African American women, though often overlooked in the history of woman suffrage, engaged in significant reform efforts and political activism leading to and following the ratification in 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment, which barred states from denying American women the right to vote on the basis of their sex. They had as much—or more—at stake in the struggle as white women. From the earliest years of the suffrage movement, Black women worked side by side with white suffragists. By the late nineteenth century, however, as the suffrage movement splintered over the issue of race in the years after the Civil War, Black women formed their own organizations to continue their efforts to secure and protect the rights of all women, and men.
The US women’s rights movement was closely allied with the antislavery movement, and before the Civil War Black and white abolitionists and suffragists joined together in common cause. During the antebellum period, a small cohort of formerly enslaved and free Black women, including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Maria W. Stewart, Henrietta Purvis, Harriet Forten Purvis, Sarah Remond, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, were active in women’s rights circles. They were joined in their advocacy of women’s rights and suffrage by prominent Black men, including Frederick Douglass, Charles Lenox Remond, and Robert Purvis, and worked in collaboration with white abolitionists and women’s rights activists, including William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony.
Following the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, prominent free Black women abolitionists and suffragists attended, spoke, and assumed leadership positions at multiple women’s rights gatherings throughout the 1850s and 1860s. In 1851, former slave Sojourner Truth delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the national women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio. Sarah Remond and her brother Charles won wide acclaim for their pro–woman suffrage speeches at the 1858 National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York City.
But with the proposal of the Fifteenth Amendment, which would enfranchise Black men but not women, interracial and mixed-gender coalitions began to deteriorate. Suffragists had to choose between insisting on universal rights or accepting the priority of Black male suffrage. The split in the suffrage movement over the Fifteenth Amendment prompted Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to sever ties with the AERA and form the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which promoted universal suffrage, insisting that Black men should not receive the vote before white women. Stanton and Anthony’s racist remarks about Black men evoked intense anger on the part of Black suffragists, including long-time allies Frederick Douglass and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. As a result, Harper supported the Fifteenth Amendment—this from a fiercely independent woman who believed women were equal, indeed, superior to men in their level of productivity; men were talkers, while women were doers. Harper joined the new American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which supported both Black suffrage and woman suffrage and took a state-by-state approach to securing women’s right to vote. As Harper proclaimed in her closing remarks at the 1873 AWSA convention, “much as white women need the ballot, colored women need it more.” As many whites, including some white female suffragists, publicly denounced Black male suffrage, Black women incorporated Black male suffrage as an important component of their suffrage goals.
Black women, however, did become members of both woman suffrage groups—the Stanton and Anthony–led NWSA and the Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe–led AWSA. Hattie Purvis was a delegate to the NWSA (as well as a member of the executive committee of the Pennsylvania State Suffrage Association). Among the prominent African American reformers and suffragists who joined the AWSA were Charlotte Forten and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, a member of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association.
Black women attended and spoke out at political and religious meetings and public rallies. Their enthusiasm and political engagement within and outside suffrage campaigns was particularly concerning to whites in the post-emancipation South. The suffrage work of Charlotte (“Lottie”) Rollin shows the long history of African American women’s political activism outside the Northeast and beyond women’s rights conferences and organizations. In 1866, a year before chairing the inaugural meeting of the South Carolina Woman’s Rights Association, Rollin courageously proclaimed her support for universal suffrage at a meeting of the South Carolina House of Representatives. In 1870, she was the elected secretary of the South Carolina Woman’s Rights Association, an affiliate of the AWSA. Rollin, along with her sisters Frances and Louisa and other local women, figured prominently in Reconstruction politics and woman suffrage campaigns at the local and national levels in the early 1870s. South Carolina’s African American woman suffrage advocates were encouraged by African American men. In certain 1870 South Carolina district elections, Black election officials encouraged Black women to vote—an action the Rollins sisters and some other African American women were already assuming (or attempting) on their own. In 1871, pioneer suffragist, newspaper editor, and first female law school student at Howard University Mary Ann Shadd Cary, with several other women, attempted, unsuccessfully, to register to vote in Washington, DC. This failure notwithstanding, they insisted upon and secured an official signed affidavit recognizing that they had attempted to vote.
Like white suffragists, African American women linked suffrage to a multitude of political and economic issues in order to further their cause and engaged in multiple strategies to secure women’s political and voting rights within and outside the organized suffrage movement. At the same time, they combatted anti-Black discrimination in the southern United States and within the predominantly white national woman suffrage organizations.
Over time, tensions between Stanton, Anthony, and Douglass subsided. The discrimination against Black women in the woman suffrage movement continued as certain white woman suffragist leaders sought southern white male and female support. The anti-Black rhetoric and actions of NWSA leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton persisted but so did African American women’s courageous battles for both gender and racial equality. In 1876, Cary wrote to leaders of the National Woman Suffrage Association urging them to place the names of ninety-four Washington, DC, Black woman suffragists on their Declaration of the Rights of the Women of the United States issued on the one-hundredth anniversary of American Independence, which concluded, “we ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.” While unsuccessful in having their names added, Cary remained a committed suffrage activist, speaking at the 1878 NWSA meeting. Two years later, she formed the Colored Woman’s Franchise Association in Washington, DC, which linked suffrage not just to political rights but to education and labor issues.
