Black Suffragists & the 19th Amendment

The 50-year history of the women’s suffrage movement, leading to passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920, was written by the white women who led the effort. Marginalized by segregation, Black women suffragists created their own, parallel efforts to gain the vote for Black as well as White women. The women’s clubs and organizations they formed, often affiliated with churches, gave many Black women the leadership experience unavailable to them in any other context. On the 100th anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment, we can honor the Black women suffragists whose names and work we are learning more about.

Maria W. Stewart

MARIA W. STEWART was free-born in Connecticut. She was a journalist who contributed to the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. In the 1830’s, she was the first Black woman to make a public lecture to a mixed-race audience on the subject of women’s rights, demanding equal rights for Black women. Four of her public speeches have been preserved. She died 40 years before the 19th Amendment became law.

“Ain’t I a woman?” – Sojourner Truth

SOJOURNER TRUTH is the name Isabella Baumfree gave herself because she felt called to preach the truth, about abolition and women’s rights. She was born a slave in New York, escaping with her daughter and later recovering her son. In 1851 she gave a memorable extemporaneous speech on women’s right to the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. In 1872, she tried to vote for Ulysses S. Grant for President, but was turned away. The 19th Amendment became law 37 years after her passing.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

FRANCES ELLEN WATKINS HARPER was a free-born Black woman in Baltimore. As a young woman, she became active in the Unitarian church. At age 20, she was one of the first Black women poets published in the US. Her work was published in anti-slavery journals, and she toured as lecturer on women’s suffrage and equal rights for Blacks. In 1858, she refused to give up her seat in a segregated trolley car in Philadelphia. In 1866, she gave a speech at the National Woman Rights Convention to support equal rights for all, including Black women. In 1894, with Mary Church Terrell, she helped found the National Association of Colored Women. She died 9 years before passage of the 19th Amendment.

IDA B. WELLS-BARNETT was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862. Emancipated after the Civil War, she worked as a teacher to support her family, then turned to investigative journalism. When she wrote about lynching in Tennessee, her press was burned and she moved to Chicago. An activist for women’s suffrage, she confronted white women in the suffrage movement for ignoring lynching. During her life she was one of the best known Black women in America. She lived to see passage of the 19th Amendment, and to vote. In 2020 she received a Pulitzer Prize special citation for her investigative reporting.

Fannie Barrier Williams

FANNIE BARRIER WILLIAMS, a Black woman raised in New York, became a life-long activist after moving to Missouri to teach in a Black school and experiencing the cruelties of racism for the first time. When she married in Chicago, she and her husband joined the Unitarian Church. As a member of the Illinois Women’s Alliance, she lectured on the need for women, especially Black women, to have the vote. She was the only Black American invited to eulogize Susan B. Anthony, and was one of the founders of the NAACP in 1909. She lived to see the approval of the 19th Amendment, and vote for the next 24 years.

Mary Church Terrell

MARY CHURCH TERRELL was the daughter of former slaves, who graduated from Oberlin College. In 1896 she founded the National Association of Colored Women and was its president for 5 years. She believed that suffrage was essential to elevate the status of Black women. A founder of the NAACP, she lived to see passage of the 19th Amendment, and the victory of Brown v. Board of Education.

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin

JOSEPHINE ST. PIERRE RUFFIN was a suffragist and civil rights leader, who published “Woman’s Era,” the first national newspaper published by and for Black women, calling on them to demand increased rights for their race. In 1869, she helped form the American Woman Suffrage Association, and later was a charter member of the NAACP. She lived to see passage of the 19th Amendment.

Mary B. Talbert

MARY B. TALBERT was the only Black woman in her graduating class at Oberlin College in 1866, and become one of the most prominent Black women of her time. She was an orator and reformer, anti-lynching, anti-racism, and supporting women’s suffrage. She reminded White feminists of their obligations to less privileged women of color. Through her leadership, she helped develop Back female organizations of clubs that empowered Black women leaders. She lived to see the 19th Amendment become law.

Nannie Helen Burroughs

NANNIE HELEN BURROUGHS was a Black educator and orator, who called for Black women and White women to work together for the right to vote. When she was turned down for a public teaching job in Washington, D.C. because of her dark skin, she opened her own trade school for Black women. Her Trades Hall is now a National Historical Landmark. When asked “What can a Black woman do with the vote?” Burroughs answered, “What can she do without it?” Burroughs lived to see the 19th Amendment become law, and hopefully was able to vote in Washington, D.C. for the next 41 years.

