1885 was a memorable year in the annals of American history. During that year, the Washington Monument was dedicated. The world’s first skyscraper – an architectural marvel known as the Home Insurance Building – was constructed in Chicago. And the French frigate Isere arrived in New York Harbor bearing 214 crates of copper and steel that would later be assembled as the Statue of Liberty.
It was also the year that a remarkable woman was born in Brooklyn, Jessie Cooke. She would come of age during whirlwind years – as millions of immigrants arrived at America’s shores hoping for better lives, as two bicycle mechanics ushered in the dawn of aviation with a 12-second power-controlled flight at Kitty Hawk, as American women fought for women’s suffrage, and at a time in U.S. history when African Americans were still denied the right to vote.
In this climate of social turmoil and technological upheaval, Jessie, a Barnard College graduate of considerable charm and wit, came of age and devoted her life to meeting community needs and fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised.
During her years at Barnard, Jessie met Rowland Holbrook Smith, the son of a successful New York merchant. They married, and he went on to thrive in the cosmetics industry as the creator of Djer-Kiss face powder. He died suddenly at age 40, leaving a widow and three children.
Jessie was said to be “a woman whose outward beauty reflected her inner religious strength, and her love and faith in her fellowmen.” She was also described as a beautiful woman “full of idealism about everything” who “cared enormously about people” and “the future.”
In 1926, she married a long-time friend of her late husband’s – the widower Charles F. Noyes, whose first wife, Eleanora Halsted, had died in 1920.
At age 41, Jessie Smith Noyes was indefatigable. Her classic beauty and warm personality drew people to her, but it was her strong sense of social justice that appealed most to people, enabling her to advance the causes she truly believed in. As vice president of the Brooklyn YWCA, which was founded in 1888 and was one of the first YWCAs in the United States, Mrs. Noyes was clearly ahead of her time in working tirelessly for religious tolerance and racial equality long before equal rights became a national issue.
Jessie was a woman who stood by her convictions. She firmly believed that you could change the world “one person at a time,” and even tried doing so herself when she attempted to desegregate the Brooklyn YWCA pool in the 1920s.
In 1936, Jessie Smith Noyes died. Eleven years later, her husband Charles F. Noyes established the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation as a memorial to her.
“Jessie Smith Noyes was an advocate for racial tolerance and the rights of women,” says Victor De Luca, president of the Noyes Foundation. “She would be astonished to know that 60 years after the founding of the organization that bears her name, not only women and their families are being helped by providing funding to strong women’s rights organizations, but that the Foundation is helping to foster sustainable systems that protect the environment and advocate for environmental justice.”
The Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation continues to support solutions to emerging problems and, through its interest in programs, encouraging individual growth and achievement.