by Marcy Breffle
Born Mary Ellen Peters in Atlanta in February 1851, Nellie descended from a long line of significant men. Her grandfather was Judge Richard Peters, a Revolutionary War veteran and federal judge. Her father, Richard Peters, was an early leader of Atlanta. He was a key player in the growth of the city’s transportation routes, first serving as superintendent of the Georgia Railroad and later establishing Atlanta’s first streetcar line. Nellie’s early years may have been characterized by the men in her life, but she soon established herself as a force for civic reform and an advocate of social welfare.
As a child, Nellie accompanied her mother, Mary, on charitable visits to Confederate hospitals around Atlanta during the Civil War. They visited wounded soldiers and distributed food. These visits had a profound impact on Nellie, who developed a desire to use her personal wealth to help the less-fortunate. Nellie attended finishing school in Pennsylvania after the war, where she met other daughters of affluent families and continued her charitable work. When her father offered Nellie a diamond ring for her birthday, she declined and asked for a saddle horse instead. Nellie named the horse “Diamond” and rode it daily around the city on “errands of mercy.”
1877, she married Col. George Robinson Black, a state senator from Screven County and a widower with four children. Col. Black was elected to Congress in 1880 and the family moved to Washington, D.C. The couple raised their children and step-children in the Capitol before Black’s death in 1886. Two years later, Nellie moved the family back to Atlanta.
She assumed her charity work upon her return. Like many Victorian women, Nellie believed that the role of women as mothers and homemakers not only applied to the individual household, but also the larger community. Nellie began to push for progressive reforms to clean up the community and offer welfare to the less-fortunate. She promoted the founding of both the King’s Daughters Hospital (on Pryor Street) and Grady Hospital. She served as an officer of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia and helped to establish Atlanta’s first mission, later known as the Holy Innocent’s Mission.
In the 1890s, Nellie became interested in the kindergarten movement. Educators theorized that young children lacked the nurturing environment and moral instruction they would receive from their mothers, who were instead working to support their families. Kindergartens would support growth and prepare children for higher education. In 1895, Nellie organized the Atlanta Free Kindergarten Association, an organization which she served as president for 20 years. She campaigned for free kindergartens, which finally became part of the public school system in Atlanta in 1919. Nellie also argued for the higher education of women. She lobbied for women to be admitted to the University of Georgia and the Georgia Bar Association.
Nellie became a leading figure in the club movement in the Atlanta. Early women’s clubs provided access to education, opportunities for community service, and gave club members a platform to reform their community. Nellie was a consummate clubwoman. She belonged to the Pioneer Club of Atlanta, Colonial Dames, Daughters of the American Revolution, and United Daughters of the Confederacy. In 1895, Nellie became a founding member of the Atlanta Woman’s Club (AWC). The club, which still exists today, was dedicated to serving the Atlanta community through charitable activities. The AWC was incorporated into the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs in the late 19th century, and Nellie served three terms as president. She led the club during the years of World War I and was still in office when she died in 1919.
After her death, The Atlanta Journal referred to Nellie Peters Black as “one of the leading women of the South” and wrote that “Her name was a synonym for charity, for gentleness of spirit, for love of humanity, for constructive citizenship. No man or woman in the last century has exerted a stronger influence for the uplift and advancement of the state.”
Nellie Peters Black was named a Georgia Women of Achievement in 1996.
Historic Oakland Foundation celebrates Women’s History Month with a 10% discount on select titles in the Visitors Center & Museum Shop. Offer good through March 31, see store for details.