“…the way it should be.”

34 stars, 1863

“You want the country to be the way it should be,” a woman named Lou Riggen wrote to my great-grandfather Ed Lybarger when he was a 22-year-old lieutenant in the 43rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, US Army. “I want the country to be the way it was,” Miss Riggen concluded.

In the reading I’ve done about Civil War opinions and politics in order to better understand my great-grandfather’s letters, Miss Riggen’s statements were social code in an era when few people were explicit about anything. What Miss Riggen meant was that my great-grandfather was willing to fight a war to save the Union and end slavery in every state. Miss Riggen meant that she didn’t think it was worth fighting a war over slavery, just let the slave states continue on with their way of life, and let life go on as it had in the North before the war.

50 stars, 2020

I agree with the sentiments of my great-grandfather Ed in the 1860’s.

In the 2020’s, I want to live in a country the way it should be, where:

  • Every person is treated equally and with respect.
  • It’s easy for every citizen to vote, without restriction or suppression.
  • Every voting district is drawn ethically and equitably.
  • Maybe the US has 3 or 4 political parties, giving us a fuller discussion of social solutions.
  • Actions caused by hate are as illegal as we can make them.
  • Policemen live in the communities they serve, and are accountable to those communities when they fail to protect and serve, by use of excessive force.
  • Workers’ unions are supported as much as police unions are.
  • We welcome immigrants, as our immigrant forebears were welcomed to this country, not turned away.
  • We make meaningful reparations to the indigenous Americans whose land and way of life our forebears lied and stole to acquire.
  • Our children carry on less of our racial bias, and their children carry on even less racial bias, and etc.

It’s difficult for me to understand that anyone could purposefully choose not to “hold these truths to be self-evident.”

In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, Ed Lybarger and Lou Riggen (a wartime penpal) arranged to meet for the first time. But their letters ceased, and they never met as far as I know. Ed returned to Millwood, Ohio and married his hometown sweetheart Sophronia Adams, the love of his life. She wanted the country to be the way it should be, too.

I’m grateful to have an ancestor who fought on the right & winning side of the Civil War. He enlisted with his friends at the start of the war in order to preserve the Union and not let George Washington down. I’m grateful that when the fight came down to ending slavery before the South could be defeated and the Union preserved–he stayed in the fight until the Union won and slaves were free men and women. And I’m grateful that he came home alive.


Alabama Highway Patrol Chief Col. Al Lingo

In 1965, as hundreds of people prepared to march from Selma to Montgomery to demand the Constitutional right of Black citizens to vote, Alabama Gov. George Wallace ordered Alabama Highway Patrol Chief Col. Al Lingo to “use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march.” So he did.

Col. Lingo was reportedly a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He wore a lapel button with one word in black letters on a white background:


Col. Lingo’s order for Alabama State Troopers to attack marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge was broadcast nationwide on TV. The horror of white law enforcement officers viciously attacking peaceful Black citizens helped gain support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which passed Congress not long after.

Finding Your Roots

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

PBS Passport gets you access (for a minimum of $5/month PBS Milwaukee membership) to shows already aired on PBS Milwaukee. Available now is the March 25, 2012 episode of of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s FINDING YOUR ROOTS, with amazing revelations about the ancestors and family trees of Rep. John Lewis, and Sen. Cory Booker.

The revelation that brought John Lewis to tears eight years ago was a copy of the Alabama voter registration rolls of 1867 that included the name Tobias Carter, Lewis’s great-great grandfather. Carter had been a slave until ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865 freed Tobias and Elizabeth Carter to marry, and two years later allowed Tobias to register to vote.

But the initial protection of freed slave rights didn’t last long in the South. Lewis said he didn’t remember his parents or grandparents ever being allowed to vote in rural Alabama. Protests against Black voter suppression were often met with violence, that John Lewis personally experienced as a young man and that helped pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “I guess it’s in my DNA,” Lewis said about the revelation that his ancestor also valued the right to vote, “it’s in my bloodline.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is an historian and filmmaker, and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard. He has hosted the series FINDING YOUR ROOTS for six seasons. In this episode, he said, “Sometimes we find out that the spirit of our ancestors has guided us in ways we could never have imagined.”

