Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells are the well-known names in the field of Black women who led their voices and risked their lives in the fight for equality during the suffrage movement, leading up to and after the passing of the 19th Amendment.
History books rarely cover the rich contributions of Black people in America and the suffrage movement is no different. There is no disputing that Truth, Tubman and Wells were pillars of the movement, but American History often negotiated and navigated by white men, only allows a certain number of Black people to enter the realm of notable contributors. We see that across all of the social movements spearheaded by Black people and other marginalized groups.
The following Black women are just a snippet of the many who continue to go unnamed in the suffrage movement. These women faced and overcame the challenges presented by patriarchy and continued dismissal from heir white female counterparts to hand the torch to the leaders of the civil rights movement, emboldened in the spirit of women like Ella Baker, Mary McLeod Bethune and Fannie Lou Hamer.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 – 1911)
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1825. An astute student who loved education and poetry, Harper published her first collection of poetry in 1845 “Forest Leaves,” thus sparking the groundwork for her noted career as a noted orator and essayist. However, it was her volume of anti-slavery poetry, “Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects,” that made her more well-known within the public. When her husband Fenton Harper died in 1864, she returned to touring and lecturing on anti-slavery. In 1873, she became a founding member of the American Woman Suffrage Association, one of the groups that splintered before unifying under the suffragists. While she worked side-by-side with the white women in the movement, she was also not afraid to call them out. Harper’s most famous confrontation came when she spoke at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention. “You white women speak here of rights,” Harper told the crowd. “I speak of wrongs.” Her writings and oratory record is considered as important as the writings of her Black male contemporary, Frederick Douglass.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823 – 1893)
Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1823. Her parents were free and used their home to harbor slaves escaping the horrors of slavery. The family later moved to Pennsylvania where she attended primary and secondary school. Cary led an extraordinarily fearless life by becoming a woman of many firsts. She helped recruit Black slaves for the Civil War, founded a school for children of slaves, and established “The Provincial Freeman,” the first Black newspaper founded by a woman in the United States. Cary also served as an educator while attending law school at night to become one of the first Black women to graduate with a law degree in the United States. After the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which afforded African-American the right to vote, Cary went to work, advocating for Black women to have the same rights. In 1874, she was one of a handful of suffragists who testified before the House Judicial committee. “The crowning glory of American citizenship is that it may be shared equally by people of every nationality, complexion and sex,” she said at the hearing.
Anna Murray Douglass (1813 -1882)
Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass’ first wife, was born in Denton, Maryland, and is often overshadowed by the accomplishments of her husband. Many are unaware that it was Anna Murray who helped Douglass secure his freedom, by paying the monies needed to secure his emancipation. And while she is not known as a notable author and publisher, her contributions as Douglass’ wife allowed him to feely travel and lecture while Anna stayed home and tended to their five children. Her story is very important in the abolitionist and suffrage movement, for if Douglass did not have her support, he would not be able to advocate for the end of slavery, nor voting rights. Their home served as a meeting place for leaders in the movement and also helped to house slaves fleeing racial terror. Colorism and featurism can also be attributed to understanding the silence surrounding Anna’s importance, as she was not considered attractive enough to marry a man of notoriety like Frederick Douglass. Most of her story is preserved through the eyes of the couple’s daughter, Rosetta Douglass Sprague, who wrote about her mother’s legacy in the book, “My Mother As I Recall Her.”
Mary Church Terrell (1863 – 1954)
Terrell was a celebrated educator, writer and organizer, who along with Ida B. Wells, is known for her anti-lynching work, as well as lending her voice to fight against the horrors of Jim Crow and the prison system. Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, later graduating from Oberlin College. As the daughter of affluent business owners. She later became a teacher after marrying married Heberton Terrell who she shared one daughter with. Terrell became an teacher, but soon found herself tied to the movement after a close friend was lynched in Tennessee. In 1896 she helped found the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), whose motto, “Lifting As We Climb” serves as a beacon in present day. In 1909, Terrell also helped found and charter one of the most prominent civil rights organizations, The National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Terrell helped desegregate schools and businesses in Washington D.C. after she made history as the first Black woman appointed to the city’s Board of Education.
Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879 – 1961)
Nannie Helen Burroughs was born in Orange, Virginia, but later moved to Washington, D.C. with her mother in order to obtain an education. A mentee of Terrell, Burroughs paved her own way forward establishing herself as a gifted orator and activists who viewed her liberation through a Black feminist lens. Her fight to become an educator was briefly limited after she was reportedly denied a teaching licensed for being “too dark.” In 1900 she grew acclaim after delivering a powerful message at the National Baptist Convention, titled, “How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping.” She followed the momentum by founding the Woman’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention, one of the most important organizations for Black women in America. With Burroughs’ leadership, the group actively led their support towards the suffrage movement. In 1909, Burroughs purchased land in Washington, D.C. where she built the National Training School for Women and Girls, which doubled as a full circle moment, while also lending to mold and shape the next generation of Black women leaders.