Nettie J. Craig Asberry (1865-1968)

Nettie J. Asberry
Nettie Asberry, Tacoma, ca. 1925, Colored Women's Federation of Washington and Jurisdiction Club Journal, 1925, p 4
Courtesy Washington State Historical Society (S1992.2.47.6)

Nettie J. Craig Asberry was a suffragist, clubwoman, and music educator who helped found the Tacoma Chapter of the NAACP and the Washington State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Born on July 15, 1865 in Leavenworth, Kansas, Asberry was the youngest of six children born to Violet Craig, an African American woman, and William Wallingford, a plantation owner. When she was eight years old, Asberry began piano lessons and later composed music. She became interested in the suffrage movement when she met Susan B. Anthony and became the secretary of the Susan B. Anthony Club at 13 years old.

Asberry attended college when few women or African Americans had access to an advanced education. On June 12, 1883, she earned her bachelor’s degree in music from the Kansas Conservatory of Music and Elocution in Leavenworth. After graduating, she taught music and performed with church choirs in Kansas City and Denver.

In 1890, Asberry married Albert Jones, and they moved to Seattle looking for new opportunities. Asberry immediately found work as the musical director and organist for the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1893, her husband died. After briefly visiting her family in Kansas, she moved back to Washington but settled in Tacoma. While there, Asberry met and married Henry Asberry in 1895. She soon became the choir director and organist for the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tacoma and taught music in her home to hundreds of children for over fifty years.

Asberry dedicated her life to the advancement of women’s rights. In 1908, she organized the Cloverleaf Art Club for the 1909 Seattle Alaska Yukon Pacific Exhibition. The club created needlecrafts and artwork that earned them a gold medal for best exhibit. Her statewide club organizing efforts led to establishing the Washington State Federation of Colored Women in 1917. The organization brought together city federations and individual women’s clubs from around the state, promoting social uplift and support for African American women. Asberry would later serve as president and historian of the organization.

Always a champion for racial justice, in 1913, Asberry co-founded the Tacoma chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The chapter was the first to receive a charter west of the Rocky Mountains and, in their first official act, they organized a protest over a bill banning interracial marriage. Asberry also helped form NAACP chapters in Seattle, Spokane, and Portland.

For over six decades, Asberry was an avid crusader for social justice in the Pacific Northwest. She died on November 17, 1968, at the age of 103 in Tacoma, Washington. A year after her death, Tacoma Mayor Gordon Johnston declared May 11, 1969 as Dr. Nettie Asberry Day in the city. In 2016, the city placed a historical marker on North 30th Street in Tacoma to commemorate her legacy in the state.