The program also revealed parts of Cory Booker’s family tree that his family had never known, and introduced him to two white cousins he’d never met. When Gates asked one of the white cousins if he was surprised to find out he had a Black cousin, the elderly white man said, “No, I’ve always heard that wise men say we’re all the same under the skin.”

In the program, Gates also articulated his personal passion to help others “find the threads that tie us to the people whose ancestry we share, whatever their color, whenever they lived…While our ancestors came to this country on different ships, we’re all in the same boat now.”

Edmund Pettus, KKK

The Edmund Pettus Bridge earned infamy in 1965 as the site of a brutal attack by Alabama State Troopers on peaceful Blacks marching for voting rights.

Edmund Winston Pettus, Alabama KKK Grand Dragon in 1877

Who was Edmund Pettus?

He was a prominent resident of Selma, a Confederate Brigadier General during the Civil War (1861-65). In 1871, he swore in Congressional testimony that he didn’t know anything about the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama, but would be a Grand Dragon six years later. He served in the US Senate from 1897 to 1907, “thoroughly dedicated to white supremacy.” In 1940, his grandson championed federal funding for a new bridge in Selma, to be named after his grandfather when it was completed. At the bridge’s dedication, a Selma newspaper described Pettus as a man who fought “negro dominance with magnificent strength, physical and moral courage, and brilliant intellect.”

Why is a white supremicist’s name still on an iconic bridge during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s?

Alabama law makes it difficult to change or remove Confederate monuments.

What’s the right thing to do now?

The right thing to do is remove this white supremacist’s name from the bridge now famous for the physical and moral courage of those, like John Lewis, who faced down white supremacy and the harm it always leaves in its wake.

Source: “How the bridge that John Lewis crossed came to be named for a white supremacist,” by Charles Lane, in The Washington Post 7.27.20

SCOTUS White Supremacy

Bust of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney outside Old Supreme Court chambers.

The US House of Representatives recently voted to remove all Confederate statues from the Capitol building–including a bust of Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert B. Taney (from 1836-1864). Taney was an unapologetic white supremacist, infuriated by Northern attacks on slavery, which he considered crucial to white Southern life & values.

Hearing Taney’s name brought back a chilling personal memory. When I was in 10th grade, I wrote my first real term paper on the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Taney wrote the (7-2) majority opinion, one of the worst and most inhumane decisions the US Supreme Court has ever made.

Dred Scott was a slave in the slave state of Missouri, who then sued for his freedom after living in the free state of Illinois. On March 3, 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that slaves were not US citizens. Taney wrote that black people “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.” 

In the 10th grade, this decision left me stunned. Until then, I thought there was such a thing as Truth with a capital T. I thought that of course the Supreme Court made decisions to assure fairness and justice, that politics and personal prejudices did not take priority over honest compassion on all the important issues they had to decide.

The Dred Scott decision fortunately did have the effect of strengthening the anti-slavery Republican Party, and helped elect Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The Southern response to Lincoln’s election was to form the Confederacy, secede, and fire cannon at the US Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay in April 1861, starting the Civil War in an effort to preserve slavery.

In 2017, a statue of Roger Taney was removed from Maryland State House. It’s still sitting in storage.

In announcing the recent decision to remove Confederate statuary from the halls of Congress, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, “The House is taking a long-overdue and historic step to ensure that individuals we honor in our Capitol represent our nation’s highest ideals and not the worst in its history.”

Race & Biology

No single characteristic, trait or gene distinguishes all the members of one so-called “race” from all the other members of another so-called “race.” Only 1 of every 1,000 of the nucleotides that make up our DNA differ one human from another. As a species, human beings are more genetically similar than any other species. Race isn’t biological.

The genes of skin color have nothing to do with genes for other human qualities: hair, eye shape, blood types, musical talent, athletic ability, or intelligence. Knowing someone’s skin color doesn’t tell you anything else about them but the color of their skin.

The English word “race” turns up for the first time in a 1508 poem by William Dunbar, referring to a line of kings.

These details are from 2 articles I read, one in NYT and another online source. I need to keep these details for future reference.