Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Ella Cunningham, 1878- ?

By Sarah Lirley McCune
Assistant Professor of History, Columbia College, Columbia, Missouri

Ella Cunningham was an African American activist who worked for black women's suffrage in the early twentieth century. She was especially active in 1917, when suffragists in New York state organized to pressure the state's voters to pass a women's suffrage amendment. Their efforts were ultimately successful, but it took a great deal of organizing to achieve the vote in New York.

Ella was born in 1878 in South Carolina, but spent her adult life in New York City. Ella married Joseph A. Cunningham before 1910, when she was nineteen years old. The marriage ended in divorce between 1910 and 1920. Ella had three children, but only two survived to adulthood. She raised her two children, Beatrice Jackson and Remus Clarke, in New York City and they remained there as adults. After Ella's divorce from Joseph, she and her son lived in Beatrice's household. Ella worked as a domestic servant and laundress throughout her adult life. She had no formal education, but she was literate and was determined to help black women gain the right to vote.

Despite her busy family and work life, Ella Cunningham made time for political activism. During World War I, she was one of several contributors to the war fund for the Colored Men's division of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). Ella and other African Americans in New York City contributed $350 to this organization. As a domestic servant, Ella did not earn a high salary, making her contribution even more generous.

During World War I, Ella participated in the women's suffrage movement as well. She was a member of the Colored Women's Suffrage Club of New York, which participated in a statewide suffrage convention in August of 1917. The New York Age wrote an article about the statewide convention, which met in Saratoga in hopes of garnering support for a suffrage amendment, which was on the November ballot in New York State. Women—black and white—traveled together to Saratoga. While black and white suffragists had separate organizations, for this meeting, they united as “affiliates of the New York City Woman Suffrage Party.” The governor of New York and the mayor of New York City also attended the meeting. A reporter for The New York Age wrote that “woman suffrage is one of the vital issues of the day and be given serious consideration. The State Suffrage party now has one million women enrolled under its banners.”

The state convention was significant for black women in particular. While black and white women united to garner support for women's suffrage, black women had long been treated as inferiors to their white counterparts. Once the convention ended, a conversation began as black women addressed the unequal treatment some felt they had received. The discussion was not welcomed by all white women and a few black women, angry, left the meeting because of the discrimination they experienced. While some black women openly demanded equal treatment with white women, nonetheless, they supported the New York Woman Suffrage Party because it was their best opportunity to gain the right to vote.

The efforts of Ella Cunningham and the other members of the Colored Women's Suffrage Club of New York City paid off. After hosting and attending meetings, sending postcards, knocking on strangers' doors, and even finding transportation for male allies to get to the polls on Election Day, Black women suffragists succeeded as New York voters made women's suffrage the state law in November 1917—three years before the Nineteenth Amendment required all states to grant women the right to vote.

Ella Cunningham continued to live in New York City and worked the same jobs that she had before she won the right to vote. She worked as a domestic servant and lived with her adult children. But she experienced a significant difference: she was able to—and did—vote.


“Colored Women Attend Suffragette Meeting,” The New York Age, Sep. 6, 1917, p. 2.

“Contribute to the YMCA War Fund,” New York Age, Nov. 29, 1917, p. 2.

Goodier, Susan and Karen Pastorello. Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017.

United States Bureau of the Census, Records for New York, 1910, 1920, 1930.


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