Lucy Diggs Slowe was, among other firsts, the first dean of women at Howard University, the first principal of the first black junior high school in Washington and a founder of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first sorority established by African American women. Her roommate, Mary Burrill, was an English teacher and a playwright well respected by writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
Now, more than 80 years after Slowe’s death, historians and relatives have begun to acknowledge an entirely different legacy these two women left behind.
The two friends never publicly identified as lovers, and the true nature of their relationship is, to this day, open to interpretation. But one thing is clear: The two women quietly devoted their lives to one another long before the public acceptance of same-sex couples. And even after Howard University officials tried to force Slowe to move onto campus, she fought for her right to remain in her home — with Burrill.
Theirs is an example of a relationship between two women often overlooked by historical accounts of the era. It shows how, for generations, women could form intimate relationships with other women under the veil of friendship, according to Genny Beemyn, the author of “A Queer Capital: A History of Gay Life in Washington.”
When studying LGBT history in the United States, “we tend to focus mostly on men, because their relationships with other men were more visible, in a way,” Beemyn said. “The women just get ignored.”
It wasn’t until 20 years ago that Slowe’s living family members discovered her story. Shirley Thomas, 72, who lives in Berryville, Va., was driving past a Howard University dormitory with Slowe’s name on it and recognized it as her grandmother’s last name. She soon learned that Slowe was her great-great-aunt and began researching her accomplishments as a pioneer for black women in academia.
“We know the reason she wasn’t married,” Thomas said, alluding to Slowe’s relationship with Burrill. But even now, the family doesn’t discuss it. “We tend to be old-school in thinking," Thomas added. “But I respected her for that. She went her own route, she made her own journey. And basically, for all intents and purposes, she did it without a man.”
Slowe and Burrill met when Slowe was a third-year student at Baltimore High School, where Burrill taught at the time, according to a eulogy written by Burrill. They later became colleagues, teaching at the same high school in Washington, and by about 1918 they were living together on T Street in Northwest Washington, according to the book “Faithful to the Task at Hand: The Life of Lucy Diggs Slowe,” by Carroll L.L. Miller and Anne S. Pruitt-Logan.
In 1919, Slowe wrote a poem about an internal struggle and dedicated the poem to her “good friend,” Burrill, “whose sympathetic encouragement induced me to write these lines," she wrote. "I dedicate them with the hope that some day I may show my better self to the world.”
Years later, after they purchased their home together in Brookland, the two women were known for hosting parties. Their living room became a gathering place for female Howard students, and in many cases, those in their social circles interacted with Slowe and Burrill as if they were a couple. In letters to Slowe, for example, her friends would send their “love to Ms. Burrill.”
“Slowe didn’t really have to hide her relationship with Burill, because she moved in a world that was largely other women,” both in her professional and social spheres, said Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In the 1920s and 1930s, American society was on the cusp of shifting from a culture in which two women could live together, seemingly as friends, and not raise suspicions about the relationship, Beemyn said.
Still, there are almost no letters left between Burrill and Slowe, despite the fact that they lived apart for the first several years of their relationship, and despite their careful record-keeping in other aspects of their lives. That absence “speaks volumes,” Beemyn said, to the couple’s desire to keep their personal life a secret.
After more than a decade serving as Howard’s dean of women and living with Burrill in Brookland, Slowe was told that the school’s Board of Trustees had taken a vote, and that she would have to move out of her home and onto the university campus. The board insisted that as dean, Slowe should be located where she “can keep her eyes on the activities of the girls,” as the board chair wrote in one letter.
Thus began a bitter fight between Slowe and the administration, one that was highly publicized in black news outlets and in petitions signed by female Howard graduates. Slowe and her supporters viewed the move as a sexist demand that would never be made for a male dean.
“It looks as if the President has created this dilemma for me to force me into the dormitory where he thinks a dean of women should be,” Slowe wrote in one letter, as recounted in “Faithful to the Task at Hand." “He does not want the Dean of Women at Howard to have any administrative standing; he has always wanted her to be a matron.”
While the university officials never discussed Burrill as a factor in their decision, Beemyn wonders whether the couple’s relationship may have played a role. Slowe, meanwhile, emphasized the financial loss she would suffer by selling her Brookland home. She was ultimately allowed to continue living in the home with Burrill, and she remained there until her death from a kidney disease in 1937.
After Slowe’s death, Burrill filled the role of the grieving widow, taking responsibility for all of Slowe’s arrangements. Dozens of letters and telegrams with condolences were sent not to Slowe’s family or to Howard University but to Burrill. One letter from an employee in Howard’s Office of the Registrar described Burrill as “a life-time friend and companion of Miss Slowe and I am sure that there is no one who knows her life better that she.”
“We are happy that your friendship with this noble character was such that it abides even in her death,” said one letter addressed to Burrill. “And we are happier still that the tremendous load which she carried willingly for the cause of Negro youth was somewhat lightened by your unswerving loyalty and devotion during her lifetime.”
Burrill herself wrote a lengthy and personal eulogy about Slowe: “I, who have known her as a girl and woman for thirty-five years, as her teacher, her colleague and her friend, am happy and honored to perform this simple task,” she wrote, “for it is a duty of mingled joy and pain, tempered by a great admiration and a warm personal affection.”
Slowe, Burrill wrote, “carried with her a great moral authority. And because I have known her so intimately and so long I recognize the source of that authority. … [Her] strength was as the strength of ten, because her heart was pure.”
After Slowe’s death, Burrill was so distraught that she temporarily moved out of their Brookland home, according to Beemyn’s book.
In the year that followed, according to a note in the Howard archives, Burrill kept Slowe’s portrait on her piano. Beside it was a silver vase, filled with white carnations.
The current owners of 1256 Kearny St., Ben and Dawn O’Connell, purchased the home in 2004 and have lived there with their two young daughters ever since. They first learned about Slowe in the months after they moved in, when a PhD student in history knocked on their door, asking about Slowe. Historians and Alpha Kappa Alpha alumnae alike have stopped by from time to time, hoping to get a glimpse inside.
The piano is long gone from the blue home on the hill, and the garden next door replaced by a new house. But the fireplace still stands in the center of the living room, with the original wooden trim. The narrow, slightly creaky staircase still leads up to a bedroom with a majestic bay window. And the white front porch still looks out over Brookland, high above the street that Slowe and Burrill once called home.