First North Carolinian graduates from Smith College
On June 18, 1901, Gertrude Weil became the first North Carolina resident to graduate from Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Born and raised in Goldsboro, NC, Weil returned to her hometown after college. She immediately began to apply the lessons of women's rights, political action, and social justice she had absorbed at Smith, becoming a lifelong leader of progressive social causes.
Born in 1879 to a prominent and civically involved German-Jewish family, Weil was educated in the Goldsboro schools until age 15, when she was sent to the coeducational and progressive Horace Mann School in New York City.
Weil took up her family legacy of social service after graduating from Smith. Her first communal role was with the Goldsboro Women's Club, of which she soon became president. Her zeal was soon recognized by the North Carolina Federation of Women's Clubs, and she became an officer in that organization. Her enthusiasm for the work earned her the nickname "Federation Gertie." Although she was offered the presidency of the Federation in 1919, she turned it down in order to concentrate on the fight for women's suffrage.
Weil first became involved with the suffrage movement in 1914, when she helped found the Goldsboro Equal Suffrage Association. By 1917, she was an officer in the North Carolina Equal Suffrage League; she became the League's president in 1919. Her involvement in such a controversial issue was rare for a Jewish woman, especially in the South. Fearing the repercussions of anti-Semitism, particularly after the 1913 lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta, most Southern Jews maintained a low political profile. Weil, however, stood at the forefront of a very public and bitter campaign. Despite her best efforts, women's suffrage had to advance without North Carolina. Her state's legislature failed to ratify the 19th amendment in 1920. Undaunted, Weil turned her efforts to a new cause, founding the North Carolina League of Women Voters to educate women about voting and other newly-won rights.
Over the next five decades, Weil was a major presence in Goldsboro's civic life. Awarding her a Smith College medal in 1964 (the first year the medals were bestowed), the college president noted that Weil's "career of public service [was] so extensive that it is difficult to find in the State of North Carolina a cultural, charitable, welfare, civic or educational organization with which [her] name . . . has not been connected." Her affiliations ranged from the Temple Sisterhood to the Art Society, from the Girl Scouts to the Community Chest, a Depression-era relief agency. She taught Sunday School, worked for labor reform legislation, and funded a county nurse before the creation of a public health system.
Among these varied causes, one of the most significant was racial integration. Long before the start of the national civil rights movement, Weil joined organizations working for interracial cooperation. In 1930, she participated in the Anti-Lynching Conference of Southern White Women, and then joined the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. These groups countered the assertion that lynching was necessary to protect white women from the supposed sexual threat of African-American men. In 1932, Weil was appointed to the North Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation. Her dedication to civil rights remained strong through the decades. She continued to live in downtown Goldsboro long after most white people had left, inviting African-American neighbors into her house in defiance of Southern norms. In 1963, she convened a Bi-Racial Council in her home. In addition, she was active in establishing parks and pools for underprivileged African-American neighborhoods.
Weil's commitment to this wide variety of civic causes lasted throughout her life. When she died in Goldsboro on May 3, 1971, she left behind a strong legacy of social justice and social welfare work and a community intimately shaped by her long career of involvement in progressive activism.
To learn more about Gertrude Weil, visit Women of Valor and Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
Sources: jwa.org/womenofvalor/weil (JWA web exhibit on Gertrude Weil); Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1459-1461; Moses Rountree, Strangers in the Land: The Story of Jacob Weil's Tribe (Philadelphia, 1969).