The Suffragists' Rainbow


Black AND Female: Twice As Hard

Did you know that African American women were involved every step of the way in the 72-year fight for women’s suffrage despite persistent discrimination?

“I am a woman’s rights….  The poor men seem to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better.” Marius Robinson, journalist, and friend of Sojourner Truth published these words from her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech after hearing her at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Another early champion of women’s suffrage was Frederick Douglass, who was a friend of Susan B. Anthony and participated in the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, which marked the beginning of the struggle for women’s suffrage in the United States. Despite discrimination in suffrage organizations dominated by white women, the participation of Black women in the movement was crucial and continuous.

At the 1913 Woman Suffrage Parade in Washington, DC, Black suffragists were delegated to a “colored” section in the back. Many of them defied this directive and marched with their respective delegations. Ida B. Wells-Barnett marched with the delegation from Illinois, and Mary Church Terrell marched with a delegation of educators. Terrell was one of the “silent sentinels” who risked arrest and violence to stand in front of Woodrow Wilson’s White House in 1917.  She was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), founded in 1896. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a journalist who worked to expose the horrors of lynching in the South. She settled in Chicago after her newspaper in Memphis was destroyed by white supremacists. She spent her life working for the rights of women and African Americans.

Suffragist leaders worked to end slavery before the Civil War and supported the 13th Amendment to end slavery. After the war, white leaders in the South worked diligently to undo reconstruction and promote white supremacy, and leaders in the suffrage movement were split on the issue of including Black women in their struggle for the vote. A related contentious issue was whether to work for the franchise in individual states or to pursue a national amendment. Whites in the Southern states were opposed to the 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted Black people citizenship and gave Black men the right to vote. They maintained that regulation of voting was the purview of the states. Thus, the strategy for a national amendment was opposed in the South.

At the end of the 19th century, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) stopped supporting African American women and started wooing white women in the South. The “Southern Strategy” plan was to advance the franchise for white women by maintaining that their vote would support white supremacy. Black women were banned from suffrage conferences in New Orleans and Atlanta.  

In the early 20th century, the failure of the “Southern Strategy” was apparent as women’s anti-suffrage organizations popped up in the South, the most powerful being the “Southern Women’s League for Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.”  The suffrage movement was attacked for its shared roots with the abolitionist movement, its stance against slavery, and its support of Black women. A southern state, Tennessee, was the last state to ratify the 19th Amendment. The measure overcame vicious and devious attacks by the opposition, and passed by one vote.

After the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, many African American women in the north were able to vote. In the South, however, where most African American women lived, they were subject to the Jim Crow laws that kept their male counterparts from voting. Black women in the South worked with the NAACP to gather evidence of racial and gender discrimination to present to Congress, but the 15th and 19th Amendments were not enforced by Congress until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when African American women (and men) finally claimed the right to vote across the United States.

Many brave and accomplished Black women were involved in the suffrage struggle.  Here are some of their names: *Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)  *Charlotte Vandine Forten, Sr. (1775-1884)  *Harriet Forten Purvis (1810-1875)  *Margaretta Forten (1806-1875)  *Harriet Purvis, Jr. ?  * Angelina Weld Grimke (1880-1958)  *Charlotte Forten Grimke (1837-1914)  *Sarah Remond (1826-1887?)  *Charlotta Rollin (1849-?)  *Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893)  *Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)  *Gertrude Bustill Mossell (1855-1948)  *Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842-1924)  *Carrie Langston ?  *Mary Talbert (1866-1923)  *Mrs. R. Jerome Jeffery ?  *Mrs. I.L. Moorman ?  *Mary E. Jackson ?  *Adella Hunt Logan (1863-1915)  *Mary McCurdy ?  *Fannie Barrier Williams (1855-1944)  *Coralie Franklin Cook (1861-1942)  *Janie Porter Barrett (1865-1948)  *Naomi Talbert (1863-?)   *Margaret Murray Washington (1865-1925)  *Anna J. Cooper (1858-1964)   *Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961)  *Mamie Dillard ?  *Victoria Earle Matthews ?  *Lucy Laney (1854-1933)  * Lugenia Burns Hope (1871-1947)   *Josephine Bruce (1853-1923)  *Verina Morton Jones (1865-1943)  *Daisy Elizabeth Adams Lampkin (1884-1965).

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