As we approach the Centennial of the 19thAmendment, we must come to grips with the alarming truth that the suffrage movement sold out and betrayed black women.
Primarily white American women were given the right to vote. The Southern states from 1890 to 1908 passed voter registration and election laws that disfranchised African-Americans in their right to vote. These restrictions were not fully overturned until after Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
African-American women approached the suffrage movement with different objectives than their white counterparts. Black women saw their enfranchisement as an opportunity for community uplift as well as personal recognition of citizenship. The question of whether “Votes for Women,” meant all women or exclusively white women dates to the beginning of the suffrage movement.
A recent New York Times editorial, “When the Suffrage Movement Sold Out White Supremacy,” by Brent Staples sheds light and accurate historical information about the subjugated portrayal of the women’s rights campaign. By releasing black suffragists from obscurity we can learn about women such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary.
Shadd Cary was an American anti-slavery activist, journalist, teacher, and lawyer. She was an abolitionist who became the first female African-American newspaper editor in North America. Shadd Cary joined the National Woman Suffrage Association working alongside Susan B. Anthony for women’s suffrage.
Mary Church Terrell was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, and became known as a national activist for civil rights and suffrage. Terrell helped found the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. She too was associated with Virginia B. Anthony. In 1898, Terrell gave an address titled “The Progress and Problems of Colored Women” at the National American Woman Suffrage Association biennial session. This speech was a call to action to fight for the lives of black women.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an African-American abolitionist, suffragist, teacher, poet, and writer and is considered “the mother of African-American journalism.” In 1858, 100 years before Rosa Parks, she refused to give up her seat or ride in the “colored” section of a segregated trolley car in Philadelphia and wrote one of her most famous poems, “Bury Me in a Free Land.”
Harper gave a moving speech before the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1866 that speaks volumes about the suffragist movement during that time:
“We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the Negro…You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me…While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.”
As we recognize the women whose activist roles led to the passage of the 19th Amendment, let us not forget the African-American women who fought for the right to vote while facing discrimination from white suffragists who did not want their movement associated with women of color. It is a difficult part of our history to accept, yet we must recognize that black women were relentless in their attempts to make meaningful engagement with the suffrage movement, not only because they believed in the cause but because they knew it was important that they were present and fighting for their rights both as women and African-Americans.