Honoring the African-American Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote

Far too often, The history of the suffrage movement does not include the stories of African-American women who fought for the right to vote. It also forgets the hard truth that their contributions and even their presence in the movement were rarely welcomed by white suffragists. It’s a mistake that needs to be acknowledged so that we can truly move forward together.

1917 marks 100 years since white women won the right to vote in New York State. As part of the commemoration, Lady Parts Justice League will be taking part in the reenactment of a 1913 suffrage march that took place in East Hampton organized by suffragist pioneer Mary Groot Manson. But to recognize the contributions of African-American women who fought and kept fighting, LPJL will mark this anniversary marching for them, wearing sashes with the names of the leaders of the movement to enfranchise Black women.

As early as 1867, Sojourner Truth, whose efforts went toward ending slavery, said “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.”

Indeed, it was the extension of the franchise to black men with the 15th Amendment in February of 1870 that helped split the woman’s suffrage movement. Although white suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had pushed for the 13th Amendment ending slavery, many feared that the 15th Amendment’s voting rights for Black men complicated women’s fight, with Anthony saying “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman.” Some even pushed for the vote for white women as a way of disempowering all African-Americans. Suffragist Belle Kearney, a Mississippi senator, said, “The enfranchisement of women would insure immediate and durable white supremacy.”

Then the scourge of lynching erupted in response to Black men winning the vote. Some white suffragists refused to take a stand against lynching because it was often justified by its perpetrators as a punishment for the supposed defilement of white women.

Into that moral void stepped Ida B. Wells, who recognized that lynching was a means of disenfranchisement and that putting an end to it was vital to gaining and safeguarding the vote for all people of color. Wells organized the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago and brought members of the club to participate in the historic 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington. When they were asked to march at the END of the parade, Wells tried to get the Illinois delegation to stand up. When they refused, she positioned herself along the Parade route, and joined the Illinois marchers as they passed.

Even after the passage of 19th Amendment in 1920, African-American women were too often denied the vote by Jim Crow laws and racist intimidation. That was eased by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the fight has remained constant right up unto this day. Republican-controlled legislatures are passing laws designed to encourage voter suppression even as conservative judges undermine voting rights.

Throughout this long struggle, it was African-American women themselves who fought both opposition to women’s suffrage and latent racism within the suffrage movement itself. In addition to Sojourner Truth and Ida Wells, their ranks include Harriet Forten Purvis who founded the Fifth National Women's Rights Convention in Philadelphia in back in 1854, Frances Harper who demanded equal rights for all women at the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1866, Mary Church Terrell who helped found the NAACP in 1909, right on up to Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968.

Those and others are who we’ll be honoring in our march. For every Stanton or Anthony who are rightly lauded for their efforts, there are an Ida B. Wells or Frances Harper whose contributions have yet to be fully acknowledged. Black Women Matter! Black Suffragists Matter!