SBHM: Black Suffragettes Time Has Forgotten

Hi friends! I’ve been putting out the call for months now to have people write guest posts for any of the Smithsonian Heritage Months. I’m very grateful that Cassandra Carr responded, and is sharing this information with us. I’m sorry to say this isn’t something my teachers focused on in school, so my education is sadly lacking.

Black Suffragettes Time Has Forgotten

Black History Month is February, and today I’d like to highlight some of the most important figures in the suffrage movement – Black women.

When people think of the fight to get voting rights for women, you probably focus on the white women – Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others. But a lot of Black women fought just as hard. Who were they?

Naomi AndersonOne was Naomi Anderson. Her time in the movement took place from the 1870’s to the 1890’s, and she was best known as an effective orator. Anderson focused on how black women would forever be enslaved if they weren’t given the right to vote. She worked both with other black women and white women, and Anthony and Stanton praised her contributions to the cause.

Unfortunately, her association with Anthony and Stanton offended the Black community in her native Chicago and she was often criticized for it. Eventually she was forced to relocate to Ohio so she could support her family, including an ailing husband, but she never stopped speaking out about women’s voting rights.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary portraitMary Ann Shadd Cary was an American and Canadian who wore many hats – journalist, lawyer, and publisher, among others. In fact, she was the first Black North American publisher and the first Black female newspaper editor. She advocated that Blacks emigrate from the US to Canada, where conditions were better for them, but that stance made her a controversial figure for the time.

When Shadd Cary was 60, she graduated from law school as the second Black women to do so. She joined the National Woman Suffrage Association late in her life and worked with the likes of Anthony and Stanton to advance the cause of female voting rights. She is also credited with being the first Black person to formulate a suffrage organization.

Among her other accomplishments, Shadd Cary applied the principles of the 14th and 15thAmendments to women as well as men, including a request to strike the word “male” from those amendments.  In 1871, Cary unsuccessfully tried to vote in D. C. In her suffrage work, Cary connected education, women’s labor questions, and economic and business development to political empowerment. 

Nannie Helen Burroughs portraitA prominent educator, Nannie Helen Burroughs, once said, “When the ballot is put into the hands of the American woman, the world is going to get a correct estimate of the Negro woman. It will find her a tower of strength of which poets have never sung, orators have never spoken, and scholars have never written.”

Burroughs founded a woman’s church organization which became one of the most important and nationally powerful organizations of African American women boasting over a million members.  She was its guiding hand, building it to become the largest body of African American women in the United States. She headed the organization until her death. She used her life to advance wage opportunities for Black women, and believed the right to vote was a big part of helping them integrate into the fabric of the American working class.

Elizabeth Piper Ensley portrait (?)Elizabeth Piper Ensley helped lead a suffrage movement in Colorado, succeeding in getting the right to vote for all races in the 1890’s. She was the treasurer of the Colorado Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association, and beginning with a fund of twenty-five dollars, helped gain the money necessary for the campaign to get the initiative on the ballot. After the referendum passed, Ensley formed a club to teach Black women why and how to vote.

Another woman who focused on a particular state, rather than on the broader national movement, was Sarah Massey Overton. Sarah moved to California in the 1880’s and lobbied for women’s suffrage in the 1911 statewide election while vice-president of San Jose’s interracial Suffrage Amendment League. She also did voter registration of men in California who supported women’s suffrage, doing this through the Political Equality Club of San Jose.

Fannie Lou Hamer portrait

Source: Library of Congress ID ds 07134

Not all these women made their contribution to the suffrage movement in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. For instance, Fannie Lou Hamer encouraged black voter registration at the height of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. At the time, many Black people did not or could not register to vote because of barriers such as a poll tax, and literacy and comprehension tests assessed by white registrars. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Black people who tried to register to vote in this and other southern states faced serious hardships due to institutionalized racism, including harassment, loss of their jobs, and even physical attacks and death.

Hamer saw this first-hand when she was on her way back from a literacy workshop. The delegation was arrested on a false charge and jailed. Once in jail, Hamer’s colleagues were beaten by the police in the booking room. Hamer was then taken to a cell where two inmates were ordered, by the police, to beat her. The police ensured she was held down during the almost fatal beating, and when she started to scream, beat her further. This only firmed her resolve.

Many other women made notable contributions to the Black women’s suffrage movement, but these were some of the most prominent. They risked everything, including their own lives and livelihoods, to advocate for equal voting rights for black women, and should be recognized as the heroes they are.

Thank you so much for this post, Cassandra! Friends, did you know of these heroic Black women? Are there any others you’d add to this list?

And! 😀 Would you be willing to write a post for SBHM?!

N.B. I got the images from Wikimedia Commons/the public domain, and if I got any wrong, please accept my apologies, and let me know! Thank you! <3

3 thoughts on “SBHM: Black Suffragettes Time Has Forgotten

    1. Limecello

      Right? I’d never heard of some of them, and I really wish schools did more to teach us this history instead of the “highlights”/same things over and over.

  1. Pingback: SBHM: Black Suffragettes Time Has Forgotten – Instagatrix

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