By Savannah Wood
AFRO Archive Director

Dr. Martha S. Jones is a renowned historian, the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, President of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and a prolific author. Forthcoming this fall is her new book, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All

We sat down in Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon neighborhood, just a block from where 19th century US Supreme Court Justice Roger Brooke Taney’s statue was recently removed, to talk about her new book, Baltimore history, and what the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment means for Black women. 

Savannah Wood Before you became a historian, you worked as a litigator. How did you come to history as a profession and how does law figure into your research?

Dr. Martha S. Jones I came to history as a genealogist. I was a practicing lawyer, but what I loved to do on weekends and vacations was family history. I did the thing that a lot of us do. I interviewed elders, I went through family photographs, and then I began to go to archives. I didn’t have any training or experience, but I figured in a way, as a lawyer, I was a researcher. So maybe I could figure out my way in historical archives.

Hallie Quinn Brown (1875 – 1888) (Courtesy of Fred S. Biddle/Library of Congress.)

The first trip I ever did was to New Orleans, to the Amistad Research Center there. I took my sister, and she spent the first day there with me. And then she was like, ‘I’m out of here. This is New Orleans. I’m going out.’ And out she went. But I stayed the whole time. That told me something about myself, that maybe this was something I loved, something I found compelling. 

I had many, many questions, so I was very lucky when I won a sabbatical fellowship from my practice. It was called the Charles H. Revson Fellowship, A Program on the Future of The City of New York. That’s a mouthful! 

But the idea is, in a partnership between Columbia University and the Charles Revson Foundation, people who had made some kind of contribution to the life of the city, who did not ordinarily enjoy things like sabbaticals, would be able to come for a year. So I was with firefighters and union organizers and public school teachers, one other lawyer, and we all had a year. I went to history department and said, I’ve been doing this research. Can I take a seminar and see what I can do? And I did. And I was really hooked. 

I was there to kind of rethink my career. I don’t think anybody expected that I would jump ship completely, but I understood in a fundamental way, that certainly, lawyers were always building on explicit and implicit ideas about the past, and changes over time. And at the same time, that the courts I practiced in thought too little about race, and racism; they didn’t have good mechanisms for doing that. So I was able to explore questions that I really hadn’t been able to explore in my practice . 

So I’m off. I go to do a PhD, and I spend some years doing the PhD, like everyone does. There’s no shortcut. And happily ever after. 

SW So would you say there’s a link between the way lawyers look to precedents to make their cases, how they set precedents for future cases, and the work of a historian, looking back at primary sources and extrapolating new ways to tell those stories? Both offer an opportunity to use history to change culture, but they do it in different ways?

MJ I always believed that the history I write is part of the same good fight we engaged in as lawyers, but it took me a long time to convince my lawyer friends of that. 

I wrote a book that came out in 2018 called Birthright Citizens, which is a history of early Black Baltimore and the role that Black Baltimorean activists played in remaking the terms of citizenship for the entire nation. Because that book happened to drop in the midst of a literal crisis around citizenship in the 21st century, it became more useful than I ever might have imagined. 

SW Can you share a little bit about that book and some of the takeaways that you found remarkable?

MJ Absolutely. You know, I came here to study Baltimore long before I lived here because I knew it was home to the largest free Black community in the country. So it’s a place that before the Civil War is already experiencing on a micro level the kind of changes that are going to characterize the postwar years after slavery’s abolition. I was looking for a laboratory for that.

We have a wonderful state archive here. All the court materials from Baltimore are preserved there in Annapolis. I knew that some of the most notorious figures from early 19th century legal culture like Supreme Court Justice Roger Brooke Taney were also Baltimoreans. 

And Taney infamously pens the Dred Scott decision that says no Black person can be a citizen of the United States. I wanted to know what Taney really knew about Black people. And I thought, there’s no better place to do that than Baltimore. And I find him in the local courthouse, and in dealings with local folk, and activists, and entrepreneurs, and workers… 

So one takeaway is that long before Congress or highly placed lawmakers are seriously thinking about a reform to the Constitution like birthright citizenship, which they do after the Civil War, Black activists are already doing that work and promoting that interpretation of the Constitution, since the 1820s at least. And no community is more positioned to have to think hard about citizenship like the one in Baltimore because colonization is such an active pressure in their lives — there are people who would like to remove them all and send them to Liberia. Black code laws here are onerous and far-reaching and make life very difficult if you’re a free person of color. And because you exist in this world between slavery and freedom, it is a very fraught existence. So folks here, but not only here, work on this idea, and it turns out they are the ones who build it up, then sustain it and carry it forward, bequeath it, in a sense to a different political moment when it is actually possible in Washington terms. 

