‘Brilliant and politically savvy:’ The roles of African American women in the fight to vote 100 years ago

Jessica Bliss and Jasmine Vaughn-Hall, USA TODAY

In a pair of three-story brick row houses on an avenue in northwest Baltimore, two women, Margaret Hawkins and Augusta Chissell, lived side by side.

Driven to the same city block by the forces of residential segregation, they were united by a common ambition – the push for racial and women’s equality.

Streets away lived another activist with similar sentiments. A teacher and mother, Estelle Young was eager to see black women, including one day her own daughter, earn a spot at the polls. Young befriended the two women down the road.

Together they became a neighborly powerhouse, leading the campaign for suffrage from their own living rooms.

Their names aren't familiar to most, suppressed by a century of fragmented history, but their activism mirrors a movement across the country. 

More than 100 years ago, as a groundswell of momentum pushed toward giving women the right to vote, black women nationwide stood up to join the cause. 

Even when racism tore through the movement – undercutting their efforts and severing the strength of a united female front – they were undeterred.

What black suffragists achieved greatly shaped the fight for women's rights. 

In the wake of the centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment, a history once silenced is slowly resurfacing. Stories of the relentless efforts of women of color have found a new platform, providing a chance to elevate what has been untold.

"The traditional narrative does often leave out large groups of women who don’t fit into the white, middle-class story of women's rights," said Earnestine Jenkins, a professor of art and researcher of African American history at the University of Memphis. "You have to be honest about the racism in the movement and the extent they kept women of color out of the movement. ... You have to look for those hidden histories because otherwise, you are not going to get the complete story."

Margaret Hawkins and Augusta Chissell lived side by side in a pair of three-story brick row houses in Baltimore. They were united by the push for racial and women’s equality.

Once united, then divided

The movement didn't begin divided.

In the throes of the Civil War, as the North and South raged over black rights, the strong parallels between the situations of slaves and the situations of women became evident.

Convinced that freedom for one would be victory for both, white women such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton became devoted abolitionists.

When the war ended, the alignment did not last.

After the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which gave voting rights to black men but not to women, Anthony – a former stationmaster for the Underground Railroad – became infuriated.

“I will cut off this right arm of mine before I ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman,” Anthony said.

The intemperance alienated some suffragists, and by 1875, when Anthony drafted the amendment that would bear her name, the movement had split.

The aftershocks of abolition shook the South. Many feared any push for a law that would give not only white women, but also black women, a place at the polls. A new reality set in.

"They realized that there really wasn't as much common ground between African American suffragists and white, middle-class suffragists as there might have been in a society that wasn’t so polarized in questions of race," said Susan Ware, author of "Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote."

Guided by ‘a broader vision’

Unlike the predominantly white suffrage leaders – whose social privilege allowed them to look at voting rights through the lens of gender alone – black suffragists had more to consider.

Jim Crow laws in the South undermined voting rights won by black men.

They were made to use separate drinking fountains, sit in segregated seats at restaurants and on trains. They even swore on separate Bibles in court.

Literacy tests and high poll taxes prevented many from casting their ballots. Though black women fervently wanted a place at the polls, they wanted to ensure that black men could be there, too.

"They didn't have the luxury to just be working for their own vote," Ware said. "They were trying to improve conditions for their race and community. It was a broader vision."

They knew having the vote would help empower them against discrimination. So they took up the campaign alongside the white women of higher class and social status.

For a time, they were allies in the movement –

hailed for voices they elevated.

‘Power added to influence’

Among the most eloquent of those was Frances E.W. Harper.

An orphan and young poet, Harper was inspired to take up the abolitionist cause when her home state of Maryland passed a fugitive slave law, allowing even free blacks such as Harper to be arrested and sold into slavery.

She formed alliances with strong figures in the suffrage movement, including Anthony, and began giving anti-slavery speeches throughout the northern USA. Through her powerful prose and poetry, she elevated issues of racism, feminism and class.

"The ballot in the hands of woman means power added to influence," Harper said in an address before the World’s Congress of Representative Women at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. "How well she will use that power I can not foretell."

In this battle, like many others to come, the women were not equals.

In 1890, the two largest rival women’s suffrage organizations – once divided over issues such as race – decided the only way to win the vote was with a united front. They merged, forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

It was the dominant white suffrage organization of the time, known at times to hold conventions that excluded black women.

