BY MARGO DRUMMOND
As she neared her 90th year, Amy Davis Winship could look back on a life enriched by contact with many of the noteworthy personalities of her time, including Abraham Lincoln, suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Olympia Brown and Chicago Hull House founder Jane Addams, whose family were Amy and John Davis’s neighbors in Illinois. When she was 16, Amy found herself teaching in a one room school. Two years later she married Colonel John A. Davis. Together they had four children, two of whom died in early childhood. She would later reflect on that tragic loss as leading her to abolitionism in reaction to the cruel practice of slavery which separated children from their mothers.
During the time that her husband was serving in the Illinois State Legislature alongside Abraham Lincoln, Amy became friends with both Lincoln and his wife, Mary. Having attended five of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, she caused Mr. Lincoln amusement by pointing out a wagonload of Douglas supporters arriving for a debate with their political banner upside down. “Do you see that, she asked? “Here, where Douglas holds sway, is ignorance; up north where you are the champion we would find no such display of ignorance, we would see intelligence.”
In October of 1862, tragedy struck once again when Colonel John A. Davis was wounded in battle. Rushing to his side, Amy was unable to save him and a few days later he died.
In 1871 Amy married for a second time to Racine businessman Eugene B. Winship, having relocated there following the death of her first husband. Deeply committed to liberal causes, Amy dedicated herself to the temperance movement, establishing coffee house reading and game rooms for young people as an alternative to saloons. Some were even held in her own home at 73 8th Street.
She soon realized that the only way to affect change in that cause was to secure the right to vote for women. It was as a suffragette that she hosted Susan B. Anthony and Olympia Brown, both of whom she counted as “intimate friends.”
During a visit by Susan B. Anthony, Amy’s only daughter, Elizabeth, presented their guest with a litter of kittens tucked into her apron. “Oh take them away! Take them away!” cried the horrified Ms. Anthony. Unbeknownst to poor Elizabeth, Anthony hated cats. As for Olympia Brown, the Universalist Unitarian minister (the first ordained female minister in the United States), it was she who drew Amy to the church’s liberal ties, ties shared by Susan B. Anthony as well.
In 1906, Amy’s husband, Eugene B. Winship, died in North Dakota where they had repaired seeking his recovery. A widow for the second time, Amy declared in her memoir:
“Fifty years of my life have been blessed with the companionship of two good men. With one I spent the years of my youth and won the sacred benediction of motherhood; with the other the years of mature life from which there flowed a beneficent self-expression. The cycle of married life closed. I now become a citizen of the world.”
With that she embarked upon a 22-year odyssey, seeking higher levels of education not possible before. Traveling from place to place to visit friends, she would eventually enroll in universities scattered from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore where she lived with Olympia Brown to the University of Southern California. Oftentimes she was invited to speak at political and educational gatherings where the audiences must have been fascinated by the woman known as “The Oldest Coed In The Nation.”
In May of 1907, a guest room at the Abraham Lincoln Center on the south side of Chicago was dedicated to Amy’s first husband, John. The center, an extension of the local Universalist Church, had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. A noted speaker at the occasion was social worker Jane Addams, daughter of the Davis’s neighbors in Illinois and founder of Chicago’s Hull House. In addition to the guest room at the Abraham Lincoln Center, Amy left a second legacy to the historically Afro-American Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Amy Davis Winship died in 1920 at her home on 8th Street in Racine. She was 89 years old.
Margo Drummond’s interest in local history began when she became involved with preservation Racine. For 31 years, she taught high school courses on Racine History and Death and Dying, Issues of Living and Life. She wrote two books, “Blessings of Being Mortal: How a Mature Understanding of Death Can Free Us to Live Wisely and Well” and “Here’s to Your Health.”