Historic Kalamazoo Women

Mamie Austin
Five women who made history in Kalamazoo

More than 30 years ago, the U.S. Congress declared March Women’s History Month to bring to light the contributions women have made over the years. In honor of this annual remembrance, I was asked to highlight women pivotal to Kalamazoo’s history.

Women have played a role in every aspect of Kalamazoo’s history, whether it be education, arts and entertainment, business and industry, government and politics, health care or religion. Fortunately, these days we have diaries, letters, newspapers, photographs and other documentary evidence that help tell their stories. Choosing a select few to feature is an incredibly difficult task because there are so many, many more who could be included, but here are five:

Pamela Brown Thomas (1817-1909)

Born in Vermont, Pamela Brown came with her family in 1833 to Kalamazoo County’s Prairie Ronde, where she taught school. In 1840 she married the county’s first physician, Dr. Nathan Thomas of Schoolcraft. She knew that he had been aiding escaping slaves traveling to Canada and that his house was a station on the Underground Railroad. While raising her family, she never knew from day to day how many people might be coming. She spent the next 20 years providing food and shelter for the escaped slaves before they went on to the next stop, in Battle Creek. She knew that she and her husband were violating federal law and could lose everything. After slavery ended, she wrote that she was proud of the role she played in helping an estimated 1,000–1,500 people find freedom.

Caroline Bartlett Crane (1858-1935)

When the Rev. Caroline Bartlett Crane came to Kalamazoo in 1889 to head the First Unitarian Church, the community did not know what a force they were getting. Under Crane’s leadership, the renamed People’s Church began a number of programs, like kindergarten, study groups and services to labor groups, minorities and women, that were later adopted by other entities. After leaving the ministry in 1898, she embarked on a career of civic service, working on social issues like meat inspection, poorhouses, prisons, women’s suffrage and old-age security. She inspected 62 cities in nine years, issuing reports on city services and institutions and making recommendations for improvement. In 1924, she won the Better Homes in America Contest for Everyman’s House, a Westnedge Hill home she designed and had built for the average American family and with the needs of a mother in mind. Her papers are in the Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections.

Lucinda Hinsdale Stone (1814-1900)

Education for all women was a central mission for Stone. After completing her studies in Vermont, she traveled to Mississippi to be a governess, and her time there reinforced her opposition to slavery. She came to Kalamazoo in 1843 with her husband, Dr. James A.B. Stone — he to head the Kalamazoo Literary Institute, now Kalamazoo College, and she to lead the institute’s Female Department. Even though men and women were to have separate classes, the Stones were firm believers in co-education. Along with starting her own school and taking female students to Europe, Lucinda Stone also was instrumental in the decision to allow women to enter the University of Michigan in the 1870s. She also promoted women’s clubs like the Ladies’ Library Association as a way for members to continue their education.

Marilyn “Mamie” Austin (1887-1949)

Mamie Austin’s contributions live on in the photographs that she took of this community during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Born in Watervliet, Austin came to Kalamazoo at 13 when her father, George, a photographer, became the manager and owner of a portrait studio. Mamie worked at his studio, eventually becoming its owner, after her father’s death in 1923. The studio closed about 10 years later, and Mamie got a job at the Kalamazoo Public Library through the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program. Her responsibilities included photographing various sites in the community so that the photos could be developed and circulated. Her unique images of businesses, industries, schools, parks, buildings, houses and hospitals, which can be found at the Kalamazoo Public Library, document life in Kalamazoo during these years when not many images exist.

Merze Tate (1905-1996)

Born near Mt. Pleasant, Merze Tate came to Kalamazoo to earn a teaching certificate from Western State Normal School, now Western Michigan University. After teaching in Cass County, Tate returned to Western, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1927. Three administrators at the school, including Dwight Waldo, assisted with her search to find a high school position in Indiana after no school in Michigan would hire her because she was black. She later earned a master’s degree from Columbia University, in New York City, and attended Oxford University, in England, becoming the first African-American to receive a degree from this institution. She also received a doctorate from Harvard University and spent more than 20 years as an educator at Howard University. She was a world traveler, and her interests included international relations, diplomacy and arms limitations. She never forgot WMU, giving funds for scholarships, endowments and the Merze Tate Grant and Innovation Center.

Lynn Houghton

Lynn Houghton is the regional history curator of the Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collection. She leads the Gazelle Sports Historic Walks, a series of free architectural and historic walks at various locations in Kalamazoo County that happen during summer and fall, and she is the co-author of Kalamazoo Lost and Found, a book on Kalamazoo history and architecture. She also participated in the PBS documentary series 10 That Changed America, about the history of architecture and urban planning. She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from WMU and a master’s in library and information science from Wayne State University.

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