Still women of color persevered in a fight seemingly separate – and yet the same.

In front of the houses where Margaret Hawkins and Augusta Chissell lived stands a historical marker that highlights the suffrage efforts in and around the homes. It's one of 11 honoring Maryland women, events and sites associated with the suffrage movement.

Building influence through community

In west Baltimore, Hawkins, Chissell and Young found kindred spirits in each other, using their neighborhood connections to pioneer for equal voting rights.

As leaders in The DuBois Circle – an African American women's club founded in 1907 – they brought women of their race together for change.

At first, the group "focused on literature, the arts and famous Negroes, as they called it," said Beverly Carter, historian and archivist for the DuBois Circle.

They sought knowledge and a way to connect it to the community, and through it, they expanded scope. "They participated in political activities, civic activities ... and as a group, they addressed the suffrage issue,” Carter said. 

They built influence through community, establishing social groups and engaging churches to spearhead change. They developed robust grassroots networks.

It wasn't long before Young founded the Progressive Women’s Suffrage Club, in which Hawkins became the vice president and Chissell was the secretary.

They joined a collaboration of black women nationwide, many who organized under the National Association of Colored Women, the largest federation of black women’s clubs.

Their collective effort, said Sally Roesch Wagner,  editor of "The Women's Suffrage Movement" anthology, was both "brilliant and politically savvy."

A banner proclaiming the “Lifting as We Climb” motto of the National Association of Colored Women was part of the Oklahoma Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.

An attack on Southern sensibilities

Holding to the motto "Lifting as We Climb," Mary Church Terrell became the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, which endorsed the women's suffrage movement in 1912.

An influential educator and activist, Terrell was born to former slaves in Memphis, Tennessee. Her parents used their freedom to become small-business owners.

Terrell, hardworking and ambitious, became one of the first African American women to earn a college degree.

She moved to Washington, becoming the first black woman to earn a position on the board of education.

Mary Church Terrell, of Memphis, Tenn., fought for women's suffrage and civil rights and served as the first national president of the National Association of Colored Women from 1897-1901.

Terrell traveled nationwide, quoted in papers from East to West on polarizing topics of "the Negro women" and "the race problem." When it came to suffrage, she could not ignore her Southern roots.

In her visits back to Tennessee and neighboring states, she noted the disenfranchisement of blacks – and the tactics used by white suffragists there.

The South decried the idea of suffrage. Many argued that the plea rallied against their Southern sensibilities and attacked the sanctity of a woman's place in the home. In truth, that was more of a red herring.

"The No. 1 reason the South was not going to touch suffrage was race," said Carole Bucy, a county historian in Nashville, Tennessee. "The position of the woman was relatively inconsequential."

Despite early unity with abolitionists and the "votes for all" rhetoric, when it came to the final push for suffrage, gender equality superseded racial equality for the movement's upper-middle-class white leaders.

If the women’s vote was to be won, black women could not stand in the spotlight.

Many refused to be silenced. Among them, Ida B. Wells spoke louder than most.

The Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in Holly Springs, Miss., is a tribute to an African American journalist and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

‘For the future benefit of my whole race’

A journalist and newspaper editor, Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club for African American women, the first for black women in Illinois.

A painting of Ida B. Wells-Barnett by Larry Walker, 1994.

The efforts were not contained to the city limits. In 1913, Wells and other activists traveled from Illinois to Washington to participate in the Woman Suffrage Procession – the first major national event held for the movement.

At first, black suffragists had been rejected from joining, but Wells and others wrote letters asking to allow black women to participate. Eventually, organizers acquiesced, with one condition – black suffragists would march in the back.

It was meant to assuage the feelings of Southern white women, but Wells refused the terms. Poised to forcibly insert herself in the procession, she and a select few others, including Terrell, marched alongside the white women from their delegations.

"Either I go with you or not at all," Wells said. "I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition. I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race."

There was still work to be done.

An 80-foot mural featuring Ida B. Wells at MLK Avenue and S. Main in Memphis, Tenn., was a collaboration between artist Michael Roy and former Memphian Derrick Dent.

‘What will the Negro women do with the vote?’

After 41 years of debate, Congress approved the 19th Amendment on June 4, 1919.

