Black Women’s Fight for Suffrage

Lugenia Burns Hope and the Neighborhood Union

Lugenia Burns Hope and the Neighborhood Union. Neighborhood Union Collections, Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library

In August 2020, we commemorate the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment which guaranteed American women the right to vote. However, this was not an inclusive victory. The right to vote is tied to citizenship. At the time of the Nineteenth Amendment’s passage, Native Americans were not yet recognized as citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act (adopted 1882) and multiple rulings by the US Supreme Court barred Asian and Latinx immigrants, as well as their descendants, from attaining citizenship.

While the verbiage of the Nineteenth Amendment made it legal for Black women to vote, other barriers—including poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and racial terrorism—prevented many from casting their ballots. While we commemorate August 18, 1920 as the day the American electorate changed forever, we must also recognize the persistent struggle of women who continued to live in disenfranchisement.

Black women and other women of color are often erased from the narrative leading up to the Nineteenth Amendment.

Due to enduring racist sentiment and the rising tide of white supremacist governments, Black suffragists’ position in society posed unique and significant challenges not faced by their white counterparts. They felt pressure both from Black men, who wanted their support in fighting widespread racial discrimination and prejudice, as well as from white women, who wanted their help in elevating the status of women in society. Both groups failed to see Black women in their own movement—independent from the wants and whims of others.

Even with the knowledge that they might continue to be disenfranchised after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, these women of color participated in—and led—the women’s suffrage movement.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Abolition and the Origins of Women’s Suffrage

As early as 1807, women’s rights advocates found support and political opportunity in the abolitionist movement. Many anti-slavery organizations in the North recognized the burgeoning women’s movement and saw its members as agents of change. Following abolition and the Civil War, female members of anti-slavery societies—bolstered by their experience organizing a social movement—transitioned into suffrage societies.

Leaders like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton cut their teeth in abolitionist meetings and gained invaluable experience as leaders, organizers, orators, and writers that helped to shape the beginnings of a mainstream women’s movement.

Both Stanton and Susan B. Anthony led lobbying efforts aimed at ensuring women’s voting rights would be included in the still-developing Fifteenth Amendment. With increasing frequency in the years following the Civil War, Stanton publicly denounced the extension of voting rights to Black Americans while women remained disenfranchised. She extolled the virtues of educated white women and warned that new immigrants and African Americans weren’t prepared to exercise the full rights of citizenship, or indeed, be citizens at all.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

One of the movement’s most notable members, and one who opposed Stanton’s racist rhetoric, was Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Harper was born to a free Black couple in Maryland in 1825. Orphaned at an early age, Harper developed a love of books while working for a white family who owned a bookshop. Her deep love of language led her into a career as an educator and author. She devoted her life to the cause of abolition, traveling across the United States and Canada in the 1850s as a lecturer for the Maine and Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Societies. She published a series of poems, essays, and novels about abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage, the popularity of which made her a household name.

In 1866, Harper delivered her most famous speech, We Are All Bound Up Together, at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York. The speech emphasized the dual burden faced by Black women in America—racism and sexism. She argued that, because of this dual burden, it was doubly as important that African American women be included in the national suffrage movement.

Reconstruction’s End

With the ascendency of white supremacist governments across Southern states at the end of Reconstruction, Black suffrage coalitions faced yet another hurdle. By 1900, Georgia and other Southern states established elaborate systems of segregation, racial terror, and disenfranchisement, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. These legal hurdles—which were upheld by the Supreme Court—were accompanied by threats of physical violence by white supremacists.

For years, Southern states defended the disenfranchisement of Black men as an expression of state’s rights. That the Nineteenth Amendment promised to enfranchise Black women was one of the major reasons many Southern lawmakers opposed the legislation.

In what is known as “the Southern Strategy,” white suffragists argued that, by giving white women the right to vote, they could help to further drown out the votes of Black men. Suffragist Jeannette Rankin (a white woman) proclaimed during remarks to Congress in 1918 that “there are more white women of voting age in the South today than there are negro men and women together.”

Between 1901–1929, no African American legislators served in Congress. The progress made during the Reconstruction Era was undermined by an organized political movement working to restrict voting rights and exclude millions of Americans from the political process. Black voices were shut out once again from Washington.

“The real leaders in these matters”

Black activist, writer, and educator Mary Church Terrell was a vocal suffragist who spoke out against the additional discrimination faced by African American women. She decried Stanton’s rhetoric, but remained hopeful “not only in the prospective enfranchisement of my sex but in the emancipation of my race.” Black suffragists, like Terrell, struggled to have their voices heard inside the halls of Congress.

