Black Women Suffragists
In honor of the Centennial of the passage of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote, we are featuring a piece in our local newspaper every month about a famous suffragist.
In the June 27 issue of the Union Democrat, we featured the too-seldom-told story of the many women of color who fought for the 19th amendment and continue fighting for complete suffrage today. Click a link below to find out more.
Black Suffragists and Their 100-Year War
By Nan Fuller
In the battle for women’s rights, black suffragists spoke out from pulpits and convention halls, often taking groundbreaking action. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper refused to move to the "colored" section of a trolley ─ 100 years before Rosa Parks. A year before Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting illegally, Mary Ann Shadd Cary energized suffragists with her attempt to register to vote.
Many black suffragists also participated in national suffrage organizations. Unfortunately, these organizations were largely controlled by black men and white women, with black women often excluded from attending conventions and required to march at the rear of suffrage parades. When organizers barred black women’s groups from the 1893 World’s Fair, Mary Church Terrell joined with fellow suffragists to found the National Association of Colored Women, one of many organizations black suffragists formed to confront unaddressed issues of race.
Once the 19th Amendment was ratified,
white suffragists considered their battle won.
However, black suffragists feared segregationist electoral systems would override their voting rights, just as Jim Crow laws had disenfranchised over 90% of black men in the South. When Terrell petitioned her white suffragist sisters for help, they responded that black voter suppression was a race problem — not a gender problem — and beyond the movement’s scope.
The NAACP and black newspapers were soon overwhelmed with letters, investigations and afﬁdavits documenting the disenfranchisement of black women, especially in former Confederate states. A teacher in Alabama was arrested and sexually assaulted after leading a crowd to the registrar’s office. In Virginia, a college-educated mother of four was required to take a “literacy test” that consisted of a blank sheet of paper.
It would take another 45 years of struggle by thousands of activists before the Voting Rights Act (VRA) became law in 1965, and the Jim Crow laws established almost a century earlier were finally nullified. Minority turnout increased by 30 percent. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the portion of the VRA empowering the Justice Department to veto any new election law or policy in localities with a history of racial discrimination. In her dissent, Justice Ginsberg stated,
“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to
work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your
umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Freed of federal oversight, new restrictive policies such as polling place closures and voter purges were enacted and continue to this day. 100 years after passage of the 19th amendment, and 150 years after passage of the 15th amendment, the fight for voting rights continues.
To find out more about the ongoing fight for women’s rights, visit our website, https://www.lwvml.org.
Sponsored by: Law Office of Jim Cherry, Law Office of Sally Chenault, Frank Russell Attorney at Law, Tuolumne County Bar Association, National Hotel and Restaurant, and Members of LWVML
More About Individual Suffragists
Sojourner Truth Although she could not read or write, Truth went on to become a compelling orator, and a crusader for the abolishment of slavery and for women's suffrage. In 1851, she delivered her most famous speech, “Ain't I a Woman,” at the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Her powerful speech continues to empower women.
Harriet Tubman When the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law was passed, Harriet Tubman guided former slaves further north, into Canada. All in all, the activist made 13 trips, freeing 300 slaves. Later on, she joined Susan B. Anthony in speaking out for women's suffrage. Tubman was one of the founding members of the National Association of Colored Women that was established in 1896.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper In 1858, Watkins refused to give up her seat to ride in the "colored" section of a segregated trolley car in Philadelphia, which inspired her to write one of her most famous poems,“Bury Me in a Free Land.” In 1872, she published, Sketches of Southern Life, which explored her experiences during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. In her later years, she was an activist for women's suffrage, and a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women
Ida B. Wells In 1884, at age 25, Wells was forcibly ejected from a train when she refused to be seated in a car designated for African-American passengers. She successfully sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad for damages and won a $500 settlement. However, the decision was later overturned in 1887 on an appeal.
Wells wrote a scathing expose titled, “Southern Horrors,” detailing race and politics in the South, where three of her friends were lynched in 1892. When her complaints of racial discrimination were ignored by the local government in Tennessee, she continued her incendiary commentary on race relations. As a result, she was forced to leave the state amid threats on her life. She co-founded a number of civil rights organizations, including: the National Association of Colored Women, The Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago and the National Association of Colored People (NAACP). For a flavor of the time and this fiery activist see the video on Wells here.
Quotes - Conflict Amid the Changing Roles of Women in Society
“I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
"I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."
Susan B. Anthony
"...if colored men get their rights, and colored women not theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women...."
"I will not allow my life's light to be determined by the darkness around me."
“There is no slave, after all, like a wife...Poor women, poor slaves… All married women, all children and girls who live in their father’s house are slaves.”
Mary Boykin Chesnut
The fashion of saying "I do not care to meddle with politics" is disappearing...for this same woman has learned that politics meddle constantly with her and hers.
Adella Hunt Logan
I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The good would vote according to their convictions and principles; the bad, as dictated by preju[d]ice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, with the winning party.
"What we need today is not simply more voters, but better voters."
"We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feebliest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul."
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper