February 01, 2024

Empowering Democracy through Black History: Celebrating Trailblazing Black Women in the Suffrage Movement

Trailblazing Black Women in the Suffrage Movement

By Jeana S. Whitaker

2024 will be a pivotal election that many say will either secure our democratic system of government or dismantle it.  However, with so many demands in our daily lives, it is easy to put voter registration at the bottom of our “to-do” list.  By taking a look back at our history and the sacrifices others have made to give us the right to exercise our vote, we can examine what life might be like if it no longer existed. 

We’ve already seen women’s rights stripped away by the U.S. Supreme Court with the overturning of Roe V. Wade, so it is not implausible that the hard-fought voting rights and racial equality laws will be next.  It is imperative that all women, regardless of race, ethnicity, or culture, stand up and shout from the rooftops that we will not be relegated back to the days of suffrage.

The ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 marked a historic moment in the fight for women's suffrage in the United States. Women across the nation rejoiced as they secured the right to vote after decades of tireless activism. However, it is crucial to delve deeper into the celebratory narratives and acknowledge the harsh reality that the 19th Amendment did little to dismantle racial barriers to voting. Black women, who stood shoulder to shoulder with their white counterparts in the suffrage movement, found themselves still disenfranchised for nearly 50 more years until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  In honor of Black History Month, we’d like to highlight a few of the trailblazing black women whose tireless efforts and advocacy played a crucial role in the fight for women's suffrage.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett: A Fearless Crusader for Justice

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a pioneering journalist and civil rights activist, was a force to be reckoned with during the Suffragist movement. Born into slavery in 1862, Wells-Barnett emerged as a fearless advocate for the rights of African Americans and women. She is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking investigative journalism on lynching in the South, but her involvement in the Suffragist movement was equally significant.

Wells-Barnett's activism intersected with the suffragist cause, as she recognized the importance of securing voting rights for all women, regardless of race. In 1913, she marched in the Women's Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., despite facing segregation and discrimination within the suffragist movement. Her dedication to racial and gender equality laid the foundation for future generations of black women activists.

Nannie Helen Burroughs: Educator, Activist, and Suffragist

Nannie Helen Burroughs, an influential educator, and women's rights activist made substantial contributions to the Suffragist movement. Born in 1879, Burroughs strongly advocated for the intersectionality of race and gender, believing that black women's rights should not be sidelined within the broader suffragist agenda.

Burroughs founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896, which played a crucial role in uniting black women's voices and advocating for suffrage. She emphasized the importance of education and economic empowerment for black women, recognizing that political enfranchisement was just one aspect of their struggle. Burroughs' philosophy of "race first, race last, and race all the time" underscored the necessity of addressing both racial and gender inequalities concurrently.

Mary Church Terrell: Advocate for Suffrage and Civil Rights

Mary Church Terrell, a distinguished educator, suffragist, and civil rights activist, was another prominent black woman leader during the Suffragist movement. Born in 1863, Terrell dedicated her life to combating racial and gender discrimination. Her work as an activist began in 1892 when a friend, Thomas Moss, was lynched by a mob of white businessmen because his business competed with theirs.

Terrell was an eloquent speaker and writer, using her platform to address the intersections of race and gender. In 1898, she delivered a powerful speech titled "The Progress of Colored Women" at the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) convention, highlighting the contributions of black women to the suffragist cause.  Her words in the speech, “Lifting as we climb,” became the motto for the group from that day forward.  Terrell's efforts to bridge the gap between black and white suffragists fostered a more inclusive movement.

Mary was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, and following the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, she continued to fight for civil rights.  Her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, discusses her experiences with discrimination.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cody Stanton: Another Perspective

While Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are rightfully celebrated for their contributions to the suffrage movement, it is essential to critically examine their approach and acknowledge the limitations of their advocacy. The decision to prioritize the needs and concerns of white suffragists over the shared goals of racial equality strained the initial unity within the movement.

While effective in some respects, Anthony and Stanton's strategic choices left black women to navigate the treacherous path toward voting rights alone. The fractured alliance within the suffrage movement underscores the enduring challenges of achieving racial equality when compromises are made at the expense of marginalized communities.

Moving Toward a More Comprehensive Narrative

The struggle for women's suffrage in the United States is a multifaceted narrative that demands a comprehensive examination of the contributions of all those involved. Black women, often relegated to the sidelines in mainstream historical accounts, were instrumental in the fight for the right to vote. The 19th Amendment marked a milestone, but its limitations for black women underscore the need for a more nuanced understanding of the suffrage movement.

Ida B. Wells Barnett, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Mary Church Terrell stand as symbols of resilience and determination, challenging the traditional narrative that centers on the experiences of white suffragists. Their contributions, alongside those of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, provide a more complete picture of the complexities within the suffrage movement. Recognizing and honoring the diverse voices within this historical struggle is not just an exercise in remembrance but a crucial step towards dismantling systemic inequalities and fostering a more just society. Without a full accounting of history, genuine progress toward racial equality remains elusive.

Women need to move forward, united, in our unwavering demand to be treated fairly and equitably.  In honor of these fearless women who sacrificed so much to pave the way for generations of women to come, please register to vote at https://www.votefromabroad.org/Democrats Abroad Portugal is here to help you with registration, answer your questions, and help you navigate the sometimes complex process of voting in American elections while living in Portugal. 

For a more in-depth examination of the Black Suffragists, we recommend reading Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.