Suffragists of Color
February is Black History Month; its origins date back to 1926, when a well-known historian of the time, Carter G. Woodson, and several other prominent African Americans came up with an African American History Week idea. This week grew into a month, the purpose of which is to celebrate the gifts and achievements of Black Americans. Since 1976, every U. S. President has designated February as Black History Month.
In 2020, this country celebrated women getting the right to vote. We have all heard of Susan B. Anthony and Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. These white women came to be known as suffragists.
But I wonder how many of you have heard of Mamie Dillard, Anna Cooper, Margaret Murray Washington, Naomi Talbert Anderson, Janice Porter Barrett, Coralie Franklin Cook, Mary McCurdy, Adel Hunt Logan, Mary Jacobson, Mrs. I.L. Moorman, Mrs. R. Jerome, Mary Talbert, or Charlotte Forten Grimke? These women of color worked for women’s suffrage, not necessarily with white women but in parallel organizations and ways. Many of these women were born after the civil war during the Reconstruction period. Most were considered Republicans as they supported Lincoln. Think about that. Why would you be considered anything if you couldn’t vote! Many were involved in education. Many graduated from what is referred to today as an HBCU (Historically black colleges and universities) or from Oberlin College in Ohio…the first college to admit black students. A number had a connection with Tuskegee Institute. Many were writers and journalists for black newspapers. Many were involved with the Black Women’s Club Movement, and many got their start through churches. Many were also involved in prohibition, anti-lynching, abolition, and other important issues of the day.
Sojourner Truth was born in 1797 into slavery in Ulster County, New York. When she was nine years old, she was sold away from her parents along with a flock of sheep for $100. She was sold several times, married several times, raped, and her first husband beaten to death. She was eventually freed from slavery in 1827 under the ‘gradual’ emancipation law of NY state. In 1850, her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave, was published, enabling her to purchase a house in Northampton, Mass.
She spoke at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Mass. In 1851, she attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, where she delivered her speech “Ain’t I A Woman?”, one of the most famous speeches on African American and women’s rights in American history. For most of her remaining life, Truth continued to travel the United States to speak on matters relating to African Americans and women’s rights, including the right to vote.
During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit African American men for the Union Army. In 1864, she worked for the National Freedmen’s Relief Association in Washington, DC, where she met President Abraham Lincoln. While in Washington, she traveled on public streetcars in support of their desegregation.
Starting in 1870, she advocated securing land grants from the federal government for formerly enslaved people, which was an unsuccessful effort… I’m assuming this may have been the beginning of the reparation concept. In 1872, she worked on Grant’s re-election campaign; but when she went to the polls on Election Day to vote, she was turned away. She died in 1883 at the age of 86. The 1997 NASA Mars Pathfinder robot Sojourner, and the asteroid 249521 Truth, were named after her. In 2009, Truth became the first Black woman memorialized with a bust in the US Capitol.
The day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1913, there was a huge parade headed up by Alice Paul and the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association; they knew there would be many people in town for the inauguration. More than 5000 women-led by Inez Mulholland, a lawyer, and activist, riding a white horse, marched down Pennsylvania Ave. It was a grand parade with more than 20 floats, nine bands, and four mounted brigades. More than 100 women were hospitalized for their injuries.
Black women were invited to participate, but when they got to the parade, the organizers asked them to march at the end lest they offend the white southern suffragists. Ida Wells, president of the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, refused to do that. She waited and watched as the parade passed by, and when the Illinois contingent passed her, she just joined and walked right along with them. The black women were treated like the other women, mostly ignored! Wells was an investigative reporter, writing mainly on issues of race and politics in the south. She owned two newspapers in Memphis and taught in Memphis’s segregated schools until her vocal criticism of school conditions got her fired.
In 1892, Wells turned her attention to anti-lynching after three associates were lynched and murdered. One of her editorials pushed some of the city’s whites over the edge. A mob stormed her newspaper office and destroyed all of her equipment. Wells was in New York at the time of the incident, which likely saved her life.
