Women in the United States did not have the legal right to vote — suffrage — until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1920. The ability to cast a ballot took the better part of a century (1848 to 1920) and was the work of thousands.
Black women were central to the effort. Yet, until now, African-American contributions to the suffrage movement have gone largely unacknowledged. During a year-long, national celebration of the suffrage movement, a more complete story is beginning to emerge about the people who fought for American women’s voting rights and forgotten stories are being told. Here, we’ll talk about Black women’s contributions.
Racism and the Suffrage Movement
In 1920, white women were restive and incensed to still be second class citizens. Black women, trapped by the double-bind of race and gender, agreed that the right to vote was a woman’s issue but they also saw it as a civil rights issue. Yet, while prominent national suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, founders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), fought to secure suffrage for white women, they opposed linking their cause with the cause of civil rights. And Anthony was apparently a white supremacist.
The racism of white women caused the suffragist movement to splinter along racial lines. Black suffragists knew that if the vote was to be theirs, they would have to do the work. So they went about the work. Black women turned to their own highly effective civic and political organizations and ramped up their involvement with the suffrage issue. Organizations, like The National Association of Colored Women (NACW) had emerged over the previous century to take on all kinds of unmet needs in the Black community and they exercised considerable political muscle. Formed in 1896, NACW unified over 100 local clubs. Like the white suffragists, they organized and advocated to ratify the 19th Amendment.
Here are some of the familiar names from these battles. Many of these women are more associated with other political feats, but we now know that they were also pillars of the American suffrage movement.
The BlackHer Suffragists We Know About
The great Sojourner Truth must be mentioned first. She was a regular speaker and campaigner on the suffragist circuit. Her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech electrified the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. When the granite Portrait Monument – the suffragists’ memorial – was unearthed from the basement of the Capitol in 2004, it was her name that emerged as the Black woman whose image should be added to the statue. Sadly, the proposal died in the U.S. Congress.
- Harriet Tubman was all about women’s suffrage and toured the East coast speaking on the issue.
- Ida B. Wells, legendary publisher and anti-lynching crusader, founded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago in 1913. It was the first Black women’s club focused on suffrage.
- Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, was a legendary suffragist organizer.
- Nannie Helen Burroughs, the educator, was all about empowering Black women. Along with her famous training school in Washington, D.C., she was politically outspoken on civil rights and women’s rights issues.
- Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a lawyer and briefly the first Black woman to publish a newspaper (which she did from Canada, where she emigrated in 1950), is known more for her abolitionist and anti-lynching work, but was an active suffragist.
- Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, oversaw the organization’s Equal Suffrage League, which promoted Black women’s interest in suffrage.
- Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, poet and activist, was a co-founder of the NACW along with Mary Church Terrell. She was its first vice president.
- Daisy Elizabeth Adams Lampkin, president of the Lucy Stone Suffrage League in 1915, was later a field secretary for the NAACP.
- This list is inadequate, as it represents just the handful of women who reached national prominence for their public role in gaining suffrage. There are thousands more that belong on the list; women organizing in communities, whose efforts had broad impact. Sadly, most will go unacknowledged.
The Bigger Challenge to Black Women’s Suffrage: American Racism
There were many points at which Black suffragists felt rebuffed by white suffragists. Perhaps the most public affront occurred at the huge 1913 Suffragists Convention in Washington DC. There, the suffragists held a parade so large that it upstaged Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. The Black suffragists led that day by Ida B. Wells, were sent to walk at the back of the parade. They refused.
According to Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, after initial difficulties and attempts to segregate the African American women, “telegrams and protests poured in and eventually the colored women marched according to their State and occupation without let or hindrance.” Ida B. Wells was among those who objected strongly to a segregated parade; she walked with the Illinois delegation.
Suppressing the African-American Vote, Then and Now
The19th Amendment finally passed in 1920. But for Blacks, aggressive voter suppression tactics in many states would make casting a ballot a risky proposition — for Black women and men alike — for years to come.
Especially for Black women in southern states, the struggle for the vote extended for decades more, to 1965, when the Voting Rights Act would finally topple barriers constructed by Jim Crow. See “How Black Suffragists Fought for the Right to Vote and a Modicum of Respect.”
Today, it is clear that voter suppression is still alive and well. On Super Tuesday, the last voter in one Texas precinct waited 7 hours to vote. It just so happens, Texas has closed 750 polling sites since 2012. If that’s not voter suppression, we don’t know what is. In addition, the epidemic of gerrymandering has become the most effective voter suppression tactic of the modern age.
In 2020, Black women’s significant and sustained contribution to and participation in the suffragist movement is being acknowledged for the first time in a real way. Take note of the year-long celebrations taking place all across the country.
In our current political environment, the resurgence and changing nature of voter suppression creates more urgency to protect and strengthen our voting rights. Let’s ensure that our daughters and sons know this history and continue to fight for their civil rights!
Read more about the 2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative.