Last updated: January 16, 2023
Remembered as someone "pointed and convincing in speech, winning in manner, [and] overpowering in appeal,"1 community and religious leader Eliza Ann Gardner exemplified the social activist tradition within Black churches.
Born in New York in 1831, Eliza Gardner moved with her family to the West End community of Boston during her youth. Attending the Abiel Smith School, Gardner came of age in Beacon Hill’s center of abolition. Historian Hallie Quinn Brown noted, "[Eliza Gardner’s] home was a veritable 'Bethel,' being one of the stations of the famous 'Underground Railroad.'"2 During this time, Gardner became acquainted with local and national anti-slavery leaders, including William Lloyd Garrison, Lewis and Harriet Hayden, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman.3
Eliza Gardner also grew up actively involved in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church. She started teaching Sunday school in 1865, eventually becoming Boston's Sunday school superintendent in the 1880s.4 During this time, Gardner assumed other leadership positions in the regional AME Zion Church. She served in the Daughters of Conference, which raised money to support ministers and erect churches, and she organized AME Zion Woman’s Home and Foreign Missionary Society, a women-run organization that supported missionaries.5 Through this work, Gardner supported equality for women in religious institutions, particularly within the church hierarchy. She grew frustrated with male church leaders who often opposed women taking on leadership positions or diminished women's contributions. Gardner protested this injustice in the 1884 AME Zion Church’s General Conference:
...if you commence to talk about the superiority of men, if you persist in telling us that after the fall of man we were put under your feet and that we are intended to be subject to your will, we cannot help you in New England one bit.6
As Gardner became a respected leader in the AME Zion Church, she also grew as a community leader in Boston. Eliza Gardner became one of the founding members of the Boston-based Black women’s club, the Woman’s Era Club.7 Working alongside Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Maria Baldwin, Florida Ridley, and others, Gardner helped organize the first National Conference for Colored Women in America in 1895, serving as the convention’s chaplain.8
Gardner continued to blend her religious and moral leadership with her social activism, contributing to the temperance, women’s rights, and anti-lynching movements.9 In the early 1900s, Gardner often spoke at events that commemorated the abolitionist era of her youth, during which she adeptly related the past struggles of Black Americans to the current discrimination they faced. At a 1917 event honoring the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Gardner, over 90 years old at the time, gave some remarks that echoed this tone:
The North...met with defeat in the civil war until it called on the black man, and yet after all the sacrifices of our race he is not considered worthy of this companionship of the whites. Yet as there was no victory without us in the past, so there will be none without us in the future.10
Eliza Gardner died in 1922, after many decades of service to her religious and social communities.
- William J. Walls, The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: Reality of the Black Church (A.M.E. Zion Pub. House, 1974).
- Several sources note that her family home served as a site on the Underground Railroad. It is unclear whether this may have been her family’s first home on North Grove Street, or a later home on North Anderson Street. Hallie Quinn Brown appears to reference the North Anderson Street home as the Underground Railroad location. See Hallie Quinn Brown, Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction (Xenia, Ohio: The Aldine Publishing Company, 1926), accessed March 2021, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/brownhal/brownhal.html.
- Brown, Homespun Heroines, 117-118.
- ”Gardner, Eliza Ann,” African-American Religious Leaders, ed. Nathan Aaseng (Infobase Publishing, 2014), 81-82; “Eliza Ann Gardner,“ Notable Black American Women, ed. Jessie Carney Smith (Gale Research, 1992), 239-240.
- Bettye Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010), 35-37; “Eliza Ann Gardner,“ Notable Black American Women, ed. Jessie Carney Smith (Gale Research, 1992), 239-240; Walls, The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: Reality of the Black Church.
- As quoted in “Eliza Ann Gardner,“ Notable Black American Women, ed. Jessie Carney Smith (Gale Research, 1992), 239-240.
- Brown, Homespun Heroines, 117-118; “Eliza Ann Gardner,“ Notable Black American Women, ed. Jessie Carney Smith (Gale Research, 1992), 239-240.
- "A History of the Club Movement Among the Colored Women of the United States of America," National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (District of Columbia: National Association of Colored Women Clubs, 1902); “Eliza Ann Gardner,“ Notable Black American Women, ed. Jessie Carney Smith (Gale Research, 1992), 239-240.
- Brown, Homespun Heroines, 117-118; ”Boston,” The Boston Traveler, March 18, 1876; ”Colored Women After Votes,” Boston Herald, September 08, 1891; “They Protest in Mass Meeting” Boston Globe, August 30, 1894. Gardner also worked within the Woman’s Era Club on anti-lynching efforts, see The Woman’s Era Volume 1, no. 4 (July 1894).
- “Honor Heroes of Ft. Wagner: Negroes in Faneuil Hall Pledge Loyalty to Flag, but Denounce Lynching,” Boston Herald, July 19, 1917.