s organizations united themselves for social service.

The NAACP (Home-aged Colored Women) was dedicated to collect funds for African American women that were passing through situations of poverty and economic conflicts at home, partially for indigent women outside the home. Their ways to make money were getting funds from outside of membership as donations, fundraising, and cash. They also planned annual dinners and concerts that attracted different people that could afford to enjoy the night.

These groups were sustained by fundraising committees of black church ladies, organizing, running, and benefiting social causes. Their goals were “to end abuses of power, to supplant corrupt power with reformed versions of such traditional institutions of schools, charities, medical clinics, and to apply scientific principles and efficient management to economic, social and political institutions” Wanting to be taken seriously, they worked and never stopped despite segregation discrimination, Civil War, WW2, the Great Depression, and the struggle for civil rights.

What were the risks that they took and what were the consequences of their actions?

These women, among others, dedicated their time and efforts to combat racial segregation, promote civil rights, and work towards a more inclusive and equal society in Worcester before, during, and beyond the reconstruction era. Their contributions helped shape the city’s history for progress. Their efforts have laid the foundation for the improvement that we continue today and their work should be acknowledged by understanding the struggles, sacrifices, and risks these women faced.

Sara, Jennie, and Inez, all worked hard to conduct a change in society. We recognize their achievements and contributions to building a more inclusive and egalitarian future.

JENNIE CORA CLOUGH Busby (1857-1928)

Can you imagine a world where  the contributions of Black American Women are celebrated and acknowledged in our community?

In this paper, we explore untold stories of these  figures, reviving their legacies, sacrifices, and efforts, highlighting the impact that they have had through history.

Women such as Jennie Cora Clough left an indelible mark on the city’s educational landscape. A female figure born in 1857 into one of Worcester’s most prominent African-American families, her grandfather, Peter Rich, was born as a slave in Lancaster, Massachusetts, but eventually settled in Worcester and became  one of only three men of color to own properties in the city before the Civil War in 1861.

She was the eighth of nine children, born into a family with middle class opportunities. Her parents were Francis A. Clough and Harriet Clough. Francis ran a popular barber shop that attracted mostly white customers, being one of the first black barbers in Worcester and one of the first men of color to sit on a jury in the United States.  He knew all the prestigious people in the city, and everyone in town had seen his shop, which provided Jennie the necessary connections that she needed to pursue an education.

Her brother, Benjamin, became Worcester’s first African-American postman and her sister Inez Clough, was a singer, dancer, and actress who helped to open doors for blacks to perform on “legitimate” stages in theater. Her other sister Anna was an entrepreneur who focused on the hairdressing of white customers. By the time Jennie turned thirteen, her mother died of tuberculosis at the age of 51, leaving her father a widower at 54 years old.

It is believed Jennie became the first black woman to attend a Worcester normal school and later the first certified teacher registered in Worcester public schools system. Since she was young, Jennie showed ambition and dedication to her academic life. She attended the prestigious Worcester Classical and English High School, considered the best school in the city. In 1867, Jennie was the only black student in Miss Wentworth Providence street Secondary school. There is evidence from a picture of Jennie being the only black girl among seven white girls in their high school  in the records of the English Classical School. In 1869, she was listed on the honor roll. In 1870 and from 1872 to 1875, she maintained perfect attendance. Jennie had no difficulty fitting in with her classmates. Eventually, she graduated in 1875 with honors. 

After her high school graduation, Jennie received a recommendation from her tutor Ellis Peterson that enabled her to enroll in Worcester Normal School (Worcester State College), but the recommendation wasn’t enough, she also had to apply for the acceptance and to take a series of tests, including a writing examination and interview. Twenty two students, including Jennie took the test, only one boy and fifteen girls were admitted. Jennie was admitted with an entrance score of 57.2.

A quote from her journal claimed:  “This morning we are pleased to find that fifteen trees had been placed on either side of the walk, although they are quite small, the effect is pleasant and we may safety hope great things for these little trees, for if they produce such a great thing in their infancy, what will, or rather what won’t in the years to come when they spread their branches over the broad expanse of Eastern Park!” (May 19, 1876). This entry showed her commitment to spreading education and inclusion toward the next generations

In April, 1877 Jennie did her apprenticeship teaching for three weeks at Sycamore Street and  in September 1877 at Ledge Street schools. She graduated from Worcester Normal School scored 8 points higher than the average standard 60.9. As a member of the fourth class, she finished her studies and received her diploma in 1878.

At the time, there were limited employment opportunities for women of any racial origin. If Jennie didn’t marry after college, her options were to work as a teacher or as a domestic servant. In the 1880 census, Jennie was listed as one of the only 8 African American professionals in Worcester. She wasn’t hired until 3 years later when she secured a position in an overcrowded school.