Despite all this important work by Black suffragists, the mainstream suffrage movement continued its racially discriminatory practices and even condoned white supremacist ideologies in order to garner southern support for white women’s voting rights. Consequently, African American women and men became increasingly marginalized and discriminated against at woman suffrage meetings, campaigns, and marches. Even after the NWSA and the AWSA reconciled to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890, Anthony and other white suffragists in the South and the North continued to choose expediency over loyalty and justice when it came to Black suffragists. In 1895, Anthony asked her “friend” and veteran woman suffrage supporter Frederick Douglass not to attend the upcoming NAWSA convention in Atlanta. As she later explained to Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Douglass’s presence on the stage with the honored guests would have offended the southern hosts. Wells-Barnett and other suffragists reprimanded Anthony and other white women activists for giving in to racial prejudice. During the 1903 NAWSA meeting in New Orleans, the Times Democrat denounced the organization’s anti-Black states’ rights strategy for its negative impact on Black women’s quest for suffrage.
There were exceptions to the discriminatory traditions among suffragists. In New England, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin claimed she had been warmly welcomed by Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and others. Some African American women, such as internationally prominent women’s rights activists and speaker Mary Church Terrell, belonged to and participated in NAWSA meetings and activities, even as the new organization discriminated against them to woo southern and white male support for woman suffrage. (Figure 2)
In the closing decades of the nineteenth century more Black women formed their own local and regional woman suffrage clubs and, in 1896, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NACW, which elected Terrell as it first national president, provided Black women a national platform to advocate for woman suffrage and women’s rights causes. From the organization’s inception and throughout the twentieth century, Terrell, Ruffin, Barrier Williams, Wells-Barnett, and numerous NACW members and leaders fought for woman suffrage, sharing their pro-suffrage sentiments and activities at regional and national NACW conventions and in the white and Black press.
Despite the discrimination Black women experienced, including the rejection of Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin’s effort to represent the NACW in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, Black women cautiously joined interracial efforts to secure the ballot for women and to expand women’s engagement in electoral politics as canvassers, organizers, and voters. Prominent anti-lynching activist, NACW member, and suffragist Ida B. Wells-Barnett organized, in 1913, the first Black woman suffrage club in Illinois, the Chicago-based Alpha Suffrage Club. (Figure 3) She and other midwestern women participated in nonpartisan NACW, NAWSA, and Alpha Club campaigns and political rallies; most Black women, however, also supported Republican Party platforms and candidates.
As the suffrage movement moved into its final phase in the early decades of the twentieth century, local and national white woman suffrage organizations claimed racial inclusivity and did have African American women as active members, but the actions and policy statements of their leaders reflected a very different racial reality—one that worsened over time. When Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman’s Party, organized a woman suffrage parade in 1913, scheduled a day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, the first US president from the South, her accommodating acquiescence to white racism typified the worsening racial climate within the suffrage movement. Prior to the parade, Wells-Barnett, representing the Alpha Suffrage Club, was asked to march at the rear of the parade rather than with the white Chicago delegation. In keeping with her resistant and radical personality, Wells-Barnett refused to join her fellow Black suffragists at the rear. Instead, as the all-white Chicago delegation passed, Wells-Barnett emerged from the crowd and entered the line between two white Chicago women and marched and with them, as she knew to be just.
Talbert’s essay was one of several by a small cadre of Black female and male intellectuals and public figures who had participated in a symposium on “Votes for Women” and whose remarks appeared in the August 1915 issue of the Crisis, the national organ of the NAACP. In her essay, Black feminist leader and educator Nannie Helen Burroughs offered a cryptic but profound response to a white woman’s query about what Black women would do with the ballot, retorting, “What can she do without it?” Expressing a common line of thinking, Burroughs and other Black women political activists proclaimed that the Black woman “needs the ballot, to reckon with men who place no value upon her virtue, and to mould [sic] healthy sentiment in favor of her own protection.” Burroughs echoed an idea previously expressed by Adella Hunt Logan, a life member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and active member of the Tuskegee Woman’s Club, in an earlier monthly Black publication, Colored American Magazine:
These arguments notwithstanding, on the eve of ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, white suffragists, fearing offending white southerners, continued their racially discriminatory practices toward Black suffragists. In 1919, NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt opposed admitting the Northeastern Federation of Women’s Clubs, a regional body of Black clubwomen, as a member of the national suffrage organization out of fear of offending white voters. When at last the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, African American women voters in the Jim Crow South encountered the very same disfranchisement strategies and anti-Black violence that led to the disfranchisement of Black men, so that Black women had to continue their fight to secure voting privileges, for both men and women.
If white American women, with all their natural and acquired advantages, need the ballot, that right protective of all other rights; if Anglo Saxons have been helped by it... how much more do black Americans, male and female need the strong defense of a vote to help secure them their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Racism and discrimination within and outside organized woman suffrage campaigns and anti-Black racial violence forced Black women early on to link their right to vote to the restoration of Black male suffrage and civil rights activism. African American suffragist and radical activist Angelina Weld Grimké, named for her great aunt, suffragist Angelina Grimké Weld, boldly and optimistically asserted, “injustices will end” between the sexes when woman “gains the ballot.” But instead, the struggle continued.
Black women’s political engagement from the antebellum period to the opening decades of the twentieth century helped to define their post-1920 political activism. Following ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the battle for the vote ended for white women. For African American women the outcome was less clear. Hoping to combat post–World War I anti-Black racial violence and the disfranchisement of Black men, particularly in the South, Black women’s engagement in electoral politics and radical activism continued, indeed, expanded, after ratification. Indeed, an examination of Black women’s post-1920 political life reveals that rather than ending, the Nineteenth Amendment was a starting point for African American women’s involvement in electoral politics in the years to come. Indeed, Oscar De Priest credited Black women with being the deciding factor in his election, in 1928, as the first African American elected to the United States House of Representatives since Reconstruction. Woman suffrage struggles in the United States were one part of a long and impressive history of African American women’s political engagement to promote women’s rights and to share equally in the advancement of the race.
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Series: The 19th Amendment and Women's Access to the Vote Across America
Last updated: April 10, 2019