Following that, she wrote a report on lynching in America for the New York Age, a newspaper in NYC run by T. Thomas Fortune, a former slave. In 1898 she called on President McKinley to make reforms in lynching reforms.
She died at the age of 69 in 1931. In 2020, Ida B. Wells was awarded a Pulitzer Prize “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
Mary Church Terrell ( 1863 – 1954) was the daughter of freed slaves of mixed racial ancestry. Her parents were prominent members of Memphis’s black elite after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction Era. She majored in Classics at Oberlin College, the first college in the United States to accept African American and female students.
In 1885, she began teaching modern languages at Wilberforce University, a historically black college. Later, she taught in the Latin Department at the M Street School in Washington, DC, the nation’s first African American public high school. She studied in Europe for two years, where she became fluent in French, German, and Italian. In 1896, Terrell became the first African-American woman in the United States to be appointed to the school board of a major city, serving in the District of Columbia until 1906.
In 1892, Terrell helped form the Colored Women’s League in Washington, DC. The service-oriented club’s goals were to promote unity, social progress, and the African American community’s best interests. It aided in elevating the lives of educated black women outside of a church setting. A similar organization also was forming in Boston under the direction of Josephine St. Pierre Rufin. Terrell and Ruffin combined their efforts with hundreds of other organizations to reach a wider group nearing the beginning of the 20th century. Out of these efforts grew the National Association of Colored Women, the first secular national organization dedicated to black women’s livelihoods and creating nurseries and kindergartens for black children. Terrell was twice elected president. Terrell was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909.)
As one of the few African-American women who was allowed to attend the National American Women Suffrage Association meetings, Terrell spoke directly about the injustices and issues within the African-American community. Through NAWSA, she met Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Nannie Helen Burroughs attended M Street High School, where she met Anna J. Cooper and Mary Church Terrell, her future role models. Upon graduating in 1896, Burroughs sought work as a domestic-science teacher in the District of Columbia Public Schools but could not find a position. Burroughs established herself as a national leader within the Woman’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention, many of whom supported women’s suffrage.
From 1898 to 1909, she was employed in Louisville, Kentucky, as an editorial secretary and bookkeeper of the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention. During that time, Burroughs proposed a training school for women and girls to the National Baptist Convention (NBC). In response, the organization purchased six acres of land in Northeast Washington, DC.
Relying on small donations from black women and children from the community, Burroughs managed to raise enough money to open the National Training School for Women and Girls in 1908.
The school provided evening classes for women who had no other means for education. Burroughs taught the classes. Starting with 31 students, the school began attracting more students. During the first 40 years of the 20th century, young African-American women were being prepared by the National Training School to “uplift the race” and obtain a livelihood. The school’s emphasis was “the three B’s: the Bible, the bath, and the broom.” Burroughs created her history course that was dedicated to informing women about society influencing Negroes in history. Racial pride, respectability, and work ethics were critical factors in the National Training School’s training.
Burroughs became part of an influential Washington, DC network of African American women suffragists. She wrote about the need for black and white women to work together to achieve the right to vote. She believed suffrage for African American women was crucial to protect their interests in an often discriminatory society.
In 1920, the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified! Unfortunately, while the nineteenth amendment gave black women the right to vote, it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 that many could use it. States put restrictions on their ability to vote, poll taxes, literacy tests, challenges to getting to places to vote, violence, and the threat of violence. Lynching was still relatively common. Sound familiar? What is it they say … “those who don’t know history are apt to repeat it!”
I hope you do a little research of your own and learn more about these women and others who worked so hard to get women the right to vote.
Rita Hooper is a member at First United Church Fulton and co-moderator of Cayuga-Syracuse Presbyterian Women. She was a leader on the 2019 USA Mission Experience (USAME) of Presbyterian Women to the Finger Lakes Region of New York. Rita has a column, “In and Around Hannibal,” in the Valley News Oswego County, NY newspaper.