There is no record available to determine how many African American students attended Worcester public schools. In 1846 an unknown black girl challenged the educational panorama by being allowed to attend a school. After that nothing changed, until 1857 when Jennie started her education, opening opportunities  for  students of color to have access and formally attend all the Worcester Schools.

According to the public schools records in 1881 she began teaching at the Thomas Street Primary School, which was the Worcester School for Colored Children until the mid-1850s. However, most of the children she taught were Irish, American and just a few percent represented people of color. She continued teaching at the Thomas Street Primary school for eight years with a salary of five hundred dollars per year, while white woman teachers earned a salary of five hundred fifty dollars. In June of 1886, the Thomas Street school held a reunion and Jennie wrote a song for the occasion. The chorus reads: “Welcome, schoolmates! Welcome teachers! Welcome o’er and o’er! We’ll hail with joy each happy day. That brings us here once more”.

Unfortunately, women educators were not allowed to marry. Jennie’s teaching career ended when she married George Alfred Busby on October 18, of 1893. She was courted by her husband for seven years and postponed the date of her engagement to lengthen her career as a teacher. She had two sons in 1895 and 1897. George Busby graduated from the combined English and Commerce High in 1915 and Alan Busby was the first African American to attend the University of Connecticut and earn a bachelor’s degree with honors in 1918.

Jennie Cora Clough is not only  the first African American woman to become a schoolteacher in her city. She also challenged the system of  school teachers in a racially mixed society. She broke a barrier and showed that women of color of any race could function and achieve as  white women did in her classrooms. Her family status, personal traits and ambitions and the connections that his father made were the  elements that helped to gain respect for their family, allowing Jennie to have the opportunity of study at a high school and eventually graduate, Jennie Clough died May 11, 1928, aged 71. She grew up surrounded by persons who inspire  her to complete her education.

Locally and nationally, she was part of an elite group of black professionals as a teacher for 15 years. Jennie Cora Clough had a significant impact on Worcester’s schools system, transforming the lives of women of color, leading educational reforms, motivating activists such as Sara Willson to expand opportunities and amplify the voices of their communities.

She started a new era of possibilities. In her footsteps, her roots were expanded and women of all cultures could have an education. She inspires all of us  to become and build a more inclusive world. Miss Clough  proved  that no matter what our history is, we always can make a change if we make the effort and are willing to confront our challenges.

The spread of African American educators in Worcester public schools continues to expand thanks to her actions. 


Sarah Ella Wilson Portrait hangs in the Library of the Belmont Street School

Sarah Ella Wilson was born in Worcester, the daughter of George M. and Elizabeth (Ray) Wilson, the oldest of six children. The parents were newly freed slaves from North Carolina by Lucy and Sarah Chase, Worcesterites who taught in the South. Sarah Wilson was named for Sarah Chase. “Chase treated her namesake as her protege and introduced her to ‘world an, literature and philosophy’ (in Wilson’s biography by Corrine Bostic. GO ONWARD AND UPWARD! Worcester; Commonwealth Press, 1974.)
Miss Wilson spent her early years in the Elliot Street area. Upon graduating from Worcester Normal School in 1894, she began teaching the first grade at the Belmont Street School in 1895. She herself bad attended this school as a child. One of Worcester’s first black teachers, Miss Wilson was only absent from her post one day, and taught in the same room for forty-nine years, until 1944.
Active in social and civic organizations, Miss Wilson was a member and officer of the
Northeastern Federation of Colored Women, an active member of the Bethel A.M.E.
Church and the Club for Teachers. A charter member of the Women’s Service
Club of the Worcester YWCA, Miss Wilson has been honored by the club each year
since 1955 through a scholarship established in her name at Worcester State College.
She helped found the Home for the Colored and Aged and worked as an auditor, publicity
agent and vice president during its lifespan.

Through the years, the black community of Massachussttes fought many battles to obtain education for people of color. It was  not until April of 1855 that the State of Massachussttes allowed them to integrate their community into public schools. In which any people of different backgrounds, religions or colors could be included.

Sara Ella Wilson was an exceptional educator, whose influence and values persisted and enriched Worcester’s history. Her legacy and actions brought an impact, having dedicated her life to making a difference in the lives of those in her community. Her commitment to education and advocacy for equal opportunities continues today.

Her story embraces her significant contributions to society as a result of her efforts, fights, empowerment, and beliefs. She spent her life working to educate and foster equality.  She was a role model for the careers of the men and women who had the fortune to meet her as her teacher, helping them to become good citizens.                                                                               The educational achievements and determination of Sarah Ella Willson allowed her to challenge gender norms, building the way for next generations of women of color.