SW And you’re writing a book about Taney now, is that right? 

MJ I am slowly working on a biography of Taney because I think Taney turns out to be somebody who actually is as responsible as any single figure can be for embedding racism into American law in ways that we still live with today. 

SW So much of your work is about citizenship, and the ways in which people are fighting to make our country “a more perfect Union.” When you wrote your newest book [Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All], about Black women and their enduring, ongoing fight for voting rights, what did you want us to know about them? I mean, I know it’s an entire book… 

MJ Oh, it’s an entire lifetime! My very first book, which is called All Bound Up Together, looked at the ways in which 19th century Black Americans — men and women — wrestle with what I call the “woman question.” I’ve been a part of some very meaningful collectives of scholars like Black Women’s Intellectual and Cultural History Collective, where we’ve produced a book called Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women. This is to say that I’ve been working on this for a long time. 

But what happened was that while I was traveling to talk about Birthright Citizens, I wound up with a lot of downtime with strangers, and you need things to talk about. And I was just mulling over what the centennial of the 19th Amendment might mean for Black women’s history. So you’re sitting in a green room, and you say to somebody something like, ‘Well you know the 19th Amendment didn’t actually guarantee to anybody the right to vote, and many Black women did not benefit.’ And people go, ‘Oh?’ And then they go, ‘Ooooh!’ 

And I realized that there have been two, going on three, just extraordinary generations of historians of Black women’s politics, culture and thought going back to Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, and many many others whose work wasn’t quite making its way into commonsense thinking about this centennial. And so I thought, well, maybe I should take a shot at drawing on, building on, synthesizing, doing some new research…. My vision was to have one book in my pocket that I could give you to say, ‘Oh, you don’t know anything about Black women and voting rights? Here you go.’ 

Now, no one book can actually do that, just to be clear, so this book does not. It’s not an encyclopedia. But it tries to use some remarkable women and some signal moments over the past 200 years to explain someone like Stacey Abrams. Abrams is somebody who can very well explain herself, and when she does, she does not invoke Susan Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but she does have a sense of where she stands in a long history of Black women’s politics and activism. 

So could I write a book that would explain Stacey Abrams? That would explain Ayanna Presley? That would explain the 98% who elect Doug Jones in Alabama? Again, no book can do that. Those women deserve their own biographies and their own thorough treatment. But I wanted to give readers a roadmap so that they could see that when Black women step to the podium or they’re on the ballot, or they’re at the polls or they’re getting out the vote, those women in the 21st century don’t come out of nowhere. They come out of a long and hard and important history. 

My ultimate conclusion in this book is that Black women have always been at the fore of voting rights for women. And long after white women moved on to something like an Equal Rights Amendment, Black women kept at voting rights for women, for themselves, for men, for everyone. And that’s why I call them the vanguard, because they are always leading and they are always holding the bar high for this country. 

These are our leaders. These are our best leaders. 

SW What time period does your book cover? 

MJ Vanguard goes from 1820 to 2020: two hundred years. It begins with preaching women. Women like Jarena Lee, political women like Maria Stewart, women of the pen and of elite circles like Sarah Mapps Douglass in Philadelphia. It suggests that those women, when they begin to break convention, are at the start of what it takes for Black women to get to the point where they’re now going to organize around political rights and the vote. And it comes all the way forward ending with Stacey Abrams. How could you not? 

And so these are women who are a vanguard. These are women, in my estimation, who really do create their own social movement — a Black women’s movement — that never splinters off wholly, but never is subsumed into suffrage associations or political parties. 

Part of how I had to approach the book was rather than fret about where Black women were not, what if we tried to write a history about where they were? And it turns out, everywhere they are — in church, in sororities, in the club movement, in anti-slavery societies, on and on — we hear many things because their interests are multi-fold. What’s consistent, no matter where we find them, is a debate about what it means to be a woman, what kind of power women can have, what kind of authority they can have… Can they vote? Can they hold office? Can they have licenses to preach? All of those things. 

And so within their own institutions, within institutions that they share with men, there is a constant murmur, conversation, debate. There is shouting. And there is fracture and faction. But we can say without a doubt that Black women are as concerned with who they are in terms of their standing in politics and the public as they are concerned with power, how to have it and how to use it. And they are savvy and strategic in their alliances with one another, with Black men, with white men, with white women and more. When we’re preoccupied with the very often told stories about dust ups with white women, we miss all that. 

