How the Daughters and Granddaughters of Former Slaves Secured Universal Suffrage

Nine African-American women gather for the Banner State Woman’s National Baptist Convention in 1915 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

In the fall of 1916, four years before the 19th Amendment would make it unconstitutional to deny voting rights on the basis of sex, African-American women in Chicago were readying to cast their first ballots ever for President. The scenes in that year of black women, many of them the daughters and granddaughters of former slaves, exercising the franchise, was as ordinary as it was unexpected.

Theirs was a unique brand of politics crafted at the crossroads of racism and sexism. African-American women had always made their own way. In Chicago, they secured a place at the polls by way of newly enacted state laws that, over 25 years, extended the vote to the women of Illinois, gradually, unevenly and without regard to color. The real story, however, is an older one that stretches across generations of black women’s ambition and activism. It only sometimes intersects with better-known tales of how white women campaigned for their political rights. And yes, sometimes black and white women clashed. Still, the history of black women and the vote is one about figures who, though subjected to nearly crushing political disabilities, emerged as unparalleled advocates of universal suffrage in its truest sense.

Their story begins in an unexpected place—the church. For black women, church communities were central sites for developing their sense of rights and how then to organize for them. No one understood this better than Julia Foote, born in 1823 and who, at the age of 18, felt herself called to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. By the 1840s, Foote was a leader in a churchwomen’s movement which demanded that they, like men, should be entitled to occupy pulpits and interpret the scriptures.

Victory came in 1848, when A.M.E. churchwomen won the right to preaching licenses. Black churches would never be the same. That year marked the start of a decades-long campaign in which women lobbied for religious power: voting rights, office holding and control of the funds they raised. Were they on a path toward women’s suffrage? Certainly, yes, if the proceedings that summer in Seneca Falls, New York, are any measure. There, white American women gathered to make demands upon the nation. They sought access to the ballot box, but they also shared the aspirations of A.M.E. churchwomen, insisting at the conclusion of the Declaration of Sentiments: “that the speedy success of our cause depends upon the zealous and untiring efforts of both men and women, for the overthrow of the monopoly of the pulpit. . .” Women in the A.M.E Church understood this demand well.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is often overshadowed by figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass in the story about women’s voting rights in the 1860s. Watkins Harper was present during the fateful and divisive 1869 meeting of the American Equal Rights Association when delegates splintered over the question of whether they would support the proposed 15th Amendment, which protected the voting rights of black men, but not women. Delegates charged Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony with having advocated for “educated suffrage,” a position which implied that former slaves were not fit to exercise the vote. Frederick Douglass responded by conceding that women had a stake in the vote, but ultimately deemed their claims less urgent than that of black men for whom voting was “a question of life and death.”

Watkins Harper took the floor, the lone black woman to speak. A teacher, poet and antislavery activist, she somewhat reluctantly supported Douglass: “If the nation could handle one question, she would not have the black women put a single straw in the way, if only the men of the race could obtain what they wanted.”

She also had frank words for white women: “I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.”

Watkins Harper was in the end a political visionary: “We are all bound up in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse of its own soul.” She demanded that black women be included as part of “one great privileged nation.” This was the purpose of the ballot. Sadly, her vision of unity failed, the movement splintered into two competing organizations—The American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association. The rift divided long-standing allies and undercut the possibility for the sort of coalition of which Watkins Harper spoke. For many black women, it was a wound that would never quite heal.

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Source: Smithsonian Magazine