This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to bring the world to its collective knees, AARP has helped to inject some positive news via the organization’s regular email blasts, its newsletter and its award-winning magazine.
In a new column, the magazine explores the importance of Black women of the suffrage movement.
Late last year, two otherwise ordinary-looking homes in Baltimore secured their place in suffrage history. The city commemorative the homes at 1532 and 1534 Druid Hill Avenue in honor of Augusta T. Chissell and Margaret G. Hawkins.
The pair were next-door neighbors who hosted suffrage club meetings in their living rooms in 1915 and 1916 at a time when the national fight for women’s suffrage was well underway.
“What we’re trying to share with people of all ages, young and old, is that we’re still standing on these shoulders,” Diana M. Bailey, executive director of the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center, told AARP.
The Maryland Women’s Heritage Center sponsored the tribute, the latest in a series of markers honoring the state’s suffrage history.
As the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment nears, scholars and historians told AARP that recognizing the contributions of Black suffragists like Chissell and Hawkins is more critical than ever.
Born in 1880, Chissell developed “a robust network of grassroots organizations across Maryland, greatly shaping the fight for women’s rights,” according to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame notes that the work of Chissell and others has largely been forgotten.
“Especially African American suffragists, who were excluded from prominent suffrage organizations and omitted from newspaper coverage and organizational records. Early twentieth-century African American suffragists’ work was particularly important at a time when Jim Crow laws sought to undermine hard-won civil rights,” the Hall of Fame noted.
Chissell counted as an essential leader of the women’s suffrage movement in Baltimore City in the early 20th century.
She had deep roots in Baltimore’s women’s clubs that fostered leadership skills as they promoted causes, including education, health care and prohibition.
Chissell also served as an officer in Baltimore’s Progressive Women’s Suffrage Club and held a leadership position in the prominent Women’s Cooperative Civic League.
Chissell, Hawkins and activist Estelle Young lived and worked in neighborhoods now part of the Old West Baltimore Historic District. The proximity of these organizations’ members, driven by residential segregation, made it convenient for them to hold meetings in their homes and they often gathered at Chissell’s and Hawkins’ houses.
Chissell died in 1973.
Hawkins was born in 1877 and grew up in a family of distinguished African-American educators, whose activism spanned several generations, according to Maryland Humanities. She was a founding member and first president of the DuBois Circle, which began as an auxiliary to the Baltimore branch of Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization.
The Circle’s members engaged in the community and social improvement projects, welcomed prominent speakers to inform members about political issues and devoted meetings to discussions about the significance of women’s suffrage.
Hawkins, who became vice president of the Progressive (or Colored) Women’s Suffrage Club, also opened her home for their meetings and other civic organizations as well.
She died in 1969.
“Black women advocated for the right to vote at a time when they were highly discriminated against and Black men had become disenfranchised,” said Pearl Dowe, the Asa Griggs Candler professor of political science and African American studies at Oxford College of Emory University. “These women were often shut out of the suffrage movement due to the racist attitudes of white suffragettes. This did not deter Black women who formed their own organizations to advocate for the right to vote for themselves and the end of Black male disenfranchisement. Black women collectively raising their voices and demanding action through the ballot box should be expected and will continue in the future.”