Sarah Wilson was born on April 7, 1874, in Worcester, Massachusetts, into a legacy of paperhangers and whiteners. Her father George M. Wilson  started the family business, while her mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Allen Wilson, worked as a laundress. Sara’s mother played a crucial role in shaping her religious beliefs and values, instilling in her a deep faith and love for God. Growing up in Worcester, Sara and her family settled in a predominantly black neighborhood, surrounded by supportive families such as the Early and Laws families.

Sara’s education and influences played a vital role in shaping her intellectual and spiritual development. One person who influenced her beliefs was Sarah Chase who was an activist and teacher who came to Worcester from Kansas to assist in the abolition of slavery. She and her sister Lucy came with Sarah’s parents as new free slaves, after the Emancipation Proclamation was declared. She was supported by her family, and surrounded by good friends and by mentors. Her parents moved all the way from the south to Worcester. They wanted a new start.

Since she was a child,  she wanted to be a teacher.Sarah attended Belmont Community School and later graduated from Worcester English Classical High School in 1887. She then enrolled at the State Normal School in 1890, where she graduated in January, 1894  in the thirty-fourth class. In October of 1894, she accepted the position of assistant teacher at Worcester State Normal School with a salary of 450 per year.                                                   

Throughout  her apprenticeship she gained the necessary knowledge of the profession and practical experience. One year before starting as  an educator, she learned through observation and demonstrated excellence and professionalism.

After her graduation from Worcester Normal School, Sara became a teacher in May, 1895. She began teaching in the first grade of Belmont community school with an average salary of five hundred dollars per year, receiving fifty dollars less than her coworkers. She eventually became a permanent teacher in the city, at a school located just two blocks away from  where she lived.

The educational methods of Sara Ella Wilson were shaped by integrity and wisdom. As an instructor, she was outgoing, imaginative and made her students feel comfortable and empowered at school. She was passionate about music, had outstanding ideas to support her community. She and her students used to sell newspapers at the entry of the school to raise funds to help their community.

Years after becoming a teacher, her mother died in November, 1955. Even so, she continued to extend her education and work to support the community participating in several associations of people of color and women, as one of the most regarded teachers in the community.  Her dedication to education went far beyond the classroom, inspiring many generations to study regardless of their backgrounds, through her words, actions, and knowledge.

Sara dedicated herself to supporting causes and held leadership positions in several clubs and organizations. Miss Willson served as Secretary-Treasurer of the New England Branch of the Northeastern Federation of Women’s Clubs and an active member of the local Negro Woman’s Club Y.W.C.A. She was part of  the Worcester Inter-Racial Council, the teacher’s organization Levana Club, a body of the National Association of Colored Women for twenty-five years, and chaired the Scholarship Committee of the NACW National Association of Colored Women. In addition, she was a member of the Worcester Women’s Progressive Club, the French Club, Phyllis Wealthy Club, vice-president of the Home for Aged Colored People and participant in several musical festivals. Her contributions and involvement in these organizations showcased her commitment to social progress.

Moreover, she assisted frequently with religious celebrations, supporting and donating as an active member of  the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, increasing the size of their association, and also teaching religion to kids on Sundays. She joined the Andrews Methodist community church with the closing of the Bethel A.M.E church.

Sarah taught at Belmont Community School for forty nine years, with only one day off.  As a woman of color in a predominantly white society, Miss Wilson faced numerous challenges throughout her life. She had to confront systemic discrimination and prejudice, both inside and outside of the educational system. In 1910, her father passed away and she was obliged to sell his property and moved to a new house at 4 Pelham St, an area where blacks never lived before. At the time, there were some protests by the neighbors, claiming that her appearance was changing the neighborhood. Despite this, she continued living there with her sister Annie and her nephew Louis. She remained resilient, her determination and perseverance positioned her apart and made her stand out above others.

In her years of service, Sara manifested her values through actions  as educator, officer, a church school teacher, superintendent, pianist, writer, and economic contributor to social causes. At that time, only a few women of color could achieve all of this. Even earlier than Sara, there was a young girl who broke the barriers and stereotypes in a classroom.  She passed her entrance examinations protected by the principal of the school, through her bravery Worcester opened a door of opportunities for people of color in public schools.

In her lifetime, Sara understood the value of education, and what she could accomplish with it. She always tried to raise awareness, encouraged her neighbors, friends and young students to educate themselves, inspiring them to fulfill their potential and pursue a career.                                 During her years as an educator, Miss Willson persistently advocated against discrimination and equal opportunities. Sarah was a woman full of adventure, passionate about music, and lover of the French language. She liked to read books written by black writers that were recognized. She was an excellent example of change along with  Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Elizabeth Carter Brooks.

