Sue Bailey Thurman (1903–1996)

Author, lecturer, historian, and editor Sue Bailey Thurman was a pioneer in civil rights and equality long before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Her contributions in her advocacy, writings, and speeches helped lay a foundation that many others have built upon.

Sue Elvie Bailey was born in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) on August 26, 1903, one of ten children of educators Rev. Isaac Bailey and Susie Ford Bailey. Her parents emphasized education, religious instruction, and missionary work. They helped to found the forerunner of what became Morris Booker Memorial College in Dermott (Chicot County), a private college funded by African-American Baptists throughout the state.

She completed her high school studies at Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1926 with degrees in music and liberal arts. Shortly after graduation, she became a national secretary for the student division of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). In this capacity, she lectured throughout Europe regarding interracial and intercultural understanding. She also established the first World Fellowship Committee of the YWCA.

In 1932, she married renowned theologian and scholar Dr. Howard Thurman. Sue Bailey Thurman also began working with Mary McLeod Bethune’s National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) a few years later, becoming the first publisher of that organization’s African-American women’s journal. She also served as the founder and first chairperson of the NCNW’s National Library, Archives, and Museum.

She and her husband, seeking answers to the problem of social equality in America, undertook a trip to India sponsored by the YWCA in 1936. In India, they became the first African Americans to meet with legendary leader Mahatma Gandhi. In part, they engaged Gandhi in dialogue regarding ways in which black Americans could use tactics of nonviolence for advancing civil rights. Gandhi provided them with a wealth of insights into some of the philosophical underpinnings of his philosophy. In turn, Gandhi gathered insights into the experiences of African Americans as they related to the struggle for freedom in South Asia. Interestingly, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made a similar journey to India in the late 1950s to gather knowledge regarding Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence and the application of his techniques in a mass movement.

Thurman later extended her work through her writings. She loved history and felt compelled to document, record, and preserve the recorded past of African Americans. She authored Pioneers of Negro Origin in California (1949) and The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro (1958). She also wrote numerous articles published in periodicals throughout the country. In the 1950s, she founded the Museum of African American History in Boston, Massachusetts.

Thurman was the co-founder, along with her husband, of the nation’s first interracial non-denominational church, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, in 1944. The couple believed that it was as important to create models of interracial cooperation as it was to fight for racial equality.

Her work was celebrated in the many awards she received, including honorary doctorates of letters from Boston University and Livingstone College in North Carolina for establishing museums of African-American history.

On December 25, 1996, Thurman died in San Francisco, California. She was survived by a daughter, Anne Thurman, and a step-daughter, Olive Wong (her husband’s daughter from a previous marriage).

For additional information:
Horne, Gerald. The End of Empires: African Americans and India. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.

Sue Bailey Thurman Collection. Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts. Finding aid online at (accessed September 29, 2021).

Wallace, Bill. “Obituary—Sue Bailey Thurman.” SFGate, December 28, 1996. (accessed September 29, 2021).

Jimmy Cunningham
Nashville, Tennessee


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