Battle Creek

Women influencers in Battle Creek made history

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Women have always played a major role in Battle Creek’s history, but recognition of their accomplishments and contributions hasn’t always reflected their importance, says Emily Powell, Education, and Outreach Manager for Kingman Museum.
Trained as a Historical Archaeologist, Powell says,” We can see how we grew as a community by looking at the ways people made decisions to get us here. Women of course have always been influencers in Battle Creek, playing powerful roles in defining and enriching our culture, but we choose who to prioritize as our heroes and who to learn from.”
While little focus was given to women in history before and which is the reason many are relatively unknown, these women are being studied more today because more women now are looking for historic mentors, Powell says.
“We are looking for ourselves in the historic timeline, to connect our personal experiences with others in the past to help make decisions, connect to our surroundings, and gain inspiration. With women as advisors and role models, we can be effectively challenged and energized for our own work in Battle Creek today,” Powell says. “We can ask, 'How did they get around this? How did she balance that?' to find answers not found in the tomes of men. We like to say 'If you can see it, you can be it.' Focusing on women's achievement in the past can elevate girls and motivate women to become leaders in the future.”
Powell says that it’s important to point out that Battle Creek is a diverse city, full of entrepreneurs, artists, laborers, and teachers, all with rich voices and perspectives, “And women's lives differ dramatically, as well, because of race, ethnicity, class background, also level of education and sexual orientation. Choosing to research and exhibit more varied stories, previously ignored, can further capsulate the real story of Battle Creek, a microcosm to then understanding the nation.”
As part of On the Ground Battle Creek’s coverage of Women’s History Month, we are highlighting three women who secured their places in the city’s history for very different reasons. Their stories were captured and preserved by the Historical Society of Battle Creek.
Vernie Merze Tate
Vernie Merze Tate was a professor, scholar, and expert on United States diplomacy. She was the first African-American graduate of Western Michigan Teachers College, now Western Michigan University, the first African-American woman to attend the University of Oxford, the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in government and international relations from Harvard University (then Radcliffe College), as well as one of the first two female members to join the Department of History at Howard University.
Tate, who was born in 1905, in Rolland Township, began her schooling at Rolland Township Elementary School Number Five. At age 13 she entered Blanchard High School. This high school was destroyed by fire and students had to attend makeshift classrooms in area buildings. Due to inadequate educational facilities, students graduated at the end of the tenth grade. Merze Tate was the youngest and only African-American graduate in her class and was selected valedictorian.
This, however, was unsatisfactory for college entrance, so she enrolled in Battle Creek High School where she maintained a straight-A average. As she was only enrolled in the school for two years, she could not be class valedictorian. She did win the Hynman Oratorical Contest which included an award of $50. After graduation Merze applied to the former Western Michigan Teacher’s College and was awarded a tuition scholarship.
After completing the teacher's training program at the former Western Michigan Teacher's College, Tate taught at an elementary school in Cass County. During this time she continued her education by taking correspondence courses and returned to Western Michigan to complete her Bachelor of Arts degree in three years while maintaining the highest grade average of her classmates. In 1927, she became the first African-American to earn a bachelor's degree from the institution. She was also elected to the National Social Science Honor Society.
Despite her excellent academic career, Tate could not find employment in the state. At that time, Michigan would not hire African American teachers in its secondary schools. Tate received assistance from administrators at Western Michigan and was able to find a teaching position at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. While teaching, Tate took a part-time master's degree at Columbia. In 1932, she won an Alpha Kappa Alpha scholarship to study at Oxford University where she took a Bachelor of Letters in International Relations in 1935. She matriculated as a Home Student of St Anne's College and was the first African-American woman member of Oxford University. Subsequently, she gained a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
In 1936, she became the history and social science department chairman at Bennett College for women, also in North Carolina, where she taught for four years. She also spent a year at what is now Morgan State University, where she taught political science and was dean of women, before joining the faculty of Howard University.
Tate would have several other notable positions which only further cemented her place in Battle Creek’s history. She passed away in 1996 at the age of 91.
Claire Briggs
Claire Briggs became Battle Creek’s first female City Commissioner in 1925. At the time, she was in her mid-50s and single and was a fixture in local clubs that worked to make the city a better place for its residents.
Her election broke the glass ceiling for many women in Battle Creek who went on to become city commissioners and mayors, including Susan Baldwin; Kaytee Faris; Kate Flores; Lynn Ward Gray; and Deb Owens. However, it would take 50 years after Briggs’ election to create a groundswell of women seeking election to public office and it happened when Mary T. Short was elected in 1971 to serve on the City Commission.
In an interview with the former Enquirer & News, the city’s local newspaper at the time, Briggs said she never had aspirations of seeking an elected position in politics or in women’s organizations, including the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Battle Creek Women’s Club of which she was a member and the local chapter of the American Association of University Women which she co-founded.