Courtesy of Kenan Research Center at Atlanta History Center

She was not alone. Journalist and women’s rights activist Alice Dunbar Nelson conducted much of her activism in Delaware. She was a field organizer for the Mid-Atlantic states during the suffrage movement. In 1927, Dunbar Nelson published her views on the importance of black woman suffrage in “The Negro Woman and the Ballot” in The Messenger:

Whatever the Negro may hope to gain for himself must be won at the ballot box, and quiet ‘going along’ will never gain his end. When the Negro woman finds that the future of her children lies in her own hands—if she can be made to see this—she will strike off the political shackles she has allowed to be hung upon her, and win the economic freedom of her race. Perhaps some Joan of Arc will lead the way.

Black women like Tyrrell and Nelson were powerful speakers and radical agents of change. Some argued that the enfranchisement of Black women in the South would produce racial turmoil. One congressman called African American women, “the real leaders in these matters” and feared that should they be given the right to vote, would “become fanatical on the subject of voting and reawaken in the negro men an intense and not easily quenched desire to again become a political factor.”

Suffrage in Atlanta

The members of the Black women’s suffrage movement themselves tended to focus on human rights and universal suffrage. Women like Atlanta’s own Adella Hunt Logan and Lugenia Burns Hope saw suffrage as a boat to be lifted on the rising tide of human rights.

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Negro Literature, Project Gutenberg

The first woman suffrage organization in Georgia formed in 1890 when reformer Helen Augusta Howard founded the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association in her Columbus, Georgia home. She persuaded the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to hold their annual meeting in Atlanta in 1895—their first outside of Washington, D.C.

African American women were excluded from the meeting, but Susan B. Anthony spoke on the campus of Atlanta University, an HBCU. In the audience was alumna Adella Hunt Logan. Like Mary Church Tyrrell, Logan believed that, if white women needed the vote to protect their families, then Black women needed it even more. Logan was a founding member of the Tuskegee Women’s Club at the Tuskegee Institute where she served on the faculty. In her role, she spoke out about issues including temperance, prison reform, and women’s suffrage. In 1901, she became Alabama’s first and only lifetime member of NAWSA. She published regular articles encouraging Black women to see themselves as changemakers with the capacity to generate citizen-led reform.

Lugenia Burns Hope (seated on the first row, second from the right) and the Neighborhood Union. Image courtesy Neighborhood Union Collections, Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library

In 1896 several African American women’s organizations formed the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in Washington, D.C. In the next several years, many members, like Lugenia Burns Hope, wife of John Hope, the first president of Atlanta’s Morehouse College, became suffrage advocates through their work in the NACW. Hope saw the vote as a means for Black women to influence the distribution of community resources.

She, along with several other women, formed Atlanta’s Neighborhood Union in 1908. Under her leadership, internal support for the city’s Black neighborhoods galvanized. After recruiting Morehouse students to interview community members and assess their needs, Hope organized and carried out a host of reform efforts. The Neighborhood Union organized and executed health education campaigns, lobbied for better conditions in schools, and sponsored arts and recreational activities for youth. The work she did with the Neighborhood Union is recognized as the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement.

Shirley Chisholm, America’s first Black congresswoman. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

After 1920

Black women and men continued their activism during the Civil Rights Movement as they worked to eliminate segregation and barriers to voting. Some minority groups continued to fight for full recognition of citizenship. Organizations, such as the League of Women Voters and Voter Education Project, worked to ensure that newly enfranchised people exercised their rights as informed voters.

The passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965—which celebrates a milestone 55th anniversary in 2020—symbolized a century of work from the Black community. The act struck a blow for equality, banning the use of discriminatory practices including literacy tests and grandfather clauses. The act also provided for federal oversight of voter registration and authorized the US attorney general to dispatch federal observers to at-risk jurisdictions.

As a result of the Voting Rights Act, Black voter registration and turnout in Georgia increased exponentially. In 1965 in Georgia, Black voter registration hovered at 27.4%, by 1988, that number leapt to 56.8%. (White voter registration only increased by 1.3% over the same period.) Black voters also made their voices heard at the ballot box and on the ballot—in 1965, there only six Black members of congress. Just six years later, one Black senator had been elected, along with thirteen Black House members, including Shirley Chisholm, the nation’s first Black congresswoman.

Participants in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Since 1965, 45 years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, voter turnout of women has continued to grow exponentially. In the past thirty years, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, voter turnout rates for women have exceeded those of men. Women, who comprise more than half of the United States population, have cast almost ten million more votes than men in recent elections.

What will the next chapter of history look like? More women of color are registered to vote than ever before in American history.

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