I should be writing about hearts and flowers and Cupid on this Valentine’s Day. The day is special to me because it’s the day my husband asked me to marry him nearly 50 years ago. I had a dreadful cold, but went out to dinner with him anyway, at a French restaurant no less.
But the strife here at home and abroad has me feeling more somber this year. So I’m revisiting a post from a couple years ago. When I was growing up, I remember reading about women’s efforts to gain the right to vote. The suffragettes I read about in history class were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Julia Ward Howe and others—who were all white. None of those older books told the stories of Black women’s efforts toward citizenship and voting rights.
In this Black History Month, I’d like to honor three of the many suffragette heroines who were African American. I learned about several in These Truths: a History of the United States (W.W. Norton, 2018) by award-winning historian Jill Lepore. She examines the “American experiment” through the lens of how the country lives up to the ideals of its founders. She says this in the preface: “The American experiment rests on these truths, Jefferson called them—political equality, natural rights and the sovereignty of the people”—three ideals that should be emblazoned on the walls of Congress. I’m drawing on this book and other sources for this post.
First, a little background. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1868, granted citizenship rights to all “persons” born in the United States. Black people were not then considered “persons.” Ratified in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment granted Black men the right to vote. Neither white nor Black women, still not considered “persons,” could vote until the nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920. After the Civil War, woman suffrage supporters began organizing and forming official associations. The National American Woman Suffrage Association took a state-by-state approach to gaining the vote. But this movement by white women excluded African American women. Often Black women worked in their own clubs and suffrage associations.
Anna Julia Cooper, born into slavery in 1858 in North Carolina became an author, educator, speaker, Black Liberation activist, and one of the most prominent African-American scholars of her time. She made many speeches calling for civil rights and women’s rights. Her book, A Voice from the South, was one of the first arguments for black feminism. She is best known for emphasizing to Black women that they required the ballot to counter the belief that Black men’s experiences and needs were the same as theirs. She was honored in 2009 by having her image on a postage stamp.
Ida B. Wells, the daughter of former slaves, was born in Mississippi in 1862. In 1883, while working as a schoolteacher, she was riding in what was termed “the ladies’ car” of a train, when she was told to move to the car for Blacks. She refused, filed a court suit, and began writing for Black newspapers, eventually being elected secretary of the Black-run National Press Association.
In the late nineteenth century, along with Anna Julia Cooper, Frederick Douglass, and others, she led an anti-lynching campaign. She organized the Alpha Suffrage Club among Black women in Chicago. She and other members went to Washington, D.C. in 1913 to participate in a suffrage parade, but the white organizers insisted they march at the end of the parade. Ida B. Wells refused to march at all. But later during the parade, she slipped into the white Illinois delegation and marched between two white women.
When she published her first book, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, in 1892, Frederick Douglass wrote a testimonial, declaring “his voice was feeble by comparison.” In 2022, thanks to more activism about Black history, Ida B. Wells’s name is widely recognized as a journalist and brave and dedicated suffragist. And there’s even an Ida B. Wells Barbie doll.
Activist Mary Church Terrell was born in 1863 in Tennessee. She graduated in 1884 from Oberlin College as one of the first African American women to attend that school, the first college to accept African Americans and female students. She taught at Wilberforce College in Ohio and the M Street High School in Washington, D.C. She went on to assist in the founding of the National Association of Colored Women, which was focused on proving that African Americans were worthy of honor. Harriet Tubman was also affiliated with the group.
Mary Church Terrell worked for the rights of women and Black people and protested for the cause of suffrage outside the White House during Woodrow Wilson’s administration. She lived through the very beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and died a few months after the Brown v. Board of Education case was resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954.
These women and others were heroines in African Americans’ struggle for respect and equality. So much of America’s past informs today’s issues. Given all the current division, polarization, and the violence against people of color and people of non-Christian faiths, living up to America’s founding ideals is less a work in progress and more a struggle.