Elizabeth Piper Ensley (1847–1919) was a political activist and reformer who worked throughout her life for gender and racial equality. The daughter and wife of formerly enslaved people, she came to Colorado in 1887 and soon helped lead the first successful campaign for statewide women’s suffrage in 1893, serving as treasurer of the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association of Colorado. She continued to work for nationwide voting rights for women and contributed to countless clubs in which women of color built communal resilience in Colorado and across the country in the early twentieth century.
Born on January 19, 1847, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Elizabeth Piper grew up surrounded by abolitionists and formerly enslaved people. Elizabeth’s father, Philip Piper, escaped enslavement in Virginia with his parents and siblings around 1828. In New Bedford, his family helped raise funds for abolitionist organizations and housed people fleeing enslavement. Elizabeth’s mother, Jane, and her mother’s sister, Helen, arrived in New Bedford as young children in more complicated circumstances. In 1834, their father, Patrick Gibson, sent the girls north with their mother, Betsey, to receive an education unavailable to them near the Georgia plantation where he enslaved them and more than 100 other people. Well-known abolitionists Nathan and Mary “Polly” Johnson agreed to take in and educate the girls, who received financial support and gifts from Gibson until his sudden death in 1837. His heir tried various schemes to reenslave Betsey and her daughters, but the New Bedford abolitionist community refused to surrender its new residents. Before leaving the Johnsons’ house in early 1840, Betsey, Jane, and Helen shared the space with several other recently enslaved people, including Frederick and Anna Douglass.
Elizabeth Piper attended the West Newton English and Classical School in Newton, Massachusetts, and boarded with its founder and principal, Nathaniel T. Allen, a prominent educator, abolitionist, and philanthropist dedicated to social and educational reform, including racially integrated and mixed-gender schools. Allen also believed in travel as a means of education. In 1869 he brought several pupils, including Piper, to Europe along with his family and friends. For two years, Piper attended European schools and traveled with the Allens. After returning in 1871, she moved to Trenton, New Jersey, and taught at the Ringgold Public School, where she also served as principal before returning to Boston in 1874.
On the north slope of Beacon Hill, the heart of Boston’s thriving Black community, Piper lived with her mother and stepfather, George W. Lowther, a formerly enslaved North Carolinian turned hairdresser and Massachusetts legislator. For three years, Piper ran the Berkeley Circulating Library. She joined the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union in its inaugural year; the group’s mission included promoting “fellowship among women” and “securing their educational, industrial, and social advancement.” In this spirit she attended art school from 1880 to 1882, during which she also served as a codirector of the Boston Central School Suffrage Club.
Newell Houston Ensley also started life enslaved. Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1852, he called his maternal grandfather “master” for thirteen years. After emancipation, Newell excelled in school, graduating from Nashville Baptist Institute in 1877, Roger Williams University in 1878, and Newton Theological Seminary in Massachusetts in 1881. He immediately went to work, teaching theology and Latin at Shaw University, a historically Black school in Raleigh, North Carolina. After a year in Raleigh, he returned to Boston, where he married Elizabeth Piper on September 2, 1882. The couple moved to Washington, DC, and taught in the teachers’ school at Howard University. The next summer, the Ensleys returned to Boston, where Elizabeth Ensley gave birth to the couple’s first child, Roger, in August 1883. With a professorship in rhetoric and sciences awaiting Newell Ensley at Alcorn State University, the young family quickly moved again to Lorman, Mississippi. There, and at speaking engagements throughout the country, Newell Ensley delivered speeches in support of “The Rights of Women,” “Temperance,” and “The Rights of the Negro.” Meanwhile, Elizabeth Ensley gave birth to a second child, Charlotte, in 1885.
The family soon faced tragedy. At some point during the next two years in Mississippi, Newell Ensley contracted tuberculosis. Seeking relief, he moved his family to Denver in 1887. Elizabeth Ensley gave birth to a third child, Jean, in March 1888. In May, Newell Ensley died. Jean died the next month. Elizabeth Ensley had them interred in what quickly turned into a family plot at Riverside Cemetery. Little information survives to indicate how Elizabeth Ensley managed over the next few years as a single mother of two young children.
In 1890 Ensley became involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage in Colorado. After an earlier statewide referendum for women’s suffrage failed in 1877, the women’s suffrage movement in the state had smoldered for several years. By 1890, however, sparks of enthusiasm from across the country reignited the voting rights campaign in Colorado. In April six women met in Denver to raise money for the Equal Rights Campaign of South Dakota. A month later, Ensley accompanied Louise M. Tyler to the group’s second meeting. A recent transplant from Boston, Tyler carried a letter from Lucy Stone and the newly formed National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) encouraging Colorado women to establish a local branch. With that mandate, and two new members, the Colorado Equal Suffrage Association began to formally organize. Ensley was the only woman of color in the group.
In 1893 the organization had only twenty-eight members, but it successfully lobbied the Colorado General Assembly to put women’s suffrage back on the ballot. During the referendum campaign, the Colorado Equal Suffrage Association took a new name, the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association (NPESA), and made Ensley its treasurer. Starting with a balance of just twenty-five dollars, she managed to sustain NPESA’s statewide campaign for women’s suffrage on meager means. On November 7, 1893, Colorado became the first state in the country to enfranchise women by popular referendum.
Ensley and other Colorado suffragists did not stop there. They sought to take the successful Colorado campaign nationwide. Ensley served as a delegate to the NAWSA national convention in 1894, on the NPESA executive committee for some time thereafter, and as NPESA treasurer again in 1902 and 1906. By then, she was also expanding her civic engagement.
Ensley dedicated much of the rest of her life to organizations that sought to empower Black Americans, particularly Black women. For Woman’s Era, a publication of the National Association of Colored Women, Ensley reported on the 1894 statewide election, the first to include female voters. She noted the “special part the colored women have taken in the election,” including by helping elect Joseph H. Stuart of Denver, one of the first Black representatives in the state. In 1902 Ensley helped establish the National Afro-American Council, and in 1904 she founded the Colorado Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. She also worked on behalf of the National Lincoln-Douglass Sanatorium and Hospital Association in Denver. As its financial agent, she successfully raised the capital to establish a thirteen-room hospital for Black Denverites. As a member of the hospital’s board of directors, she helped manage it from 1912 until she took over as secretary a few years later.
By the mid-1910s, Ensley was a recognized leader. In 1915 she was elected president of the Women’s League of Denver. In 1918 she helped the Colorado Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs host the National Federation’s convention in Denver by contributing her proven expertise on the finance committee.
Elizabeth Piper Ensley died on February 23, 1919, mere months before the US Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment affirming women’s voting rights and sent it to the states for ratification. She is buried in Riverside Cemetery. After a lifetime of standing up for and working on behalf of strangers, Ensley left a legacy of racial integration, gender equity, and community building. In 2020 she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.