By the summer of 1920, 35 of the nation's 48 states had voted for ratification. Eight states, six of them Southern, rejected it. Three refused to weigh in.

Only two states remained undecided: North Carolina and Tennessee.

Just one needed to vote in favor to make women's suffrage the law of the land.

Juno Frankie Pierce was one of the leaders involved in Tennessee's ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

On May 18, 1920, three months before Tennessee lawmakers were to consider passing the 19th Amendment, Juno Frankie Pierce spoke at the first meeting of the newly formed League of Women Voters of Tennessee.

As the only African American female to speak that day, Pierce addressed the convention for the women of her race.

"What will the Negro women do with the vote?" she asked those gathered in the House chamber of the state Capitol. "We will stand by the white women."

She told those at the meeting that black women sought suffrage to receive "a square deal."

Suffragists saw Tennessee as their last hope. And their worst nightmare.

Within the state, three factions emerged. Two groups of suffragists – one more extreme than the other – sought ratification, while one vocal contingent of anti-suffragists amplified the vicious opposition.

"The antis waved the race card mightily," Bucy said. "And so did the suffragists in a less flamboyant way."

White suffragists often avoided integrating issues of race into their campaigns. If they did speak of it, it came in the form of assurance that black women would not upend the balance at the ballot box.

"They used the accepted fare of racial prejudice," Bucy said. "They said: 'Look there are already laws that keep African American men from voting. Those will still be intact. So if you are afraid women voting will bring in all these black people voting, it won’t.'

"You can’t say the suffragists were racially tolerant people."

Photo gallery: View more than 100 photos of Tennessee’s role in the women’s suffrage movement

The vote won, women of color still turned away

When it became clear that in the final fight for the vote, hard-won civil rights might be undermined, it was black suffragists who chose tolerance.

"They asked: How do we hold back our anger? How do we hold back our frustration for the greater cause?" Wagner said. "They negotiated the racism that was endemic in the movement to move the cause forward."

A National Association of Colored Women convention delegate’s badge features Mary Burnett Talbert.

The battle had been longer and uglier than anyone expected, but in the end, Tennessee came through, becoming the 36th and final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment.

After the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, Chissell wrote a recurring column in the Baltimore Afro-American called “A Primer for Women Voters”.

It was “for the benefit of women who wish to inform themselves in regard to their newly acquired duties and privileges as voters and citizens.” Readers were urged to send Chissell questions, and she’d answer them in her column.

The Progressive Women’s Suffrage Club started teaching voter education classes.

But the reality was, though women finally secured the right to vote nationwide, black women would be routinely turned away from the ballot box for decades to come.

It wasn't until 1965, after the Voting Rights Act and subsequent court decisions, that tools of disenfranchisement that targeted people of color – including poll taxes and literacy tests – became outlawed.

Wisconsin State Rep. Shelia Stubbs recognizes the late Vel Phillips during the Women's Suffrage Centennial Celebration at the state Capitol in Madison. Phillips paved the way as the first woman and African American woman on the Milwaukee Common Council. She died in 2018. The event celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment.

A chance to ‘rethink our history’

Understanding the racial and class dynamics of this historical moment does not diminish the significance of the amendment or the activism that led to its ratification

"In 2020, we have an opportunity to celebrate the vote," Wagner said, "and also take accountability, to rethink our history."

Fully realizing gender equality, racial justice and voter fairness means understanding the past – and giving credit to the neighborly powerhouses of women who won it.

In front of the three-story houses where Chissell and Hawkins lived stands a new historic marker, highlighting the suffrage efforts that transpired in and around the homes.

It's one of 11 that will commemorate Maryland women, events and sites associated with the suffrage movement.

And, with new vigilance, the markers probably won't be the last.

There are still records to read, transcribe and document. There are still more hidden histories of the suffrage movement to be revealed.

Jessica Bliss is a columnist at The Tennessean. Reach her at 615-259-8253 and jbliss@tennessean.com or on Twitter @jlbliss and please support local journalism.Jasmine Vaughn-Hall is a trends reporter with the York Daily Record. Contact her at 717-495-1789 and jvaughnhal@ydr.com and follow her @jvaughn411. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: African American women's 'brilliant' role in 19th Amendment fight to vote