Racism is an ever present dimension of this story. But to reduce Black women and their thinking, their activism, to the problem of racism or the notion that they want to get in with white women is just amiss. These women are building their own and making their own and engaged in their own struggle. And it is the struggle for all of humanity. It is a struggle for dignity. It is a struggle that posits Black women as the measure. 

SW Beyond Maryland, are there any landmark clubs or individuals that you want to call up as great leaders of this struggle? 

MJ There’s no way to talk about or tell the story without someone we all know. And that’s Ida Wells. Wells is so important. I really tried not to write about her too much , because she’s somebody who could just take over. 

She has a long, wide, multi-faceted life, but Ida Wells is probably best known to many people as the great national opponent of lynching, and the great proponent of anti-lynching legislation, a campaign that she not only wages here in the US, but takes abroad. 

Wells was a journalist of great note, a writer. She is also a suffragist and her Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago will, among other things, be behind her when she comes to Washington in 1913 to Alice Paul’s women’s march, but more importantly, those women in the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago will win the vote before 1920. They will be profoundly effective as operatives and organizers, and for example, send Oscar de Priest to the House of Representatives from Chicago in 1928 — the first Black representative in the House since Reconstruction. Black women did that. 

And so part of what looking at Wells reminds us is that politics is not only national. It’s happening locally. It’s happening in municipalities like Chicago. The women around Wells are able to really change things; they send de Priest all the way to Congress. But it’s a reminder that what characterizes many of these women’s careers is a kind of multifaceted, multi-issue activism. 

There’s no contradiction for Wells or anyone like her for being an anti-lynching advocate and a suffragist, among other things. Wells is going to be there at the founding of the NAACP and that phase of a modern civil rights movement. All of those things are consistent for the women that I write about. 

I wrote a piece not long ago about Hallie Quinn Brown. She’s someone who just hasn’t gotten enough due. Quinn Brown begins her public life first as a church activist in the AME Church. She’s trying to be elected to a formal leadership position there. That’s where I first encounter her. Then she is on the faculty at Wilberforce in Ohio, teaching, but at the collegiate level in the postwar period. She is formally trained as an elocutionist. We don’t talk much about elocutionists today, but this is the incredibly important art of public speaking in the 19th century when — just reminding folks — there’s no radio, there’s no television…

SW No Internet… 

MJ That capacity to stand at a podium and to command an audience, not for minutes, but sometimes for hours… She trains as an elocutionist, and then she is also a club woman out of Ohio who by 1920 has been elected president of the National Association of Colored Women, right at the moment of women’s suffrage, the 19th amendment. 

Quinn Brown lets us see up close how she and other women like her, who are prepared after the 19th Amendment to continue to do the work for voting rights, are jettisoned by folks like Alice Paul, who’s moving in another direction. Her story lets us see that up close. 

And then by ’23 or ’24, she’s involved in a skirmish with Congress and the Daughters of the Confederacy when the Daughters of the Confederacy proposed to put a monument to Mammy on the national lawn. 

So what are Black women dealing with? 

They still don’t have voting rights. They still don’t have federal anti-lynching legislation. And now the Daughters of the Confederacy have persuaded Congress to perhaps fund a monument to this derogatory, degrading caricature. 

SW And they made the argument that it was celebratory, no? 

MJ Oh, absolutely. They defended it as a tribute to Mammy. To their mammy. And of course, Quinn Brown sees through that, as do others. Du Bois is part of this campaign. But it’s Quinn Brown who’s representing the National Association of Colored Women. And this is important, I think, for folks to appreciate the many fronts on which Black women have to fight simultaneously. 

SW Who are some of your major influences in this work? 

MJ Oh, gosh. Well, there are all these women, right? Anna Julia Cooper’s Voice from the South is still an absolute must read — a stunning delightful feminist manifesto. I learn from it every time I pick it up. 

But my own teachers? As a law student, I studied with someone named Patricia Williams, who is, I think best known as a critical race theorist. But by the 1980s, Williams is beginning to mine her own family archive as a way of writing and rewriting the history of American law. 

One of her earliest pieces that really puts her on the map is a piece that begins with her reflections on finding, I believe it’s a certificate of sale for her great grandmother or great great grandmother. So Williams is brilliant and analytically genius. But what she also does as part of the movement of critical race theory is insist and honor and validate that scholarship can begin with your own stories, your own questions, your own family, your own community. That you need not begin in the statehouse or in the Supreme Court. That actually, scholarly thinking can begin with us. And that has never left me. 

