Black Women Suffragists
By Thomas Dublin and Kathryn Kish Sklar
This edition of Online Biographical Dictionary consists of biographical sketches of three distinct groups of woman suffrage activists:
• Black women suffragists
• Militant suffragists associated with the National Woman's Party
• Mainstream suffragists affiliated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association
In this essay we introduce the biographical sketches of Black women suffragists. We particularly focus on how we assembled the group. This group will eventually include about 400 biographical sketches of Black women suffragists, most of whom are relatively unknown to historians and students of history.
Our compilation of biographical sketches on black women suffragists began in 2008 with a list of seventy suffragists who appeared in Rosalyn Terborg-Penn's pathbreaking 1998 book, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Biographical sketches of many in this group appeared in the encyclopedias Notable American Women and Dictionary of American Negro Biography. We have obtained permission to include those sketches here. We then commissioned new sketches for activists not included in these encyclopedias.
During the past decade we pursued further research, much in black newspapers newly available online, which allowed us to identify additional black women suffragists. For some we had only their names and where they lived; for others we had more information, such as their participation in church or community organizations. Excited about how this new group could expand our historical knowledge of black women in the suffrage movement, we decided to commission volunteers to research and write biographical sketches of them. Our crowd-sourcing call for volunteers has been enormously successful. Generous researchers and writers have created biographical sketches that shed new light on black women suffragists and their communities.
We began our research on black women suffragists by assembling their published writings. As part of The Writings of Black Women Suffragists, we created an individual page for each suffragist with links to writings by and about her. In March 2014 we published the first online installment of these pages, which now are hyperlinked to about 2,000 writings by and about black women suffragists. This material is posted on the subscription-based online journal and database, Women and Social Movements in the United States (WASM).
We have created individual pages for the newly-identified black women suffragists, adding them to the earlier collection derived from the work of Professor Terborg-Penn. We have renamed the expanded project The Black Women Suffragists Collection. Although many individual pages do not now include links to writings, we will add such links as we discover writings of these additional suffrage activists.
This free-standing edition of Black Women Suffragists provides access to all the biographical sketches that we have collected and commissioned. The biographical sketches are accessible using hypertext links from the individual page that we have created for each black woman suffragist. Permission restrictions prevent us from making all the materials noted on the page available in this edition, but users can access all these materials by accessing WASM at a subscribing library.
As of December 2020 our section on Black Women Suffragists includes almost 330 biographical sketches. Currently we are working on an additional 70 activists. Sketches of these activists will follow at six-month intervals until the OBD is completed in 2021 or 2022.
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Although the woman suffrage movement in the United States, from its origin in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 until the enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, is usually viewed as a movement of white women, these biographical sketches show that African American women were also quite active in the struggle. Over time their numbers increased as it became apparent that achieving voting rights for Black women was a means of consolidating voting rights for Black men in the North, and that the proposed woman suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution might challenge Jim Crow laws in the South that prevented Black men from voting.
In constructing this list of Black women suffragists, we began with the pioneering work of Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. To this beginning we added new names and new documents drawn from recent scholarship on the woman suffrage movement and on Black women's reform activism in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Scholarly journals also became a critical source for us. Scouring their footnotes proved very rewarding. These citations led us to manuscript materials and additional published sources. Working in several archives and corresponding with archivists at other repositories further expanded our search. These contacts also led us to unique reference tools that we found at specific research collections. The Schomburg Center had a typewritten index to The Crisis, the leading publication of the NAACP, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, who corresponded with a wide network of Black women suffragists. The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center had a surviving card catalog (yes, physical cards in drawers!) in which early librarians at Howard had indexed articles of interest by many of the activists in our group. Finally, more recent electronic indexes, such as Reader's Guide Retrospective and J-STOR, provided further citations of interest as the work proceeded. What we had first anticipated would be an archive of 500 to 600 documents written by 70 activists has grown into 2,100 writings by or about 330 activists in the WASM Edition of Black Women Suffragists and biographical sketches of most of these activists in both the WASM and the Free-standing Editions.
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This expansion of our reach has been made possible by the increased digitization of critical primary sources. Newspapers.com is a subscription web resource which happens to include in its collection a number of Black newspapers. Recent work building the collection revealed that this database includes good indexed runs of the New York Age, Washington Bee, The Colored American, the New National Era, and the Pittsburgh Courier. To find newspaper stories that mention any of the Black women suffragists in this collection, one need only do a search for the individual's name to view a results list that is bound to contain new information of value.
Still more can be gleaned from online catalogs and collection inventories of leading repositories, such as the Schomburg Center, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, the Sophia Smith Collection, and the Schlesinger Library. Many of these repositories have digitized significant numbers of documents and made them accessible on the Web.
The internet is a good place to start exploring the legacy of Black women suffragists as well as their history. In the early 1920's Black women were at the forefront of challenging racial restrictions as they insisted that Black women be included among those benefiting from the passage of the 19th Amendment. A WASM document project, "How Did the National Woman's Party Address the Issue of the Enfranchisement of Black Women, 1919-1924?" vividly reveals the ways African American women challenged the National Woman's Party in its willingness to accept the refusal of Southern states to extend suffrage to Black women. That challenge to racism continues almost a century later in the activism of the League of Women Voters, founded to continue the work of the woman suffrage movement after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. The League has recently launched a "Making Democracy Work" campaign to restore the Voting Rights Act, which for more than five decades protected the rights of minority voters in states with a long history of racial discrimination in election practices. Just as in the case of the suffragists described in the sketches contained in this collection, contemporary advocates of civil rights and women's rights have united to achieve more together than would be possible separately. For a good statement of the significance of this recent campaign, see the personal statement of the Executive Director of the League of Women Voters, Wylecia Wiggs Harris, a twenty-first century Black woman suffragist.
We hope that the publication of this expanding collection of biographical sketches of Black women suffragists in the Free-standing Edition of the Online Biographical Dictionary will spark further interest in and knowledge of the contributions of Black women to the achievement of voting rights and citizenship rights in the United States. At a time when voting rights are under attack and voter suppression is growing, we see that the expansion of voting rights in this country has been a constant struggle for more than two centuries.
We will add new activists and new sketches to the list as information comes to us. If you would like to recommend additional Black women suffragists, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to Ashley Monteau, Kelly Marino, Jessica Derleth, and Zoe Chanin-Davis who have contributed greatly to the searching and sourcing, photocopying, scanning and transcribing that constructed this archive and database over a seven-year period. Sara Gibney, Michelle Eldridge, Laura Mills and Pat Carlson at Alexander Street Press have applied their remarkable talents to the process of digitizing all these documents.
Archives consulted in the course of the project included the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library, the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, Robert Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center, the Boston Public Library, Sophia Smith Collection, the Clarke Historical Library, the Schlesinger Library, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Beinecke Library at Yale University, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Clements Library, University of Michigan, Research Library. Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society, Special Collections and University Archives at UMass Amherst, the Library of Congress, and archives at Oberlin College, Fisk University, and Bethune-Cookman University.