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 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.
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 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, 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 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 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 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 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.