Stacy M. BrownWomen's Suffrage Movement

Black Suffrage Leaders Fought for Freedom and Against Stereotypes

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 centennial anniversary of the suffrage movement approaches, many historians are working to spread the word about the critical role Black suffragists played all over America, primarily through clubs and local churches.

Tina Cassidy, the author of “Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait?: Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the Right to Vote,” recounted the suffrage movement’s backstory.

“Alice Paul was a young Quaker from New Jersey who believed in equality. She came back from studying social justice in England as a militant suffragist and realized that the approach that had been going on for decades in the U.S. (seeking voting rights by each state) was flawed. That’s because many states, especially in the South, would never grant women the right to vote,” Cassidy wrote in an email to The Washington Informer.

“Racism was certainly a factor in the South’s opposition to expanding voting rights. Alice Paul decided to force a new approach with a federal amendment and more aggressive tactics, which included the first-ever protest march — she called it a ‘parade’ — in Washington, in 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration,” Cassidy noted.

Wilson was the first president elected from the South since Reconstruction.

He was opposed to suffrage, but one of his first moves as President was to segregate the civil service and encourage the rest of the country to separate by race.

“Despite this volatile backdrop for the parade, Alice Paul invited Black women to join in the protest,” Cassidy said. “That included the Deltas, a Black sorority founded for this purpose, and Ida B. Wells, a journalist and anti-lynching crusader. When word spread that Alice Paul invited Black women to the march, other women in the movement told her to disinvite them, either out of fear that there would be a race riot or because they were racist themselves and would not march in an integrated section.”

Wells initially was turned away from her home state of Illinois’ group, but she jumped into their contingent once the parade began and marched with a supportive white friend, Cassidy recalled.

She noted the accomplishments of Mary Church Terrell, another Black suffragist and a prominent lady in Washington, D.C. Terrell counted as one of the “Silent Sentinel” protesters who stood outside the White House in a picket line that Alice Paul organized.

“Protesters had never done such a thing in that location. It was dangerous and provocative, even more so for a Black woman to do so in view of a racist president in a time of traumatic segregation,” Cassidy said. “Wells and Terrell should be recognized for their contributions to this important movement.”

Alison M. Parker, chair and Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware, also noted that Terrell strove to create a country where young Black women could grow up expecting to vote and be full citizens.

Terrell desired young Black women to be free from sexual assaults and constant aspersions regarding their sexual purity and be free of the contradictory but equally damaging stereotype of the asexual, subservient “Black Mammies.”

“Today’s Black women activists have similar priorities to their foremothers,” Parker said. “They want an unhindered right to vote, a real place at the table in politics, and an end to police violence against Black women like Sandra Bland and Tanisha Anderson. They are also drawing attention to the fact that Black women are increasingly being incarcerated.”

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Stacy M. Brown

I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.

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