Sarah Massey Overton was a leading black freedom fighter and women’s rights activist in post-Gold Rush San Jose, California. Massey was born in Lennox, Massachusetts and came to California with her parent in the 1880s while she was still a young girl. The Masseys moved first to Gilroy before settling in nearby San Jose where a black community had developed in the 1860s around Rev. Peter Williams Cassey’s St. Phillip’s Mission School, also called the Phoenixonian Institute. Sarah attended the Institute, learning to read, write, and play music. While there she also learned the politics of racial uplift and racial integration embraced by most 19th and early 20th century black activists.
In 1869, Sarah Massey married Kentucky native Jacob Overton. The couple ran a catering business while she cared for their two children (Charles and Harriet). Jacob worked as a full-time caterer. This ability to juggle a successful husband/ wife business with her home and family responsibilities, along with the energy to engage in activism was an accomplishment not common to many San Jose black women activists.
In the 1880s Sarah Overton became a leading activist in the fair public education movement, which was essentially a campaign to allow African-American children in the state to be enrolled in public schools. This battle was partially won following the Wysinger v. Crookshank (1890) California’s Supreme Court decision that allowed black youth to attend public schools. The verdict, however, also upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine, reserving for the California Legislature the right to reimpose de jure (legal) segregation whenever it wished.
In 1906, soon after the establishment of the California State Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in Oakland, Overton became a charter member of San Jose’s Garden City Women’s Club. In this capacity she lobbied for forming interracial women’s club coalitions with white women and other women of color to support women’s suffrage. Her activity in the cause of suffrage continued into the next decade when she registered male voters through the Political Equality Club of San Jose and at the same time lobbied for woman suffrage in the upcoming 1911 statewide election. She also served as vice-president of San Jose’s interracial Suffrage Amendment League; and later as president of the all-black Victoria Earle Matthews (Mothers) Club, which aided young black women and girls who had been or who were threatened with sexual abuse.
Sarah Massey Overton died in San Jose, California on August 24, 1914 at the age of 64, after a lifetime of service in support of women’s suffrage and black women’s uplift.