“My question was not a question of sex or political affiliation, but I entered this race upon the conviction that any citizen who enjoys the privileges of a good city and its protection should if called upon, do (her) part toward making that city a desirable place in which to live that would be  progressive, prosperous and attractive,” Briggs said in the newspaper story about her.
When nomination packets were pulled for Briggs, another unidentified woman had expressed interest in running but considered the race too late. The League of Women Voters at the time ensured that a woman was named to every precinct to collect signatures. Briggs was an LWV member.
She faced opposition to her candidacy from women and men with one man saying that “women belonged with children and only men should be involved in politics.”
Briggs' determination to make her way on her own terms appears to have been forged early on when she graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry from the University of Michigan at a time when few women attended college. After graduating, she was a supervisor of Drawing courses in the city’s schools and had a patent for a toothbrush. She also was active in registering local women to work for the war effort during World War I.
Upon her death in 1936 at the age of 67, the Enquirer & News called Briggs “one of the best-known residents and clubwomen of the community.”
Berenice Bryant Lowe
For Berenice Bryant Lowe recording and preserving Battle Creek’s history was a true passion.
Lowe, who passed away in 1983 at age 87, was a local historian, collector of rare books and manuscripts, and local history writer. She received a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Michigan and became interested in researching and writing about local history in the 1930s, according to information on the university’s Bentley Historical Library.
In the early 1950s, she started actively collecting historic materials as part of her research. She also gave public talks and wrote historical essays on Battle Creek history and its famous residents, in particular, about Sojourner Truth, who lived in Michigan (mostly in Battle Creek) from 1857-1883. Lowe authored several newspaper articles dedicated to Truth and her life in Michigan. She donated her Sojourner Truth research materials and collected items to Bentley Historical Library in 1962.
In addition to the newspaper articles about Truth, Lowe authored many other articles dedicated to Battle Creek history and authored two books "Hello Michigan" (with Leland W. Singer, 1939) and "Tales of Battle Creek" (1976).
She never accepted payment for the countless hours she devoted to ensuring that the city’s history would be accessible to future generations and historians.
In an article published in 1982 in the former Kaleidoscope magazine, Lowe said, “I do everything for free that has to do with history.”
Any money she was given for her talks went into an endowment fund at the Kimball House Museum which also has the rights to Tales of Battle Creek.
She was a life member of the Kimball House Museum, newsletter writer and editor for the Battle Creek Historical Society, served on the Calhoun County Historical Commission, was a former trustee of the Michigan Historical Society, and a past state fellowship chairman of the American Association of University Women.
Her dedication to her work earned her awards from the American Association for State and Local History, Historical Society of Michigan, National Organization for Women, Daughters of the American Revolution, Battle Creek Chapter of The National Association of Negro Business, and Professional Women's Clubs, among other awards.
Fannie Sprague Talbot
Fannie Sprague Talbot was Battle Creek’s first female newspaper reporter, according to information provided by the Historical Society of Battle Creek.
Her mother made arrangements with George Willard, Publisher of the Battle Creek Journal, the city’s first newspaper, for Fannie to work there. She began her job in 1895 as a regular assignment reporter making a weekly salary of $3. She also worked for the former Moon-Journal from 1915-1940 as the head of its Society Desk covering clubs and social agencies. That newspaper was the result of a merger of two publications.
“That was before such an adjunct as a society editor had been thought of,” Talbot recounted. “I was to enter a man’s world and do varied tasks. Having a bicycle I was deemed well-equipped for sprinting all over town to fires, accidents, anywhere at any time. In that early day, reporters went out after news. There was a telephone on the wall but it was too unhandy for all except short calls.”
Personals, she says in the information collected by the Historical Society, were top news. She also covered club meetings, weddings, and other social events.
“Each Sunday some church service had to be attended for a review of their sermon,” Talbot said.
Her first interview was with Dr. Henry Tanner, who was famous for his 40-day fasts. Talbot said, “He was at the Battle Creek Sanitarium and greeted me wearing a bathrobe and carpet slippers.”
The first funeral she covered was that of Pump Arnold. She recounted that he died while on reprieve for ill health from Jackson State Prison where he was remanded after being sentenced for the murder of his only son.
Among the major stories she covered was the ex-communication in 1906 of John Harvey Kellogg, two sanitarium chaplains, and other major figures from the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
Talbot married Robert Talbot in 1898 after meeting him during a reporting assignment.
During World War I she sent weekly columns containing Camp Custer social news to the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, Kalamazoo Gazette, and other area papers. She stayed with the Moon-Journal until it folded in 1940 and was a contributing writer to the Battle Creek Enquirer.
In addition to straight reporting, Talbot wrote poems, children’s stories, and columns for magazines.
Talbot died in 1957 at the age of 83 from a stroke, but her legacy as a reporter and chronicler of Battle Creek at the turn of the 20th century lives on. 

To learn more about the groundbreaking women of Calhoun County, consider attending Phenomenal Woman: A Celebration of Great Women of History -- Calhoun County, held at the Battle Creek Regional History Museum, 307 Jackson Street West in Battle Creek, on Saturday, March 25 from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information, check this LINK.
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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.