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Suffrage in Black and White

History tells us that several African American women attended the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in New York City on May 9, 1837. It was the first known convention to consider women’s rights as an issue.For African American suffragists, the links between racial justice and women’s rights were at the heart of their activism. In the early twentieth century, relatively few black women participated in (or were permitted to participate in, due to racism) the primarily white women’s suffrage associations of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the National Woman’s Party (NWP.) Instead, Black suffragists organized within the National Association of Colored Women (NACW); religious organizations such as the Woman’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention; and local women’s clubs and suffrage leagues.

Black women often had to march separately from white women in suffrage parades. In addition, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote the History of Woman Suffrage in the 1880s, they featured white suffragists while largely ignoring the contributions of African American suffragists. Though Black women are less well remembered, they played an important role in getting the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments passed.


Black women found themselves pulled in two directions. Black men wanted their support in fighting racial discrimination and prejudice, while white women wanted them to help change the inferior status of women in American society. Both groups ignored the unique challenges that African American women faced. Black reformers like Mary Church Terrell, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Harriet Tubman understood that both their race and their sex affected their rights and opportunities.

After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, Black women voted in elections and held political offices. However, many states passed laws that discriminated against African Americans and limited their freedoms. Black women continued to fight for their rights.  Tens of thousands of African Americans worked over several decades to secure suffrage, which occurred when the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. This Act represents more than a century of work by Black women to make voting easier and more equitable.

Top photo: In more than 200 speeches she gave across the country, educator, feminist and suffragist Nannie Helen Burroughs stressed the importance of women’s self-reliance and economic freedom. A member of National Association of Colored Women, the National Association of Wage Earners and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, she saw voting as a crucial tool of empowerment, an extension of her lifetime commitment to educating African American women. One of her lasting achievements was to launch and run the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, D.C.

19th Amendment: 'A Start,

Not A Finish' For Suffrage

On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution officially took effect when Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed a proclamation certifying its ratification. The amendment promised women that their right to vote would "not be denied" on account of sex. The fight over the amendment was not just about sex; it was also deeply entwined with race. (National Public Radio)

African American Women Leaders in the Suffrage Movement

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) attended Oberlin College in Ohio where she became one of the first African American woman to earn a college degree.


She then became involved in the women’s rights movement focusing on securing women’s right to vote, touring the country to lecture on the issue. In 1896, she and fellow activists founded the National Association of Colored Women and served as the first president.


With the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Terrell turned her attention to civil rights and helped bring about the desegregation of restaurants in Washington, DC.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

Her real name was Isabella Baumfree. Born enslaved she self-emancipated and became a part of the abolitionist cause fighting for the freedom of black Americans and for women’s rights.

One of her most famous contributions was a speech she made at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851 entitled “Ain’t I a Woman?” It was published in a newspaper after the convention. Itwas a passionate, emotional speech appealing to the humanity of the audience.

She was also the first black woman to fight against a white man in court, against the illegal sale of her son.

Ida Bell Wells Barnett 1862-1931)

was a prominent journalist and activist who traveled to Washington, D.C. to march in the first and largest suffrage parade in 1913. Organizers told her she would not be allowed to march with the Illinois delegation, and that she and the more than 50 black women from the Alpha Suffrage Club would have to march in the back so as not to upset the southern marchers.

After protesting, Wells-Barnett waited for the parade to begin. When her home state of Illinois delegation passed, Wells-Barnett fell into line with the women she had planned to march with from the start. 

The National American Woman Suffrage Association invited “all” women to attend the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.


Yet, white southern suffragists objected to the inclusion of African Americans. When the southerners threatened not to attend, the parade’s organizer, Alice Paul, told African American suffragists to march at the back. 

The NAACP newspaper “The Crisis” reported that more than forty Black women processed in their state delegations or with their respective professions. Two were reported to have carried the lead banners for their sections. Twenty-five students from Delta Sigma Theta sorority from Howard University marched in cap and gown with the university women, as did six graduates of universities, including Mary Church Terrell.


Ida B. Wells Barnett was the only Black representative from Illinois. She contested segregating the parade and refused. Instead, she waited along the parade route until the Illinois delegation passed, and then stepped out to lead them

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.jpg
Brown Chapel AME Church and Hewitt Hall in
Ypsilanti Host Rallys and Speeches for Suffrage and Equal Rights
Frances Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper  (1825-1911) was the first African American woman to publish a short story. She was also an influential abolitionist, suffragist, and reformer that co-founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. Harper spoke at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York in 1866. Her speech, “We Are All Bound Up Together,” urged fellow attendees to include African American women in their fight for suffrage.

When speaking  in Ypsilanti at Brown Chapel AME Church, she  emphasized that Black women were facing the double burden of racism and sexism at the same time, therefore the fight for women’s suffrage must include suffrage for African Americans.

Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass spoke at Hewitt Hall in Ypsilanti. Truth spoke on women’s suffrage and the 1872 presidential election. Douglass

spoke on radical reconstruction, African American and women’s suffrage in 1866


Delta Sigma Theta sorority from Howard University marched in cap and gown with the university women at the

1913 Women's March

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