Sarah Lee Brown Fleming is known as Connecticut’s Clubwoman, a leading civil rights activist who mobilized African American women across Connecticut around social welfare, suffrage, and equality. She was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on January 10, 1876. At the age of two, her family moved to New York, where she became the first Black teacher in the Brooklyn school district. While in New York, she met Richard Stedman Fleming, an immigrant from St. Kitts, whom she married on November 5, 1902. A year later, the couple welcomed their daughter, Dorothy; and their son Harold was born in 1906.
The Flemings lived in New Haven by 1910, and they became prominent figures in elite Black circles. Richard became Connecticut’s first Black dentist, and Sarah bridged her career as an educator with her devotion to the African American community in New Haven, particularly women and girls. Shortly after settling in New Haven, she joined the Twentieth Century Club, New Haven’s oldest and largest Black women’s club, founded in 1901.
Fleming’s career as a community activist is well-documented, but her career as a writer is less known. She was among the cohort of trailblazing literary critics who defined the Harlem Renaissance. In 1918, she penned her first novel, Hope’s Highway, a historical romance set in the South that balances being an activist and artist with racial discrimination and newfound freedom. In 1920 she published a collection of poems, Clouds and Sunshine, which integrated dialect in a form similar to Paul Laurence Dunbar and Black vernacular in the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston. In 1926, she published her last known work in Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction.
Fleming’s writings were informed by her politics, which aligned with the Black women’s club movement and racial uplift activism of the day. Her involvement in such clubs brought her into circles with African American women pioneers and suffragists like Mary McLeod Bethune and Mary Church Terrell. As a leading voice for women’s rights and suffrage, Fleming worked within her club circles to elevate women and girls’ concerns, particularly women’s right to vote.
In the aftermath of the passing of the 19th amendment, Fleming continued her suffrage work in the 19th Ward section of the League of Women Voters. While the League of Women Voters struggled to eliminate white supremacy within its ranks, the interracial membership of the 19th Ward section made it a standout. Fleming hosted League meetings in her home at 216 Dwight Street and served on the executive board as secretary, alongside her colleague Laura Belle McCoy. Voter education was her priority. In 1924 she joined the Colored Republican Women of Connecticut for their state meeting, delivering the address entitled, “Education in Politics.”
Fleming had long worked with the leadership of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), specifically her long-time associate and NACW president, Mary McLeod Bethune (1924-1928). During Bethune’s tenure, Fleming served as an associate editor for the National Notes, the official organ of the NACW. By 1929, Fleming turned the Twentieth Century Club into the Women’s Civic League, an official league of the Northeastern Federation. In 1933, she galvanized Black women’s leagues and associations across Connecticut to officially form the Connecticut State Union under the NACW. The Connecticut State Union worked across class lines to advance African American women’s and girls’ rights. She held the title as the Honorary President of the Union and led the body in lobbying efforts, political training, and advocacy for women’s rights. In 1935, Fleming’s commitment to women and girls became a reality when she established the Phillis Wheatley Home for Girls, a home for young Black migrant women new to New Haven.
Fleming continued to be politically active in her later years, becoming the first African American woman to earn the distinction of Connecticut’s Mother of the Year in 1952. In 1955, she testified before Congress, discussing her commitment to civil rights, equal education, and the social welfare of women and children. That same year, the National Association of Negro Professional and Business Women’s Club awarded Fleming the Sojourner Truth Scroll Award.
Fleming remained politically active until she died on January 5, 1963.