Charlotte “Lottie” Wilson and Family

 Lottie Wilson portrait - Copy
Portrait of Lottie Wilson

As a well-respected artist of her time, Wilson’s voice was extremely important for other African American women, who were not well represented in the women’s progressive movement. Yet her story and her most famous painting remained largely unknown until recently.

Wilson Family in Niles

Charlotte “Lottie” Wilson was born in 1854 to Calvin and Henrietta (Hill) Wilson. Over time she became a nationally known artist and activist whose works were displayed throughout the eastern United States.

Lottie Wilson’s father, Calvin, was born in Halifax County, Virginia in 1828 and moved to Niles in the late 1840s. Henrietta was born in Piketon, Ohio in 1836 to parents Henry and Elizabeth Hill.    The Hill family moved to the area in 1846.

Calvin and Henrietta married on January 6, 1853.  Calvin operated a barbershop in downtown Niles and Henrietta worked as a hair dresser at the shop. Mr. Wilson was a charter member of the Niles Harrison Lodge, the first African American masonic lodge in the state of Michigan.

Lottie’s parents were involved in early civil rights efforts. In 1867, the Michigan Legislature prohibited segregation in the state’s public schools. In response to this, the local Niles Republican newspaper issued an article voicing concerns about integration at the newly built Union School. In response, a group of local African Americans formed a coalition called the Colored Citizens of Niles, chaired by Calvin Wilson, to advocate for better schools for their own children. Shortly after the meeting, Calvin Wilson sent the resolutions agreed upon by the coalition to the local Niles Weekly-Times newspaper:

We further respectfully protest against the use of the Brick building No.1 as a place unfit for school purposes, being without playground for boys or girls, and other necessary conveniences and we solicit the board to give us one of the Brick school houses lately built and furnish us good teachers, for we consider all the schools in the Niles district as Union Schools and should be looked after with equal interest and zeal. ­­
Niles Weekly- Times, 1867

The article ends with the plea, “give us justice is all we ask.” In response, Niles constructed a new school building for the city’s African American students. Ferry Street School opened on the corner of 7th and Ferry Streets in 1868. In 1871, Niles integrated all the public schools in their district. The schoolhouse is still standing and today the building serves as the Ferry Street Resource Center, providing connections to education, employment and social services.

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Lottie’s father Calvin Wilson operated a barber shop on Main Street in downtown Niles.
The barber pole and sign for his shop are visible in this picture.

Lottie Wilson’s Professional Career and Activism

The talented Lottie Wilson was the first African American to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Primarily a portrait and landscape painter, she was also known to dabble in the painting of fine china, needlework and sculpting. Wilson taught classes in oil painting, pastels, ceramics, drawing and conservation. She created busts and paintings of important historical figures, including Frederick Douglas, Phillis Wheatley and Crispus Attucks.

Aside from her professional career, Lottie Wilson actively campaigned for women’s suffrage, holding talks at churches and art studios. African American women were not always welcome in white-led suffrage organizations and events so they organized their own groups. Wilson was an active member of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), formed in 1896. The organization fought not only for suffrage, but also for equal rights for African Americans. Wilson served as the first art superintendent for the NACW and organized exhibits for their national conventions.

Lottie Wilson served as a delegate to the 1899 National American Women’s Suffrage Association Convention. Here she proposed an amendment protesting the policy of separate railroad coaches for African American women in the South. African American women were not allowed access to separate ladies’ coaches, but had to travel in cars with men, placing them in vulnerable positions. After a lively discussion, Susan B. Anthony unfairly declared the issue beyond the scope of the organization. The amendment was tabled on the grounds that it did not directly relate to women’s suffrage.

Although Wilson’s work led her across the country and abroad, she returned to Niles often. In 1906, she married Daniel Moss and moved back permanently to her hometown. She continued to exhibit her work and hold classes at her home on the corner of Fifth and Ferry Streets until her death on January 16, 1914.

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Advertisement printed in the Niles Daily Star on January 12, 1906.
Wilson held exhibits and classes at her family home on the corner of 5th and Ferry Streets.

Lottie Wilson’s Best-Known Work

Lottie Wilson’s best-known work, titled “President Lincoln with a Former Slave” depicts the historic 1864 meeting between Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth. Wilson presented this piece to President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in 1902. The painting then hung in the White House for a time, making her one of the first African American artists to have work displayed there.

In the 1980s, a conservator in Washington DC stumbled upon Wilson’s painting and reached out to the Niles community. Descendants of Lottie Wilson still live in Niles and had kept her memory alive through family lore. Through the research efforts of Alice Findley Brown, the artist and her story resurfaced. The Niles District Library purchased the painting in 1982. It is currently on display at the Fort St. Joseph Museum.

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“President Lincoln with a Former Slave”

Lottie Wilson (1854-1914) is buried at Silverbrook Cemetery with her children, Dennis Daisy (July 22-September 1, 1876) and Caletta Huggart (1874-1885) and parents, Calvin (1828-1902) and Henrietta (1836-1905).

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In 2016, Lottie Wilson was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.
Patricia Gresham, a relative of Wilson’s, accepted the award on behalf of her family. Gresham’s mother, Alice Findley Brown, conducted extensive research on Lottie Wilson’s, uncovering a lot of important information on her personal life and trailblazing career as an artist and activist.