Honoring a driven Suffolk woman

Published 10:41 pm Thursday, March 28, 2019

Women’s History Month this March has highlighted many outstanding women who proudly left their names in the history books by relentlessly working for society’s betterment.

One of those women was Suffolk’s own Marion Estelle Freeney Eley, former president of the Virginia Federation of Women’s Clubs and of the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons, Inc., along with other titles and distinctions.

Marion is one of 230 Virginia women whose names are inscribed on the glass Wall of Honor, a component of the Virginia Women’s Monument on Capitol Square in downtown Richmond.

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“The Virginia Women’s Monument is the nation’s first monument designed to celebrate the remarkable women who made significant, but often unrecognized, contributions and accomplishments in a variety of fields and endeavors over the 400-year history of Virginia,” according to a Virginia Capitol Foundation press release.

Marion was born Sept. 13, 1875 in Wicomico County, Md., according to her Dictionary of Virginia biography page on the Library of Virginia website.

Her family moved to Virginia when she was young and she grew up in Suffolk, where she attended Suffolk Female Institute — later known as Suffolk College. She studied history, Latin, voice and mathematics, for which she earned a certificate of distinction.

She had taught for three years before she married Henry Seth Eley on Nov. 14, 1899. He was a Suffolk pharmacist and also served as the city’s treasurer from 1919 to 1933.

The two had one son and were active churchgoers. Marion and her husband were members of Main Street Methodist Church and later Oxford Methodist Church, where she sang in the choir and taught Sunday school.

Marion’s life is a long record of service, and she devoted more than 40 years of it to the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons, an interdenominational organization of women and men dedicated to Christian service.

She served as president of the organization’s Virginia chapter for more than 20 years starting in 1919, and from 1936 to 1944 she was president of the International Order headquartered in New York. She was one of the editors of the order’s official publication “The Silver Cross” and also wrote articles on Bible studies and religious subjects for other publications.

A Suffolk News-Herald editorial published May 23, 1936 praised Marion for her election as president of the International Order. Her ceaseless efforts bore even more fruit for her at this time, as she had also been elected a director of the Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs.

“We think the lady from Suffolk has won the right to wear both these honors and those who conferred them only honored themselves in doing so,” the editorial reads. “If ever a member of the Kings Daughters and Sons merited this distinction as a gift from her co-workers it is Mrs. Eley.”

Marion’s dedication didn’t stop with the Order or the garden clubs. She was also vigilant in the Virginia Federation of Woman’s Clubs.

She was president of the Woman’s Club of Suffolk from 1924 to 1933, during which she oversaw the purchase and remodeling of a new clubhouse. The club created the city’s first lending library and maintained the library in the clubhouse until 1957.

Marion served as recording secretary of the Virginia Federation of Women’s Clubs, then won the election for a one-year presidential term in 1925. She later served a second term from 1928 to 1930.

As president, she frequently traveled to address women’s clubs and conferences statewide, along with national conventions. The Virginia Federation also made important changes to its administrative and organizational structure during her terms.

Communication between division chairs and local clubs had improved during this time, and the federation continued its policy to form and operate community libraries, according to her biography.

The federation also created a committee on the law and began publishing its “Virginia Club Woman” magazine in 1928, which Marion edited from its founding to 1932.

She addressed an annual meeting in 1930 when she retired from her presidency. Her address posed a question that outlined the objectives of the federation and emphasized the power of a united voice.

“Has it ever occurred to you that without the united voice of club women, demanding social justice we would have known little or certainly less, of detention homes, juvenile courts, mother’s pensions, scholarship loan funds, county libraries, to say nothing of highway beautification, etc.,” she is quoted as saying in her biography.

Marion was often called upon to help make society a better place for all, like when she received an invitation in November 1931 from Jessie Daniel Ames, who was with the Commission on Interracial Cooperation.

She was invited to attend the first meeting of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.

Ames telegraphed her two days before the conference in Atlanta. His message read “we want Virginia representative preferably you please wire whether coming.” Marion replied the next day that she would take the overnight train.

The Association stood against the common justification for lynching — the protection of white women from rape. According to the biography, only 30 percent of lynching during the previous decade back then had been for accusations of rape or attempted rape.

Marion joined other members of the Association’s central council in a public statement that “lynching is not a defense of womanhood, but rather a menace to private and public safety” that has the tendency to “destroy all respect for law and order.”

The Association enlisted help from local organizations and sheriffs to prevent lynching, which may have assisted in the sharp decline in lynching by 1938, according to the biography.

Marion’s long list of public service goes on to include the local committee on charities and corrections in Suffolk, the Cooperative Education Association of Virginia, the Virginia Tuberculosis Association and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She also served as a vice president of the Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs.

She became partially paralyzed after a series of operations for a brain tumor in 1938, and most of her remaining years were confined to a wheelchair. But she continued to be as active as she could be in most of the civic and charitable organizations that she had served on with dedication for most of her life.

Marion died of cancer in a Suffolk hospital on April 4, 1954. She was predeceased by her husband, who had died on March 9, 1952. The two are buried with others family members in Cedar Hill Cemetery in downtown Suffolk.