Sherwood Equal Rights Historic District

Sherwood Map (click to enlarge)


Beginning in the 1830s, abolitionism in Sherwood formed the roots of the early woman’s rights movement. By the 1890s, the Howlands, along with women and men in several other Sherwood families, formed the cohesive and long-lasting core of the Sherwood Equal Rights Association, organized in 1891. At least eleven of the twenty-eight buildings (39 percent) in the Sherwood Historic District are directly related to people and events associated with the Sherwood Equal Rights Association. 

Herman and Hannah Phillips, Slocum Howland, Emily Howland, and their fellow villagers in Sherwood illustrate the community roots of American democracy. Community sociologists often categorize people as either local or cosmopolitan in their worldview, but Sherwood citizens were both; they identified strongly not only with their own local area but also with the ideal of America. Founded in the 1790s, Sherwood’s physical and cultural identity crystallized before 1880, coinciding with the nation’s struggle over slavery and freedom. As Americans, people in Sherwood believed that “all men are created equal,” and they carried that ideal into practice, promoting the abolition of slavery, the Underground Railroad, Native American rights, and women’s rights. Unlike people in many communities, however, Sherwood citizens retained their commitment to equal rights reform in the post-Civil War period. Because agricultural land around Sherwood remained productive, families were relatively stable across generations, and early cultural imprints remained strong.

Second and third-generation Sherwood residents expressed their equal rights ideals in movements for woman’s rights and education. Four local institutions reflected women’s rights ideals: the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which lasted into the late twenty-first century; the Sherwood Political Equality Club, one of the most active branches of the Cayuga County Political Equality Club and the National American Woman Suffrage Association; the Sherwood Ramabai Circle, devoted to the Pandita Ramabai Mukti [Liberation] School for young women in Pune, India; and Sherwood Select School, which, until its absorption into the public school system in 1926, was organized and operated entirely by women. Women from Sherwood graduated in disproportionate numbers to college, including three who became medical doctors.

Slocum Howland was an old time abolitionist, when there were but a few such in the country; he strenuously advocated equal rights for all
— S.W. Greene

In terms of education, not only did Sherwood citizens support both the Pandita Ramabia Mukti School and Sherwood Select School. At least three Sherwood citizens supported schools for freed people in the South during Reconstruction, Slocum Howland with financial contributions and Emily Howland and Anna Searing as teachers. Hannah Howland and Isabel Howland (Emily’s sister-in-law and niece) created Sherwood’s first library and museum in 1884. Both library and museum survive today as the core of the Howland Stone Store Museum. Assets include one of the nation’s best (if not the best) collections of woman suffrage posters. At least eleven of the fifty-five buildings in the Sherwood Equal Rights Historic District relate directly to education, as schools, libraries, museums, or boarding houses for teachers and students.


Emily Howland & Susan B. Anthony


Nationally-known reformers who came to Sherwood included Abby Kelley (lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society), Harriet K. Hunt (early woman doctor), Mary and Emily Edmondson (who had escaped from slavery), Joseph John Gurney (English Quaker reformer), Sojourner Truth (born in slavery, who became a major abolitionist and woman’s rights lecturer), Rev. Anna Howard Shaw, Susan B. Anthony, probably Booker T. Washington, and Harriet Tubman. Several of Sherwood’s citizens worked in a state and national arena, including Slocum Howland, who was well known to leaders in the American Anti-Slavery Society and to members of an Underground Railroad network that stretched into southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware; Job Otis, a leader in the Wilburite movement among Orthodox Friends; Anna Searing, through her work in a Virginia school for freed people of color; and Isabel Howland, who was well-known in the New York State Suffrage Association, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.


Emily Howland on Tour 1913


Across the country, however, Emily Howland was Sherwood’s best known citizen, nationally significant for her work in education (especially African American education) and women’s rights. In education, Emily Howland supported about fifty schools, not only as a teacher but also as a philanthropist. In 1857, she began to teach in a school started in Washington, D.C., by abolitionist Myrtilla Miner. During the Civil War, she worked in schools for freed people of color. Beginning in 1867, she started a community for freed people in Heathsville, Virginia, called Arcadia, on 400 acres purchased by her father, with a school called Howland Chapel School, still standing. From then until the end of her life, donated money, books, and energy to approximately fifty schools, most but not all of them African American schools in the South, including Tuskegee Institute; Holley School in Lottsburgh, Virginia; Kowaliga School in Alabama; and Manassas Industrial School in Alexandria, Virginia. Many of these schools constructed buildings named Howland Hall. Emily Howland visited these schools and corresponded regularly with their administrators, including Booker T. Washington. She also supported many individual African American and female students at schools throughout the country, including Oberlin, Howard University, and Cornell. In 1882, Miss Emily, as she was known locally, built Sherwood Select School, which became the center of much of Sherwood’s community life. It became a public school in 1926. Torn down in 1955, it was replaced by the current Emily Howland Elementary School. In 1926, Emily Howland received for her work in education the first (and for at least thirty years the only) honorary doctorate granted to a woman by the State University of New York.


New York State Suffrage Association In Car


In terms of women’s rights, Emily Howland (1927-1929) was honored as a pioneer of the suffrage movement. She was also a major financier of both the New York State Women Suffrage Association and the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Emily Howland, like many women, came to women’s rights through the abolitionist movement, publishing an antislavery letter when she was only seventeen years old; organizing abolitionist activities; and teaching in abolitionist schools. Beginning in 1858, she worked with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to organize woman’s rights lectures and meetings. She continued her woman’s rights work after the Civil War. She spoke at the thirtieth anniversary of the Seneca Falls woman’s rights convention in 1878 and to the New York State legislature in 1894. She was president of the Cayuga County Political Equality Club and regularly attended county, state, and national suffrage meetings. She also attended an international suffrage meeting in London in 1903 and, with other suffrage leaders, took tea with Queen Victoria. She spoke before Congress in 1904, marched and rode in the great suffrage parades in New York City in 1912 and 1913 (at age 85 and 86), and continued to give speeches at national meetings until increasing age limited her travel in the 19-teens. Beginning in 1892, suffragists began to introduce her at national woman suffrage meetings as a “pioneer and leader,” and they continued to do so until the end of national suffrage meetings in 1920. She remained a friend of Susan B. Anthony until Anthony’s death in 1906. We will never know the extent of Emily Howland’s financial contributions to the suffrage movement, but Susan B. Anthony thought she was one of the two most important contributors from New York State. When she died, her obituary appeared in the New York Times, and eleven biographical encyclopedias carry entries about her life.

Slocum Howland died in 1881. Miss Emily, as she is still known in Sherwood, died in 1929, aged 101. Miss Isabel died in 1942. Estelle Phillips, Herman and Hannah Phillips’ granddaughter and the last of the Phillips family to live in Sherwood, died June 10, 1951, and is buried in Sherwood Cemetery.

The legacy of these remarkable generations lives on. As we begin to understand, once more, the depth of their commitment to ideals of equality for all people, we recognize the impact that individuals in this one small community had on the nation as a whole.