Originally published Feb. 8, 2020
Aug. 26 marks 100 years since the certification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing all American women suffrage, or the right to vote. Aug. 18 marked the 100th anniversary of the amendment's ratification. The dominant narrative about the women’s suffrage movement is framed through the experiences of white women (and to some extent, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a noted and outspoken supporter of women's rights).
But African American women played a major role in obtaining the right to vote even though many of them would not truly enjoy the right themselves to the same extent until decades later.
In 1872, Susan B. Anthony attempted to vote in the presidential election and was arrested and tried in Rochester, New York. In Battle Creek, Michigan, Sojourner Truth demanded a ballot and was turned away. The suffrage movement was in full swing.
Women’s rights activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Betsy Ross, who championed gender equity, didn't feel the same about race. While many white suffragists worked to help eradicate the institution of slavery, they did not work to ensure that former enslaved people would have citizenship or voting rights.
“Black women were not accounted for in white women’s push for suffrage. Their fight wasn’t about women writ large. It was about white women obtaining power – the same power as their husbands, Black women and Black men be damned,” says Jennifer D. Williams, an assistant professor at Howard University.
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Stanton and Ross and other high-profile leaders in the movement didn't support the 14th and 15th amendments, which granted formerly enslaved people citizenship rights and gave Black men voting rights. Given this chasm, a Black women's suffrage movement developed alongside the mainstream movement.
“There was a concerted effort by white women suffragists to create boundaries towards Black women working in the movement,” says historian and author Michelle Duster. “White women were more concerned with having the same power as their husbands, while Black women saw the vote as a means to improving their conditions.”
Here are some Black suffragists you should know:
Born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree, she gained her freedom in the 1820s and supported herself through menial jobs and selling a book written by Olive Gilbert, “Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York in 1828.” At the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth delivered what is now recognized as one of the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speeches in American history, “Ain’t I a Woman?” In 1872, Truth was turned away when trying to vote in the U.S. presidential election in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Tubman, whose birth name was Araminta Ross, is commonly known as an emancipator who led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom along the underground railroad. She also was a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage, giving speeches about her experiences as an enslaved woman at various anti-slavery conventions, out of which the voting rights movement emerged.
Coralie Franklin Cook
Cook founded the National Association of Colored Women and was known as a committed suffragist. In 1915, she published “Votes for Mothers” in the NAACP magazine The Crisis discussing the challenges of being a mother and why women need the vote.
Angelina Welde Grimke
A well-known feminist in the District of Columbia, Grimke was a journalist, playwright, poet, lesbian, suffragist and teacher. Grimke wrote for several journals such as Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review. Educated at Wellesley College, Grimke’s literary works exposed her ideas about the pain and violence in Black women’s lives, and her rejection of the double standards imposed on women.
Charlotta (Lottie) Rollin
After the Civil War, the woman suffrage movement split into two separate organizations: the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) – a more radical group and the more mainstream American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Rollin joined the AWSA. During Reconstruction, Rollin became active in South Carolina politics working for congressman Robert Brown Elliott. Rollin spoke on the floor of the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1869 in support of universal suffrage. By 1870, Rollin chaired the founding meeting of the South Carolina Woman’s Rights Association and was elected secretary. Several of Rollin's family members – sisters Frances, Kate and Louisa also were active in promoting women's suffrage at both the state and national levels.
Mary Ann Shad Cary
Cary was perhaps the first Black suffragist to form a suffrage association. During the 1850s, she was a leader and spokesperson among the African American refugees who fled to Canada after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. In 1853, she founded the Provincial Freeman, a newspaper dedicated to the interests of Blacks in Canada. Cary spoke at the 1878 convention of the NWSA applying the principles of the 14th and 15th amendments to women and men. She called for an amendment to strike the word “male” from the Constitution. In 1871, Cary unsuccessfully tried to vote in Washington, but she and 63 other women prevailed upon officials to sign affidavits attesting that women had tried to vote. In 1880, she organized the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association, which promoted suffrage and educated people on finance and politics.
Gertrude Bustill Mossell
A journalist, Mossell, wrote a women’s column in T. Thomas Fortune’s newspaper, The New York Freeman. Her first article, “Woman Suffrage” published in 1885, encouraged women to read suffrage history and articles on women’s rights.
