• Dennis McCaslin

Our Arklahoma Heritage: Fort Smith businesswoman, educator Mame Stewart Josenberger

(Editors note: Information for this story was taken from several sources including Wikidpedia, the History of the National Association of Colored Women and UALR's article on the subject for the Centennial Celebration of Women's Sufferage project.)

Mame Stewart Josenberger.

Among the many notable and historically significant Fort Smith pioneers buried in Oak Cemetery, none had more impact and influence on the city's African American community in the early 20th century than Mame Stewart Josenberger.

An educator, business owner, civil rights advocate, and friend and mentor to men like W.E.B Dubois and Booker T. Washington, Josenburger was a true pioneer in the minority community of Fort Smith for over fifty years.

Mame Stewart Josenberger was born in 1868/1872 in Owego, New York, to Frank and Mary Elizabeth (Turner) Stewart, both of whom had been born in Virginia.

W.E.B. DuBois

After attending the Owego Free Academy in New York, Josenberger earned a Bachelor of Arts in Education at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She graduated in 1888 along with scholar and political activist W.E.B. DuBois and Margaret Murray Washington, the third wife of Tuskegee Institute president Booker T. Washington.

During this same year, Stewart moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi, where she taught at the State Normal School for Negroes, known today as Rust College.

The following year she relocated to Fort Smith where she assumed a teaching position at Howard School, the second oldest school in the city built in 1870 and named for Union General and Freedmen Bureau commissioner, Oliver Otis Howard.

Lincoln High School

Josenberger also taught at the predominately African-American Lincoln High School.

In 1892, she married undertaker William Ernest Josenberger, whose father had been born in France. William was also a former Fort Smith postman. Josenberger gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Ernestine, in 1893. She died in 1919.

Josenberger left the teaching profession in 1901.

In 1903, she was elected the Grand Register of Deeds of Arkansas of the Grand Order of Calanthe, a fraternal benefit organization founded in Texas in 1897 to provide burial insurance for African Americans.

Josenberger took over the family undertaking business after her husband died in 1909, the year she also joined Fort Smith’s St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church.

As an African-American business owner, she was also a member of the National Negro Business League (NNBL), an organization founded in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1900 by Booker T. Washington.

Josenberger continued to acquire property in addition to running the family undertaking business. She owned Josenberger Hall, an entertainment venue on 619 1/2 Ninth Street in Fort Smith and a hardware and retail store next door.

Christine Chatman

Josenberger Hall was welcoming spot for African-American entertainers and performers until the early 1960s. In the 1940s for instance, Christine Chatman and Her Orchestra, King Kolax and His NBC Band, and Irvin C. Miller’s Brown Skin Models all performed there before Fort Smith’s black residents.

In 1913 she purchased property in Little Rock’s Taborian Heights area. Josenberger’s business acumen, which included a burial insurance company, served her well.

Location of the Josenbeger Home - 703 N. 11th

She was considered “one of the most capable and efficient business propositions” and regarded as the “wealthiest as well as one of the most successful colored persons” in Fort Smith who owned a “palatial residence,” on 703 North 11th Street, and was considered “a true factor,” in making African Americans a “better race.”

Indeed, not only was Josenberger a life member of the NNBL and the Fort Smith Negro Business League, she was a close friend of the Washington's. In August 1915, she accompanied the couple on a cruise from Boston, Massachusetts, to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Booker T. Washington

After Washington’s death in 1915, NNBL members gathered in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1916 to memorialize their fallen leader. Mame Josenberger was among those who offered tributes.

As an African-American woman club leader, Josenberger employed the NACW’s resources and her connections to advocate for suffrage women and black people in Arkansas. She was among the founders of Fort Smith’s Phillis Wheatley Federated Club in 1898, just two years after the NACW’s establishment and was its president for 56 years.

Josenberger was AACW president from 1929-1931. Additionally, she was on the board of Standard Life Insurance Company, an African-American-owned company in Atlanta, Georgia, and the board of directors of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association (along with Nannie Burroughs).

The association memorialized Douglass’s home in Cedar Hill, Anacostia in Washington, D.C. Josenberger was also a lifetime member of the NAACP, yet another organization dedicated to black voting rights.

In subsequent decades, Josenberger remained involved with the NACW, the AACW, the ICWDR, the NNBL, and the NAACP, in addition to managing her businesses in Fort Smith. She was a successful Arkansas businesswoman, leader, and activist.

Josenberger Family plot

Her organizational affiliations connected her to local and national black women leaders who employed their time, resources, and talent to improve African Americans’ economic, social, and political access.

Mame Stewart Josenberger died in September 1964 and is buried in Oak Cemetery in Fort Smith. While no individual marker exists for Mamie Stewart Josenberger, a family tomestone marks the graves of her, her husband Willilam (1860-1909) and son Ernest J. Stevens (1893-1919).

Letter from Mame Josenberger to W.E.B. Dubois

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