In her relatively short life, Josephine Silone Yates made her mark as a brilliant student, and inspiring teacher and a passionate speaker and writer. Like other elite African American women in the decades after slavery, she devoted herself both to the fight against racial prejudice and to the uplift of the race.
Josephine Silone was born in Mattituck, New York. As a young girl, she showed great intellectual promise and was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic at home. At age eleven, she lived for a year with her maternal uncle in Philadelphia where she attended the Institute for Colored Youth. Two years later she went to live with her maternal aunt in Newport, Rhode Island. There she entered Rogers High School where she finished the four-year course in three years and was valedictorian of the class of 1877. She was the only black student in your class and the first to graduate from the school. She studied next at the Rhode Island State Normal School, graduation with honors in 1879. She took the teachers’ examination prior to graduations and earned the highest mark recorded in Newport at that date and became the first African American certified to teach in the public schools of Rhode Island Yates moved to Jefferson City, Missouri in 1879 to teach chemistry, elocution and English literature at Lincoln Institute (now Lincoln University of Missouri.) She later became a full professor and head of the natural science department. She enjoyed great success as a teacher. She became the first Black woman to head a college science department and the first Black woman to hold a full professorship at any U.S. college or university. Her reputation came to the attention of Booker T. Washington. In 1886, Washington offered her the position of “lady-principal” at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. She declined the offer.
In 1889 she gave up her position at Lincoln to marry W. W. Yates, the principal of the Wendell Philips School in Kansas City. In 1890 she gave birth to a daughter whom she named Josephine Silone Yates Jr. In 1895 she bore a son, William Blyden Yates, called “Blyden,” presumable in honor of the famed pan-Africanist Edward W. Blyden.
In 1893 Yates became the leading force behind the Women’s movement in the KC area and first president of the Women’s League of Kansas City, a self-help and social-betterment organization of African American women. The Women’s League was among the black women’s club that joined the National Associate of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. Yates was elected fourth vice president of the national organization at its first biennial meeting, held in Nashville in September 1897. She was elected president in 1901, succeeding Mary Church Terrell, and held that office until 1906.
During her years as president of the NACW, Yates spoke and wrote widely on issues of racial uplift. Her writing appeared in, among others, the Southern Workman, the Voice of the Negro, the Women’s Era, the Indianapolis Freeman, and the Kansas City Rising Son. Racial uplift was one of many topics Yates spoke and wrote about. She was identified as an exemplar of her race and included as one of 100 of “America’s greatest Negroes” in Twentieth Century Negro Literature; or, A Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro in 1902. Her paper addressed the question “Did the American Negro make, in the nineteenth century, achievements along the lines of wealth, morality, education, etc., commensurate with his opportunities? If so, what achievements did he make?” She also published poetry, including The Isles of Peace, The Zephyr, and Royal To-Day.
Yates returned to teach at Lincoln Institute in 1902. In addition to serving as an instructor of English and drawing, she served as the women’s advisor. She also served as a faculty sponsor of the Olive Branch, “a musical and literary society composed of the young ladies of the senior and junior classes.” The Olive Branch held membership in the NACW.
In 1908 she requested to resign due to illness, but the Board of Regents did not accept, and she stayed on as the advisor to women at Lincoln. Yates moved back to Kansas City after the death of her husband in 1910. She died September 3, 1912, after a two-day illness. The Indianapolis Freeman, a black newspaper, eulogized Yates as a person “who was especially concerned…for the betterment of colored women, and for the betterment of the race generally.”