Ethel May Caution, a native of Williamsport, was a distinguished poet, a teacher, college dean, YWCA director and social worker. Although she most likely did not know it, she also was the granddaughter of Julia C. Collins, the author of the novel “The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride,” published in 1865 and considered by scholars to be the first novel published by an African American woman.
Julia C. Collins, who was a school teacher in Williamsport, died of tuberculosis when her daughter Annie was three years old. Annie’s father, Stephen Collins, remarried and moved out of town, and Annie Collins lived with her grandparents, Julia A. and Simon Floyd, on Mill Street.
She was an honor roll student at the Hepburn School, the “colored” school in Williamsport, and found work as a domestic and a seamstress. In 1884, Annie Collins married John Caution, who originally was from Maryland. Annie and John had four children: John, Belva Lockwood, Ethel May and Russell.
Just as Annie’s mother had died when Annie was 3 years old, Annie herself died, from pneumonia, when Ethel May was 3 years old. Only two years later, Ethel’s father, John, died from injuries suffered in a sawmill accident. Annie and John Caution are buried at Wildwood Cemetery in a plot paid for by Stephen Collins.
John Caution’s family stepped in to take care of the now-orphaned children. John’s brother Cornelius Caution and his wife, Emma, took Ethel and her sister and brothers to the Boston area to live.
After only eight months, Emma died of ovarian cancer, and the bereaved Cornelius left the four young children at the Odd Fellows orphanage in Boston. Ethel eventually was adopted by a widow, Mary M. Davis. John and Belva were taken in by the Overton family, and Russell went to live with his aunt, Louise Caution, in Johnstown.
Ethel in Massachusetts
Strong willed and determined, Ethel did not let the struggles of her early life stand in her way. In 1904, her adopted mother, Mary Davis, enrolled her in the prestigious Girls’ Latin High School in Boston. Ethel Caution-Davis, as she was called then, was one of the first three black women to graduate from the school.
While a student, she waitressed at Filene’s Department Store restaurant, and one day she overheard some male diners discussing appropriate colleges for their daughters. Wellesley College was the “best,” they agreed. Then and there she decided to attend Wellesley.
To earn money for tuition, according to a fellow alumna of Girls’ Latin, “She prepared at elocution program, a series of memorized poems and speeches that she would deliver as an event at black churches around town and people would pay to hear.” She saved up enough money to go to Wellesley – $175.
Ethel Caution-Davis graduated from Wellesley as a senior scholar of the Class of 1912. She excelled at indoor track and served as the YWCA student secretary for black colleges. Her poetry and stories were published in various Wellesley publications.
She went to work immediately after Wellesley, and wherever she traveled, she took Mary Davis with her.
Among her many jobs were teacher at Sumner High School in Kansas City, secretary of the (colored) YWCA in Los Angeles and dean of Women at Talladega College. She also helped organize YWCAs at other black colleges in the south. Relocating to New York City, she directed Club Caroline, which provided housing for single black women in Harlem, and was a casework supervisor for the New York City Department of Welfare.
Ethel wrote frequent notes about her life for the Wellesley alumnae magazine, sometimes in verse. For her 50th reunion she wrote, “The past 50 years have been spent in trying to help others in a quiet and unspectacular way, wherever I happened to be. Many job assignments were accepted because they would bring me in contact with new people in different parts of this fabulous country of ours.”
Continuing to study and write, Ethel spent a summer at the Sorbonne in Paris. She earned a master of arts degree from Columbia University in 1928. Her poetry is intensely personal; some poems resemble diary entries. Her work appeared in the NAACP magazine Crisis and in other publications.
In 2012, one of her short stories, “Buyers of Dreams,” was published in the Graphic Classics series African-American Classics, along with stories by Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alice Dunbar-Nelson and others.
Today her work appears in anthologies celebrating the Harlem Renaissance, a period of great literary activity for African Americans, especially in New York City.
Ethel made multiple trips back to her Williamsport birthplace, determined to learn more about her roots in the community. She was especially interested in learning the identity of her maternal grandmother. She knew that Stephen Collins was her grandfather, but she probably never discovered that her grandmother was an author and educator, and she never discovered her grandmother’s name at birth.
After her retirement, Ethel relocated to New Jersey, treasuring her passion for gardening. But in 1971, at age 84, she was still hoping to find her Williamsport family, especially her grandmother, and wrote a letter to a possible cousin, Jersey Shore native Robert Smith, asking for his help and detailing what she knew.
She continued to be in contact with her siblings, each outstanding in his or her own chosen profession. Her older brother, John Caution Jr., changed his name to Frank (Fay) Young. Widely regarded as the “Dean of African American sportswriters” because of his advocacy for “negro” sports, Fay wrote for the Chicago Defender.
Her sister Belva Lockwood, named after one of the first female candidates for U.S. President, studied at the University of Chicago and enjoyed a distinguished career as a nurse in Tuskegee, New Orleans, and Provident Hospital in Chicago.
Russell Collins Caution, the youngest, lived in Atlantic City, where he was active in the NAACP and in publishing and distributing African American literature.
Ethel May Caution died in New York City on Dec. 18, 1981. All three of her siblings had died before her.
Sieminski is a retired librarian and manager of the Lycoming County Women’s History Collection.
Her column is published the second Sunday of each month and she can be reached at lcwhc firstname.lastname@example.org.