So Vanguard begins with a short essay on the women in my own family and the moment of 1920 and what it meant and didn’t mean when African-American women supposedly get the vote — my women, from Kentucky and North Carolina. And Pat Williams gave me permission, if you will, as a scholar, to recognize that I can insert those stories. That we all can do that. And that is history. That is a way to begin and do the work. That’s huge. Huge. 

I worked in graduate training with many influential people, including Farah Jasmine Griffin who is a great scholar of literature, a literary historian.

SW And who’s been in every amazing documentary recently! 

MJ Absolutely! I was watching the Toni Morrison on an airplane, and I said to my husband, ‘Look, it’s Farah!’ 

I’ve been very privileged to go from Farah’s student to her colleague and collaborator. And when I finished my dissertation, she said something to me. I don’t want to put words in her mouth because she was far more eloquent than I’m going to be, but she basically said, ‘You still have work to do on the women.’ And I’ve never forgotten that. Vanguard is very much obliged to that critique. Her critique, I now understand, comes to her as a student and a colleague of Morrison. 

Mine is a field of study, an enterprise, that has for so long been so premised in the white gaze that many of us — not all of us, but many of us — have to unlearn that. And that is a real practice. It’s not just an idea or an insight, it is a practice. Farah gave me that kind of charge, and while I hope many kinds of people read this book — it’s meant to be read widely — it is meant to be written as true as I can from the perspective of the Black women. At every turn, I’m trying to ask, ‘Where are they? What are they doing? What are they thinking? Don’t worry about what Susan B. Anthony is doing, you know? Ask yourself, ‘What are Black women doing?’ And Farah was certainly the first person to ever charge me with trying to work toward that. I’m not sure I’ve gotten there completely, but I would say that is a project for a lifetime for someone like me. 

Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, who in the 1970s publishes a dissertation, and by the 1990s it’s a book, and it breaks open this early history of women’s voting rights, women’s suffrage, re-inserts Black women into that narrative. And like hundreds and thousands of other students, I am reading that, mining it, marveling at how she goes back and so painstakingly recovers women who had been deliberately and cruelly erased from this history. So all things go back to her in this particular book [Vanguard]. 

I’m inspired by Baltimoreans. Sherrilyn Ifill, the head of our NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a legal historian herself. Ifill has always been steeped in, informed by, and so brilliant about history and the present, and law and history. I hope this book is somehow in dialog with people like Sherrilyn. Having her in mind helps me to calibrate what I do because I want it to be useful in a sense, to my old self. 

So I’ve had many, many great teachers. 

SW One last question is about the men. Frederick Douglass is a Marylander and a well-known suffragist…

MJ You know, Douglass got some things right and he got some things wrong. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a great Black Baltimorean, really gives Douglass what he needs. He doesn’t heed her, but she lays it out pretty clearly that his short range vision for the question of voting rights, suffrage, is just not enough. When Douglass infamously says in response to Stanton and Anthony that for Black men, the vote is a matter of life and death, and that women, unlike Black men, were not being lynched, strung up from lampposts, Watkins Harper says to him in a very reserved way, “Black women, too.” And what’s underneath that is sexual violence, and that Douglass has not grappled sufficiently with that reality, with its ubiquitousness, or with the profound vulnerability of all Black women. Even — if we could say — even a woman like Watkins Harper, who feels acutely when she travels, especially when she travels alone, how fragile, how vulnerable she is. Douglass doesn’t get that. And so there’s so much to admire, but he doesn’t emerge in this book as a champion above and beyond the women. 

SW It’s not about him. 

MJ No, it just isn’t. Douglass is a woman’s rights man, but he just doesn’t come the distance. He’s behind his Black women peers who understand why they need the vote. 

And I don’t think sexual violence is an easy topic. Black women, like Black men, have in our history, muted and nearly silenced that analysis because it is a tough one. It is a risky one. It is a painful one. So I would never too blithely critique someone who isn’t able to go the distance and name that, but we have an opportunity in this year, frankly, to name that on behalf of all of the women from whom we come, who bore that reality every day. We don’t have to be shy about that, even if we understand why they may have been. 

Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All will be available from Basic Books in September 2020.

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Savannah Wood is an artist and cultural producer. She is a Robert W. Deutsch Foundation fellow, Archives Director for the AFRO American Newspapers, Executive Director of Afro Charities, Inc., and the guest editor for this special publication.

This essay/interview was originally commissioned for To The Front: Black Women & the Vote, a joint publication by the Afro American Newspapers and Afro Charities, which celebrates 100 years of women’s suffrage. Learn more here: www.tothefront.us.