By Jean Thompson
Special to the AFRO

The year was 1896. Distinguished leaders of African American women’s clubs from across the nation met in Washington, D.C. and agreed to unify under the banner of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). 

Even today, the list of delegates in the room that day impresses: Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Harriet Tubman, Margaret Murray Washington, Mary Church Terrell, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and Fannie Coppin, to name just a few giants of equal opportunity, community uplift, and civil rights. 

A gem of local interest sparkles for Baltimoreans scanning the meeting’s minutes. Amelia E. Johnson (whose husband, the Rev. Harvey Johnson was a major civil rights activist in his own right) was in attendance representing Maryland. Through her, NACW’s messages of collective action and strength in numbers would travel back to Baltimore. 

Jean Thompson (Courtesy Photo)

The NACW delegates originally organized to fight Jim Crow segregation and the disenfranchisement of Black men, to advocate for educational and economic opportunity for families, and to protest lynching. By 1912, suffrage for women had become a major priority. 

The Black women’s suffrage movement had already begun well before this official endorsement was made at the national level. In the 1880s, Sarah J.S. Garnet founded the Equal Suffrage League in Brooklyn, NY and launched chapters across the country. Hers is one of the earliest known Black women’s suffrage clubs in America. Later, she would join the NACW as its Suffrage Department superintendent. 

By 1913, the national conversation around women’s suffrage had reached a fever pitch. Intended to put pressure on the incoming president, the Women’s Suffrage Procession, organized by prominent white suffragist Alice Paul, took place in Washington D.C. the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

Naturally, Black women who had also been organizing for universal suffrage wanted to join the march. Members of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, which had formed just 6 weeks prior at Howard University, asked to participate. Afraid that Southern white suffragists would drop out, Paul discouraged Black suffragists from attending. The Deltas persisted, aided by educator Mary Church Terrell and others who contacted the NAACP for support. Telegrams complaining about the exclusion reached the headquarters of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the parent group to Paul’s parade organization. 

Ultimately, Paul relented. However, when the students arrived, they were ordered to walk at the end of the parade instead of with college peers. Protesting immediately were Terrell and others, including Inez Milholland, a wealthy white suffragist and NAACP member from New York who was to lead the parade on horseback. Milholland refused to ride if the Deltas were forced to the back of the parade. Scholars who have in recent years examined accounts by Terrell, the suffragist Lucy Diggs Slowe, Milholland’s family, and The Crisis, claim the incident ended with the Deltas marching within the parade, not at the end. Understandably, the memory of the insulting effort to segregate them persists.

Meanwhile, when Ida B. Wells-Barnett arrived from Chicago with fellow suffragists, she was also ordered to fall in with a segregated group. She refused and stepped to the sidelines temporarily. As the Illinois contingent approached, she rushed into the parade and joined her peers.

The 1913 Women’s Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C. offers a prime example of Black women’s determination to acquire the right to vote, and lays bare the racism of many of the white women whose names are enshrined in American lore as leaders of the women’s suffrage movement.

During a recent symposium at Morgan State University, sponsored by Baltimore’s Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum, Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead said, “Black women did not have the luxury of working only to win voting rights for themselves.” Their struggle did not end 100 years ago with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, she said. It did not end with the Voting Rights Act in 1965. As America witnesses a resurgence of voter suppression tactics in the 21st century, the struggle to protect citizenship’s essential rights continues. “We need to learn how to finish the race.”

Dr. Whitehead’s comment speaks to the intersectionality of the Black women’s suffrage movement, and the work that still needs to be done to ensure the vote for all Americans. It is difficult, however, to build on achievements that have been omitted from the history books. To give voice to Black women’s stories of courage, cunning, and cooperative effort, fresh research is needed. 

Were there local suffrage clubs in your town? Where are their records? Who were these unsung suffragists? We are largely left to piece together their stories by reading between the lines of historic Black newspapers and uncovering scraps of history in dusty local archives.

In May 1900, newspapers and suffrage journals nationwide hailed a Maryland victory in the women’s rights struggle. Twenty-two Annapolis women, all landowners, joined men at a special municipal election to approve bonds for sidewalk paving and city improvements. According to local reports, one of those women was African American. 

In a county where lynchings occurred in 1875, 1884, and 1898, and restrictive codes shackled progress for many Black citizens, could this unnamed woman have been Maryland’s first Black female voter? No one is sure. But what is certain is that within a few short years, Annapolis was actively denying the franchise to most of its Black citizens through so-called “grandfather” clauses. These clauses created insurmountable barriers to the vote for Black people. A protracted battle in the courts was necessary to eventually restore these rights.

In 1908, the tiny Eastern Shore town of Still Pond, MD incorporated, and gave voting rights to its tax-paying residents, including both women and men. Two African Americans were among the first 14 women who registered to vote. Little else is known about them.

In 1915, Estelle Hall Young founded the Progressive Women’s Suffrage Club in Baltimore. A persuasive public speaker, she appeared before civic and church groups to mobilize support for women’s rights. A year later, Young and fellow clubwomen helped welcome the NACWC (by then the NACW had changed its name to the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs) national convention to Baltimore at Bethel A. M. E. Church. NACWC President Margaret Murray Washington, Madame C.J. Walker and Mary McLeod Bethune made presentations. One of the speakers urged delegates to start suffrage clubs in their home communities. How many of the women present heeded the call?

The anecdotes above reveal a steady march of progress towards women’s suffrage, but they also show us just how much remains to be discovered in our local history. New investigations into these stories have upended widely held assumptions that Black women were uninterested in enfranchisement. At the local, statewide and national levels, Black women were fighting for the vote then, and their legacy informs the power and potential of Black women’s votes today. 

Information about prominent national leaders in the Black suffrage movement is finally reaching the mainstream thanks to the groundbreaking  scholarship of many Black women historians. It is now up to us to fill in the gaps locally, combing through club records, family archives, and historic Black newspapers to lift our local suffragists into the wider conversation.

Jean Thompson is a freelance writer who volunteers with the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center project documenting local suffragists for the 2020 centennial of the 19th Amendment.