Sue Bailey Thurman

(Biography text taken from the Gandhi Institute for Reconciliation.)

August 26, 1903–December 25, 1996

Sue Bailey Thurman—author, lecturer, historian, and organization leader—was born the youngest child of ten to educators, the Reverend Isaac and Susie (Ford) Bailey of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. She graduated from Spelman Seminary in 1920 and earned bachelor’s degrees in music and liberal arts from Oberlin College in 1926. Renowned for her advocacy of interracial, intercultural, and international understanding, she worked for the YWCA from 1926 to 1932. As national traveling secretary for the YWCA’s college division, she lectured throughout Europe and established the first World Fellowship Committee of the YWCA. In 1932, she married Dr. Howard Thurman, religious leader and social critic, whose ministry was deeply entwined with her own work until his death in 1981. She was the founder and editor (1940–44) of the Aframerican Women’s Journal, the first publication of the National Council of Negro Women, as well as the founder and first chair of the Council’s National Library, Archives, and Museum. In the 1950s she founded the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston. She also established women’s organizations at Howard University in the 1930s and at Boston University in the 1950s. Mrs. Thurman wrote several books, including Pioneers of Negro Origin in California (1949) and The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro (1958).

Mrs. Thurman traveled around the world in pursuit of her vision of international peace and fellowship. During 1935 and 1936, she traveled to India, Burma, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as part of the first Negro Delegation of Friendship to the East, which her husband chaired. The Thurmans were the first African Americans to meet Mohandas Gandhi and to discuss with him the use of nonviolent resistance to effect social change in the United States. In 1940, Mrs. Thurman led the first delegation of members of the Fellowship Church, the first interracial, interreligious church of which her husband was co-founder and co-pastor, to the Fourth Plenary Session of UNESCO in Paris.

Mrs. Thurman received honorary doctorates from Livingston College and Boston University. In 1991, she received a formal citation from the Indian government at the centennial celebration of Gandhi’s birth. From 1981 until her death, she served as honorary chair of the Howard Thurman Educational Trust.