Miss Willson never married. At the time, women educators were prohibited from marrying. Sarah retired in 1944. She assisted hundreds of her Black students, providing them  motivation, counseling, and even financial aid. Her efforts aimed to empower them to become teachers,doctors, ministers,professionals, and successful individuals who contribute  to society.

Past students of her and outstanding humans such as John S. Laws lived a life inspired by Mrs. Wilson beliefs and values. Like her, he succeeded despite racial segregation and eventually became the first black principal at Worcester public schools. He created a scholarship named in his honor by the program Dynamy John Laws. S. academy, which was created for him to create a path of higher education for diverse groups of students, following the beliefs of her  mentor Sara Ella Wilson.

On December 10 of 1972, the Women’s Service club and the Belmont Community School committee and administration decided to  contribute and name the library of the school in her honor Dr. John S. Law, speaking at the opening ceremony, described Sarah as “Her personality, her sympathy, her empathy, her love, her care, her poise, her alternative listening, her service, her generosity….”

Today, there is a foundation scholarship in honor of her name, for her tireless efforts to embrace  support for women of color. In addition, the YWCA Woman’s Service Club established an annual scholarship in her name and a fund of one thousand dollars was established at Worcester State College in 1971,  as a recognition for her  impact on the institution.

Throughout her 49 years as an educator her activism furthered the progress of equal opportunities for the black community in Worcester. Sarah’s influence extended far beyond those who directly benefited during her years of education. Her  commitment to support others left a big mark on the lives she touched. Through her Christian beliefs and values, the exemplary role to fulfill the idea between black liberation and women’s liberation was possible.

She serves as proof that everyone can have a profound impact, with kindness, honesty and dedication. Her history inspired  new  generations of young women and men, being one of the first black teachers who always advocated for the rights of her community, never remained silent, and knew how to speak up for the less privileged.

INEZ CLOUGH (1873-1933)

Inez Clough’s story serves as a powerful tool to unpack the significant contributions to African American art. Through her groundbreaking work, achievements and unwavering determination she influenced the idea of art in African American women in Worcester. She revolutionized the field of artistic theater, music, and built spots for  women of Color.

Inez was born during 1860 in Worcester Massachusetts, in a highly prominent African American family. Her sister, Jennie Cora Clough, an influential educator in the city of Worcester, is renowned for her remarkable contributions and dedication to shaping young minds and fostering academic growth. As a singer, actress, dancer, and performer, Inez was involved in the artistic world. Clough spent much of her early life in Massachusetts, attending school in Worcester and studying piano and voice in Boston, starting from very young to becoming involved in the theater. Miss Clough learned how to dance as a youngster on the streets of Philadelphia and in amateur contests around the city. She began participating in local musical works in 1896, and as she grew up she included herself in more open theathers, as “Three Plays for a Negro Theater”. 

Her first professional appearance was in a production of Oriental America, her debut as the first black to appear in a legitimate scenery at the theater. Years later, she signed with a company for a tour around Europe in London UK and remained there for ten years. Later, she came back to the United States to continue her career, performing solos in concerts at New York city. One of her first role model was Estela Pickneygh Clough, who gave concerts in New England, mostly Worcester and  New York. They were often confused with each other. Years later, Inez became a trained concert singer and pianist. Thanks to her appearances in “The reader of dreams” and “ Granny Maumee” , she was nominated by the critics as one of the most distinguished performers at New York concerts.               

One of the major achievements of her career occurred when the production of black musicals declined after 1909. James Weldon Johnson singled out Clough for high praise of her performances. In the book, Weldon is quoted as marking April 17, 1917, as “the date of the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American theater.” On that date “Three Plays for a Negro Theater”, had opened on Broadway with Clough, playing one of the leads”. She also performed in the production “Shuffle Along” at the 63rd Street Music Hall, marking the return of all-black musical shows to Broadway after nearly a decade-long silence. She was known for “The Gunsaulus Mystery” in 1921, “Ties of Blood” 1921, and “Secret Sorrow” in 1921. After a long period of performance and concerts for which this was recognized by the public and critics, Inez married Henry Hogan. In July 1922, Clough joined the road show of “Shuffle Along”. One of the highlights of her tenure was the show at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C.She participated in production of “The Chocolate Dandies” a Broadway musical in two acts that opened September 1, 1924, at the New Colonial Theatre and ran for 96 performances – finishing on November 22, 1924.

