Bertha was born in Danville, VA on November 18, 1872 to Horace and Barbara Dillard. She was married twice, first to Walker Thomas in 1887, but following his death in 1897, she married Dr. William Higgins. In 1903 the couple moved to Providence, Rhode Island where Dr. Higgins practiced medicine. Bertha was an accomplished dressmaker having studied both in this country and in Paris; however, upon arrival in Rhode Island she became active in social reform initiatives especially those related to African Americans and woman suffrage.
Bertha became a leader in the Rhode Island Union of Colored Women’s Clubs and through this organization became the leading advocate for woman suffrage in the Black community. In 1913 at the 11th conference of the Rhode Island Union of Colored Women’s Clubs held at Providence’s Pond Street Baptist Church she spoke on “Why the Rhode Island Union should endorse the suffrage movement” Also in 1913 she became a founding member of the Providence Woman’s Suffrage Party. She stayed active in the woman suffrage movement through the ratification of the 19th amendment to the US Constitution and was a founding member of the Rhode Island League of Woman Voters. Following female enfranchisement, she formed the Julia Ward Howe Republican Woman’s Club whose purpose was to recruit Black women into the Republican Party. Bertha took a prominent role in the Republican Party when in 1925 she became Vice President of the National Republican’s Women Auxiliary, Colored, Eastern District. During the early 1930’s she became frustrated with the Republican Party’s lack of support for African-American equality efforts and switched her allegiance to the Democratic Party. She changed the name of the organization she founded to the Julia Ward Howe Democratic Woman’s Club.
Bertha remained active in social reform programs for the remainder of her life, serving on several state commissions. She was a member of the Providence Urban League and in 1942 spoke at the Rhode Island Democratic Party Convention. She died in Providence on December 30, 1944.
Russell J. DeSimone