(NEW YORK) — “What if black women, it turned out, really always have been at the forefront of the struggles over American women’s voting rights, and what if we as a nation are just catching up to that?”
That is the question posed by Martha S. Jones, one of the many historians now rewriting the history books on the role black women played in the women’s suffrage movement.
“Historians of African American women, like me, on the one hand have known many parts of this story for a very long time,” Jones, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, told ABC News’ Good Morning America. “Like with a lot of subjects, how we get that from our classrooms and our professional journals and our books and into the popular mind is always a challenge.”
The effort to highlight the work of black suffragists is in the spotlight as the U.S. marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote this year, during a presidential election year in which women voters will play a critical role.
Historians like Jones say black women played a crucial role in getting women the right to vote and run for office; they just didn’t do it alongside white women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who for decades have been idolized as the movement’s leaders.
“Black women are present and they are doing public work and they are deeply engaged in questions around women’s rights,” Jones told Good Morning America. “They simply just are not doing that work in the organizations that call themselves suffrage associations.”
“[The associations] were not an easy or welcoming or comforting or hospitable place for African American women,” said Jones, who delves into the divisions in a new book out this fall, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.
Black women were speaking out about women’s rights at the same time the women’s suffrage movement was unfolding in the mid-1800s, but because of their race they were not equally heard. Black women also did not get white women’s support as they fought for other equality measures, like the 14th and 15th amendments, which granted former slaves citizenship rights and gave black men voting rights.
“We know that even during major marches at the height of getting the 19th Amendment passed, black women were segregated,” said Nancy G. Abudu, deputy legal director of voting rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “And white women weren’t there, really, to promote anti-lynching and other campaigns important to black women.”
Stanton and Anthony left black women’s efforts out of their influential “History of Woman’s Suffrage,” which became the historical account of the movement. As a result, black women were later left out of history books too.
“To include the ways black women were working, you have to be more creative and look beyond the white suffrage groups,” said Kimberly Hamlin, author of Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener and associate professor of history at Miami University. “Look at the black women’s club movement and the temperance movement, where you see black women all along are working not just for women’s right to vote but for the civil rights of African Americans.”
Black women’s clubs like the National Association of Colored Women were hotbeds of political activism, historians say. Some of those clubs are just now unearthing the incredible details of the roles their own members played in gaining women the right to vote.
“It’s an untold story,” said Beverly Carter, a retired attorney and the historian for Dubois Circle, a Baltimore-based black women’s club founded in 1906. “And it’s a totally fascinating story.”
In spending the past five years going through every note and document in the club’s history, Carter discovered the club had nearly one dozen active suffragists who held suffrage meetings in their homes, spoke publicly and joined marches.
“What has surprised me is how much involvement that just this one club had,” said Carter. “I’m trying to bring to light the monumental tasks that these women did, especially with the odds against them.”
And once the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, the work of black women, for the benefit of all women, was not done. They had to continue their fight for full voting rights all the way to 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act that prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
The hard work done by black women suffragists left a mark that is still being felt in politics today. In the 2018 election, 55% of eligible black women voters cast ballots, six percentage points above the national turnout, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Their work also continues today in the effort to ensure every person has an equal right to vote. It can be seen in the work of women like Stacey Abrams, who last year launched Fair Fight, a multimillion-dollar initiative aimed at increasing voter protection efforts, after losing the Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018.
“You can’t explain Stacey Abrams by the story of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” said Jones. “[Abrams] doesn’t come out of nowhere and she herself says this, that she comes out of a tradition of African American women’s activism and politics.”
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