Ida B. Wells
Wells, who worked with white suffragists in Illinois, founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first suffrage group for Black women. They canvassed neighborhoods and educated people on causes and candidates helping to elect Chicago’s first Black alderman. In 1913, Wells and some white activists from the Illinois delegation traveled to Washington to participate in the historic suffrage parade where women gathered to call for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. Black suffragists were initially rejected from the event. Wells and other suffragists including white suffragists like Stanton wrote letters asking the parade to allow Black women to participate. Event leaders acquiesced, requiring Black suffragists to march in the back of the parade to assuage the feelings of white women in the movement who did not want them there. Despite the conditions, Black suffragists participated. However, Wells refused to march at the back.
Mary Church Terrell
In 1896, Terrell and fellow activists founded the National Association of Colored Women and Terrell served as the association’s first president. After the passage of the 19th Amendment, Terrell turned her attention to civil rights.
Anna Julia Cooper
Anna Julia Cooper was a prominent African American scholar and a strong supporter of suffrage through her teaching, writings and speeches. Cooper worked to convince Black women that they required the ballot to counter the belief that “Black men’s” experiences and needs were the same as theirs.
Known as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” because of her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Parks continued to work for civil rights which included voting rights. Parks served as an aide to Rep. John Conyers and used her platform to discuss many issues, including voting rights.
Charlotte Vandine Forten
An abolitionist and suffragist, Forten came to Washington in the late 1870s with her husband, James Forten, a wealthy sail maker and abolitionist. She was a founder and member of the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, many of whose members became active in the women’s rights movement.
Harriet Forten Purvis
Daughter of wealthy sailmaker and abolitionist reformer James Forten and Charlotte Forten, Forten Purvis and her sisters were founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and members of the American Equal Rights Association, where Harriet served as a member of the executive committee. Affluent and educated, the sisters helped lay the groundwork for the first National Woman’s Rights Convention in October 1854 and helped organize the Philadelphia Suffrage Association in 1866.
Forten was an educator and abolitionist. She and her mother, Charlotte Forten and her sister, Harriet, were founders and members of the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.
Harriet “Hattie” Purvis
A niece of the Forten family of reformers, Purvis was active in the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association and a member of their executive committee. Between 1883 and 1900, she served as a delegate to the National Woman Suffrage Association. She also served as Superintendent of Work among Colored People for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, championing reforms.
Remond was an antislavery lecturer and physician. The Remonds were a noted abolitionist family, well known in antislavery circles and, as a child, Sarah had attended abolitionist meetings. She was an activist in the Salem and Massachusetts Antislavery Societies, and a member of the American Equal Rights Association, where she served as a guest lecturer, and toured the Northeast campaigning for universal suffrage. Discouraged by the split in the women's suffrage movement after the Civil War, she left the United States, becoming an expatriate in Florence, Italy, in 1866, where she studied medicine.
Francis Ellen Watkins Harper
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an early abolitionist and women’s suffrage leader. She was one of the few African American women present at conferences and meetings about these issues between 1854 and 1890. She also wrote protest poetry which included musings about voting rights.
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin
Ruffin was a Massachusetts journalist and noted abolitionist before the Civil War. She joined the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association in 1875 and was affiliated with the American Woman Suffrage Association. She was a Black woman’s club leader in Massachusetts and the wife of George L. Ruffin, one of the woman's suffrage representatives from Boston in the state legislature. She challenged the opposition to woman's suffrage in Boston, writing an editorial co-authored with her daughter, Florida Ridley.
Nannie Helen Burroughs
Burroughs, an educator, church leader and suffrage supporter, devoted her life to empowering Black women. She helped establish the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and founded the National Training School for Women and Girls in 1909.
Civil rights activist and freedom fighter, Ella Baker played a key role in some of the most influential organizations of the time, including the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1964, SNCC helped create Freedom Summer, an effort to both focus national attention on Mississippi's racism and to register Black voters. Baker and many of her contemporaries believed that voting was one key to freedom.
Nsenga K. Burton is an award-winning professor, multimedia journalist, filmmaker and producer. She is co-director of the Film and Media Management concentration at Emory University in the Department of Film and Media Studies, where she teaches courses on Hollywood's entertainment industries, content creation and special topics like Reality Television and Hip-Hop Media. Follow her on Twitter @Ntellectual.
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