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Recognizing the Role Black Women Played in the Movement

A young, Black girl voting on election day. (Photo: Getty Images/adamkaz)

By Alexandra Moyen

ROSEDALE — After years of being thrown in jail, picketing the White House and lobbying, women suffragists fought and won their federal right to vote on August 18, 1920.

The story of this fight has and continues to uplift women today to fight for female rights. 

Although the story is meant to be inspirational to all women, the story always seems to have white women at the forefront. So often we hear the names of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two white women who have been credited as the leaders of the movement, that we don’t think of the crucial role black women have played and how many were left out of the fight.

Many black women — such as Ida B. Wells, Elizabeth Piper Ensley, Mary Church Terrell, Juno Frankie Pierce, and Mary McLeod Bethune — who fought for racial equality and gender equality weren’t respected by white suffragists, forcing them to create their own suffragist movements.

Even after the right to vote was obtained, black women still had to fight for their rights. A common misconception amongst Americans is that when the 19th Amendment was ratified, it allowed all American women the right to vote.

It, in fact, angered many states causing them to pass other laws to disenfranchise women, particularly women of color. Although the 15th Amendment banned restriction of the vote on the account of race and the 19th Amendment on the account of gender, states enforced literacy tests, enacted poll taxes, and went as far as stripping the vote from women who married an immigrant.

Women of color had to wait five decades after the ratification of the 19th Amendment to act on their right to vote.

Ida B. Wells

Born in Mississippi on July 16, 1862, Ida B. Wells is arguably one of the most pivotal people in the advancement of black rights in America. Wells co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and, as a journalist for a black newspaper, reported on lynchings that happened in the South. Her articles also covered and condemned segregation, the disfranchisement, lack of education, and economic opportunities African Americans faced. While fighting racial inequalities, she joined the suffragist movement and created the first black suffrage club in Chicago, the Alpha Suffrage Club, in January 1913.

In March of 1913, she and 50 other black women traveled to the first suffrage parade in Washington D.C. during President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration but were told by white suffragists to march in the back to not anger Southern delegates. Making them believe she was complying, she initially left. She quickly came back, however, and she and her 50 companions marched alongside them. This move received massive newspaper coverage and shed light on African American participation in politics.

Wells’ work in the ASC gave women over the age of 21 partial suffrage, the right to vote in presidential and municipal, but not state elections. Her club played a pivotal role in the 1915 election of Oscar DePriest, the first African American Alderamin in Chicago. She helped register women voters and encouraged African Americans to be more involved in politics.

Elizabeth Piper Ensley

In 1893, Colorado became the second state, following Wyoming, to grant women the right to vote at the state level. Born in Massachusetts on January 19, 1847, to enslaved parents, Elizabeth Piper Ensley was pivotal in this movement and continued to push for women’s right to vote at the federal level.

Ensley moved to Denver in the early 1890s and joined the Non-Partisan Colorado Equal Suffrage Association in 1893 becoming one of 28 original members. When she was elected as the treasurer, the association only had $25 in its account. She oversaw fundraising, management of funds, donations from national suffrage organizations, and funding for leaders who spoke around the state such as Carrie Chapman Catt. As treasurer, she helped the association become financially secure and helped carry out a statewide campaign, even during Colorado’s depression.

After Colorado granted women the right to vote, she founded the Colored Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1904 and served as the only black officer on the state Board of Directors of the Colorado State Federation of Women’s Clubs, a state organization primarily led by white women. During her time as an officer, she worked to educate black women on the importance of exercising their rights and being a part of politics. She also became the Denver correspondent for the national newspaper, Woman’s Era, in which she covered the suffrage movement in Colorado.

Ensley died on February 23, 1919, before she could witness the ratification of the 19th Amendment. However, her legacy has not been forgotten and earned her a spot as one of the 2020 honorees of the National Women’s History Alliance.

Mary Church Terrell

Born on September 23, 1863, in Tennessee to former slaves who then turned rich, Mary Church Terrell became part of the rising black upper-middle class who used their fortune to further the fight for black rights. Terrel attended the Antioch College laboratory school in Ohio, and later Oberlin College, where she earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, making her one of the first black women to earn a college degree.

Her activism began after her friend, Thomas Moss, was lynched by white men in Mississippi because his business was competing with theirs. She began working alongside Ida B. Wells to fight lynchings and became focused on uplifting the black race with the belief black people could help end racial discrimination by bettering themselves as a race through education, work, and community activism. In 1896, she co-founded and became the president of the National Association of Colored Women, and during this time began to embrace the suffragist movement.

In 1909, she co-founded and became a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and in 1910 co-founded the College Alumnae Club, which later became the National Association of University Women.

Terrell actively campaigned for black women’s suffrage going as far as picketing the White House during Wilson’s presidency. She also became the first Black woman appointed to the Washington, D.C.’s Board of Education, and led a successful campaign to desegregate the city’s hotels and restaurants. In 1950, at the age of 86, she challenged Tennessee’s segregation and in 1953 the Supreme Court ruled that segregated eating facilities were unconstitutional. She died a year later on July 24 in Maryland.

Juno Frankie Pierce

Another pivotal black suffragist from Tennessee, Juno Frankie Pierce was born in 1864 to a house slave. There is little known about her personal life, only that she studied at Roger Williams University, one of four colleges in Nashville for freed slaves, and later taught as a school teacher. She worked to build an educational institution for delinquent African American girls. African American girls were rejected from white juvenile institutions or schools and, because of this, were put into jails. On October 9, 1923, opened the Tennessee Vocational School for Colored Girls and began campaigning for the establishment of a correctional school for girls.

She was president of the Negro Women’s Reconstruction League, the founder of the Nashville Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, and on the first Committee of Management of the Blue Triangle League of the YWCA.

Through her advocacy for women’s rights, she helped 2,500 black women vote in the 1919 Nashville municipal elections causing Tennessee to become the final state to pass the push for women’s suffrage on August 26, 1920. In 1935, she also served as vice president of the Negro Voters League, which catered to both men and women and also chaired the women’s division of the Tennessee Interacial League.

A year before her death in 1954, she was honored as “Women of the Year” by the Nashville chapter of Links, a national organization that helped women advocate for their rights. Her legacy still remembered, on November 13 the New Nashville Park was changed to Frankie Pierce Park to honor her push for equal rights.

Mary McLeod Bethune

Another legacy that hasn’t gained the recognition it deserves is that of Mary McLeod Bethune. Born on July 10, 1875, in South Carolina, Bethune became an important leader in black education, civil and women’s rights, and in the government as President Franklin Roosevelt’s advisor.

In 1904 Bethune opened a boarding school, the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. This school then formed with the all-male Cookman Institute in 1929, becoming the Bethune-Cookman College and 1943 began giving degrees. She was also president of the State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1924 and fought against school segregation and inadequate healthcare for black children. In 1935 she founded the National Council of Negro Women and served as president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.

When President Franklin Roosevelt named Bethune director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration in 1936, she became the highest-ranking African American woman in government. During this time she organized two national conferences to discuss the problems black Americans face. She was also a leader of Roosevelt’s unofficial “black cabinet” and played a pivotal role in the transition of black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party during the Great Depression.

After her death on May 18, 1955, she has been honored in many ways. In 1973, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, in 1985 the U.S. Postal Service began issuing stamps with her face on them. In 1994, U.S. Park Service bought the victorian townhouse Bethune bought as the headquarters for the National Council of Negro Women. It is now known as the Mary Mcleod Bethune Council House National Historic Site.

[Related: 100 Years Ago: Looking Back at The Tablet’s Reports on A Woman’s Right to Vote]