Not So Famous North Carolinians: Gertrude Weil

“It is so obvious that to treat people equally is the right thing to do.”

Gertrude Weil’s passion for equality and justice shaped the course of her long life. Inspired by Jewish teachings that “justice, mercy, [and] goodness were not to be held in a vacuum, but practiced in our daily lives,” Weil stood courageously at the forefront of a wide range of progressive and often controversial causes, including women’s suffrage, labor reform and civil rights. She worked tirelessly to extend political, economic and social opportunities to those long denied them.

Gertrude Weil’s parents were a German-Jewish immigrant Henry Weil and Mina Rosenthal of Wilson, NC. Her father and her uncles Herman and Solomon Weil started H. Weil & Bros. in 1865. This general store evolved into a major North Carolina department store and still exists today as a Goldsboro real estate company.

Margaret Stanton Lawrence, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the founders of the woman’s suffrage movement. She was the first North Carolinian to attend Smith College, a renowned women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts.

After graduating from Smith College in 1901, Gertrude wanted to work as a teacher in New York City, but her family persuaded her to return to Goldsboro where she spent the rest of her life working for social justice from her family home. Weil biographer Heather Pennington says she “provides a rare example of southern Jewish social activism during the first half of the twentieth century.”

In 1912 she led a campaign to give women the right to serve on school boards in North Carolina. In 1913 she founded the North Carolina Equal Suffrage League. In the1920s she was a founder and president of the North Carolina Suffrage League, founding president of the state’s League of Women Voters, and founder and officer of the Legislative Council of North Carolina Women.

In 1930 Gertrude was one of three North Carolina women attending an Anti-Lynching Conference of Southern White Women and joined the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. On her return to Goldsboro she was appointed by Governor O. Max Gardner of Shelby to the North Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation.  Gardner’s wife, Fay Webb, had met Gertrude in 1912 and introduced her to him, who was a State Senator at the time.  With the encouragement of his wife and Weill, Gardner, who became Lt. Governor in 1917, led an unsuccessful fight for the confirmation of 19th Amendment by the North Carolina General Assembly.  Gardner also supported the rights of women and people of color in North Carolina during this same period of time.  Gardner had lost his 1920 campaign for Governor based on his support for the rights of women and the rights of people of color.

Gertrude helped create the Wayne County Health Department and paid the salary of a public health nurse. She was known as a “one-woman Welfare Department.” In the 1950s when Goldsboro barred blacks from the municipal swimming pool, Gertrude and a cousin donated land and money to build a pool in a black neighborhood. In 1963 she founded the Goldsboro Bi-Racial Council, which met at her house.

Gertrude received the Howard Odum award from the North Carolina Council on Human Relations, she was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1957 from UNC Greensboro, and she earned the Smith Medal from Smith College for a lifetime of service to others. Her grave is in the Jewish Section of Willow Dale Cemetery in Goldsboro North Carolina.


For more on Gertrude Weil, visit the Jewish Women Archive: