Document 6: Letter from Mary White Ovington to Lucy Burns, New York, 17 December 1920, National Woman's Party Papers, 1913-1974, Library of Congress (Microfilm (1979), reel 5).

Document 6:   Letter from Mary White Ovington to Lucy Burns, New York, 17 December 1920, National Woman's Party Papers, 1913-1974, Library of Congress (Microfilm (1979), reel 5).


       With the passage of the nineteenth amendment, leaders of the National Woman's Party planned to hold a ceremony at the nation's capital in February 1921, timed to coincide with the 101st anniversary of the birth of Susan B. Anthony. At that event, they planned to donate to Congress busts of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, commemorating their contributions to seventy-two years of struggle. They planned as well a national convention of the NWP and anticipated the attendance of representatives from more than one hundred women's organizations. The purpose of this meeting was to celebrate the passage of woman suffrage and define the organization's new priorities in the changed circumstances.

       As NWP activists began to plan the agenda for the February meeting, Mary White Ovington, a suffrage activist and a white founder of the NAACP, expressed concern at southern white opposition to Black suffrage, and urged that the NWP take a firm stand in support of suffrage for Black women. She proposed that a leading Black woman, Mary Talbert, be invited to speak to the convention and that efforts be made to set up a committee to investigate recent events in the South and press for voting rights for Black women.

       How the NWP reacted to this initiative revealed the party's ambivalence about its commitment to suffrage for all women. Mary White Ovington wrote a very strong letter to Lucy Burns, one of Alice Paul's closest associates, about this issue. Burns led the Congressional Union with Alice Paul and served on the executive committee of the National Woman's Party.[11]

National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People


                    December 17, 1920

Miss Lucy Burns
350 West 71st Street,
New York City.


My dear Miss Burns:

       I am writing to you as an advisory member of the National Woman's Party asking if you will arrange that at the meeting, February fifteenth, a colored woman be invited to speak. I would suggest as the speaker, Mrs. Mary B. Talbert, until last June president of the Federation of Colored Women, and this summer one of the ten official members of the International Council of Women which met at Christiana. Mrs. Talbert is able, liberal in thought, and perhaps the best known colored woman in the United States today.[A]

       There was little voting and much terrorizing of Negroes in the South during the past elections and at Ocoee, Florida, there was a massacre. But equally sinister was the refusing to register women at such a place as Hampton, Virginia, where Hampton Institute has through many years endeavored to maintain kindly feelings between the two races, and yet where colored women were so insulted when they attempted to register that one woman said: "I could kill the clerk who questioned me; I could kill his wife and children."

       If the South means to awaken a spirit like this it will eventually have war to face. But I believe that the Negro woman can win her right to vote if she is upheld by the rest of the country. The thinking southern woman is generally more fairminded than the southern man, but she cannot secure justice for the colored woman without she has the backing of all of us.

       Will you not therefore, endeavor to have a committee appointed out of your great meeting in February which shall investigate and take some action regarding the status of the colored woman? The Woman's Party must have in its membership, South as well as North, women of broad enough vision and deep enough purpose to attack this problem. And if the women attack it, it will be solved.

       Hoping that you will do something in this matter, I am,

                    Very sincerely yours,

                    Mary White Ovington

**[Handwritten note across the top of the letter:] Dear Miss Paul-No doubt this suggestion has already been included in your plans. I send it, nevertheless, with a favorable recommendation as an act of courtesy to the writer. Lucy Burns.
       Back to Text

A. Mary Talbert was a secretary of the National Association of Colored Women and a leader of the Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. For an excellent biographical sketch of Talbert, see her entry in Darlene Clark Hine, ed., Black Women in White America, pp. 1137-39.
       Back to Text

back to top