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The African-American Suffragists History Forgot

The African-American Suffragists History Forgot

"I feel that I have the right to have just as much as a man. There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights and colored women not theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before," the abolitionist Sojourner Truth said in 1867.


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I am thinking about Truth, and so many other African-American female freedom fighters, because of the imminent release of the film Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan. If that movie chronicles the struggle for the vote in Britain, it also brings to mind our own suffrage story. But though we may have vague notions of the American women who fought so heroically for the ballot on this side of the Atlantic, they are, in our minds, in our imaginations, in the photographs and first-person narratives that have come down to us, uniformly white people.

Who would blame you if you thought there were no African-American women who lent their hearts and minds, their intellects, their bodies to the suffrage cause! Rendered invisible in so many accounts, they were in fact doubly brave, fighting a dual oppression — marginalized, trivialized, humiliated, and dismissed for being both black and female.

Women like Naomi Anderson, a suffrage activist who gave a fiery, controversial speech at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Chicago in 1869, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the second black female attorney in the country, renowned for her tough oratory, who organized the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association in 1880. Or Anna Julia Cooper, who once announced, "The old, subjective, stagnant, indolent, and wretched life for woman has gone. She has as many resources as men, as many activities beckon her on. As large possibilities swell and inspire her heart." Or the educator Nannie Helen Burroughs, who asserted: “When the ballot is put into the hands of the American woman, the world is going to get a correct estimate of the Negro woman. It will find her a tower of strength of which poets have never sung, orators have never spoken, and scholars have never written.”

Or Elizabeth Piper Ensley, who fought for — and won — full suffrage for women of all races in Colorado in 1893. And what of Sarah Massey Overton, fighting for the vote in California in the early years of the 20th century? And Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who had the prescience to state, "I do not think the mere extension of the ballot a panacea for all the ills of our national life. What we need today is not simply more voters, but better voters." (Could there be truer words, with our own presidential election looming?)

Alas, while black women fought and fought hard, many of their Caucasian sisters remained locked in the racist conventions of the day. When the stunningly accomplished Ida B. Wells, who founded the Chicago-based Alpha Suffrage Club, arrived in Washington, D.C. to participate in the 1913 suffrage parade, organizers asked the black women if they would mind very much marching at the end of the demonstration.

They messed with the wrong lady. In 1884, 71 years before Rosa Parks wouldn’t budge from that bus seat, a conductor on the Memphis and Charleston Railroad ordered Wells out of the first-class ladies car. She sued. This time around, she attempted to get the white Illinois delegation to disavow the parade’s enforced segregation; it refused. Wells in turn refused to take her place at the back of the line. Bystanders on that day, more than a century ago, would have seen her emerge from the crowd and take her place between two white delegates, striding into history.

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Photo Credit: Vogue