Lucy Thurman was perhaps the most prominent black woman temperance activist in the Midwest. When we think of temperance we think, “Oh those mean old ladies that didn’t want us to drink”. After watching Ken Burns "Prohibition" I realized in reality prohibition was actually a women’s rights issue. These are the days when it was legal to beat your wife with a switch no wider than your thumb. Many men of the era got raving drunk and did more than that. This is before alcoholism was seen as a disease and with no Alcoholics Anonymous for those with troubles to turn to, alcohol-related violence ran rampant.
Lucy Thurman is in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, the other Jackson native being Ella Sharp, because she was instrumental in getting African American women involved in the temperance movement as these were still segregated times even in the north. She also championed educational opportunities, voting rights, nutrition and sanitation for women.
Lucinda Thurman was born near Toronto, Canada in 1849. Even as a child she loved to give speeches and left home at the age of 17 determined to elevate her race. She first taught at a school in Maryland for three years where she met many prominent black activists including lifelong friend Fredrick Douglass. She then moved to Jackson, Michigan where she married. She lectured throughout the country on the subject of temperance and was the President of the Jackson County Women’s Christian Temperance Union. It took her 10 years to convince the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to establish a National Department of Colored Work to which she was named Superintendent in 1893.
The Thurman’s beautiful home in Jackson served to entertain many distinguished people including Fredrick Douglass.
(Photo: Michigan Manual of Freedmen's Progress | Western Michigan University Libraries)
The Lucy Thurman Branch of the Detroit YWCA for ‘colored’ girls and women was named in her honor and opened in 1933. It is said that for many years, the Lucy Thurman Branch was the only place in Detroit where blacks and whites could meet and dine together in dignity.