Even though she received multiple critical praises, she received less pay than some of their classmates. Her average salary was 75$, while some of their classmates received 150$. The scarcity of black musicals on Broadway during the 1910s resulted largely in segregation of the theatrical community.

At that time, there was a lack of black dramatists, actresses and performers. Besides the difficult era, when there was no theater work for her, Clough gave, belonging to a close circle of African American actresses, who supported and encouraged each other in an uncertain discriminatory labor environment.  She gave concerts in New England and overcame the adversities of lack of opportunities for African American.                       Clough retired from show business in the late 1920s. Years later Inez had appeared in movies, such as “The Simpp and Ties of Blood”, and “Earth by Em Jo Basshe”.Finally in 1932, she played her last movie, “The Crimson Frog”.   

Her contributions and impact on the movements, and theater industries helped to initiate laboral opportunities for people of Color in the USA. She was essential in promoting legitimate theatrical performing as a viable choice for African Americans.

Throughout her career, Miss Clough was part of several movies who represented the African American struggle during the period of reconstruction in the 1800. In the 1930’ Clough participated in radio interviews, commercials and popular TV programs. She  prospered and possessed a status equal to any other woman in her profession. Despite her skin color, and the challenges she faced, Inez knew how to handle adversity and find success across the indirect discrimination that she suffered during her career. People referred to her as “An outstanding and versatile actress-singer of the concert, musical, vaudeville and dramatic stage, who appeared in several landmark shows during her long career.”

What we can learn from her attitudes is her courage and bravery. She played leading roles, and helped to form the background of interest for the latest appearance of African American plays in theater. The productions in which she was part as an illustrious participant were among the pioneer efforts that demonstrated the artistic possibilities of Black community in theaters. Most of their roles had to do with the struggle of their community, desiring their way of living and expressing passions and motivations through art, acting, singing, dancing and interpreting in theaters.

She was a woman who cared about the progress of her community, she made a difference for people of color in Worcester. Miss Clough participated in newspapers promoting beauty products for colored women, as a role model for girls who wanted to follow her footsteps.   

Inez Clough died of peritonitis on November 21, 1933 in Elgin, Illinois, USA. Her approach to work, leadership, and activism, along with her performances, challenged the legitimate theater at that time. Her art astonished  the critics and the public all over New England from 1880 to 1930. Inez’s story  empowers future generations, especially young women who wanted to pursue an artistic and musical career. As many other brave women of color, she supplied and embraced her community through churches, clubs and fraternities, working to make progress for other young women of color to be able to succeed in the American and European theaters, while other Worcester women have made an impact in education, Inez changed the perspective of the lives of the people in the theater community.


For Jennie, Sara and Inez adjusted the definition of artists, educators and professionals landscape of women of color in Worcester. Their circumstances to show the progress of Black Women in education, arts, music and professional opportunities  were profoundly impacted by the actions of these women. They worked hard to overcome the limits and adversities of their time. Their different attitudes and experiences promoted inclusion. The racial and discriminatory system in which they grew up and developed their careers, involved them in a constant struggle of self-superation, serving as inspiration for all of us.

All of them had a strong sense of perseverance. Their  borders and limits were sub-estimated. These stories are examples of how women of color could fit into a white supremacist system and segregated environment, challenging the accepted system through their life’s careers and professions.

The obstacles that they overcame and all of their hard work made them succeed in a world in which all the factors were against them. They developed methods to challenge and build a better life for themselves and their families. Through these strategies, many other women of color could work to bring a change for the future.

The success Miss Clough and Miss Willson achieved was incredible, their role played an important role in expanding access to education and work opportunities in the community. They fought both indirect and direct racial segregation in Worcester. Jennie was one of the first Black educators in the city. Sarah, among the others, stands out for her nobility, wisdom and charisma at the time to teach her students and inspire them to convert them into good professionals. On the other hand, Inez spent her formative years studying at school and preparing herself for her first acting roles. She never gave up, despite the isolation and different treatment that she received through her career. She continued working as double as her classmates to give a spot and a voice for future African American singers, and actresses.

Now, we are able to see and expect art from people from different backgrounds and diverse traditions that inspire us and bring entertainment and laughs to our families.  

These women were a source of moral support and served as a model for young women of color who wanted to be teachers, singers or artists. They were key figures in the development and improvement of women’s rights, and equal access to opportunities.

Through their dedication, they brought education for women of color to Worcester and started a new era of possibilities.

Worcester has a long history of women fighting for equal opportunities. Their legacy persists in all of us and continues to allow us to learn from them. I believe that we as a community should encourage one another in sharing, researching, and spreading awareness about historical figures who opened up employment and educational opportunities for diminished communities in Worcester.


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