Emblazoned on the home page of the National Women’s History Museum’s website and under the tab the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) are the powerful words of African American suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
“No race can afford to neglect the enlightenment of its mothers.”
Black women like Harper, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman participated in women’s rights movements throughout the 19th century, the museum noted in tribute.
“Despite their efforts, Black women were often excluded from organizations and their activities. Black female reformers understood that in addition to their sex, their race significantly affected their rights and available opportunities,” historians at the museum wrote.
“White suffragists and their organizations ignored the challenges that African American women faced. They chose not to integrate issues of race into their campaigns.”
In the 1880s, Black reformers began organizing their own groups.
In 1896, they founded the NACW, which became the largest federation of local Black women’s clubs. Suffragist Mary Church Terrell became the first president of the NACW.
“Suffrage was an important goal for Black female reformers. Unlike predominantly white suffrage organizations, however, the NACW advocated for a wide range of reforms to improve life for African Americans,” the historians continued.
“Mary Church Terrell strove to create a country in which young Black women could grow up expecting to vote and be full citizens, to be free from sexual assaults and constant aspersions regarding their sexual purity, as well as to be free of the contradictory but equally pernicious stereotype of the asexual, subservient ‘Black Mammies,’” Alison M. Parker, history department chair and Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware, wrote in an email to The Washington Informer.
The author of “Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell,” Parker noted how Terrell picketed the White House with Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party.
“She consistently pushed white women to understand the interconnections between race and gender that underpinned Black women’s suffrage activism,” Parker submitted.
According to the Women’s Museum of California, the segregation of Black women into distinct clubs produced vibrant organizations that promised racial uplift and civil rights for all African Americans and equal rights for women.
Although Black women lacked money, they managed through their missionary societies and their clubs — through church participation and civic engagement — to bind together the Black community, historians for the Women’s Museum of California noted.
“Many of the groups grew out of religious and literary societies as a response to intensified racism. The grass-roots organizations primarily made up middle-class women, provided services, financial assistance, and moral guidance for the poor,” the California historians wrote.
Women involved in the club movement gained knowledge about education, health care, and poverty and developed organizing skills.
“Although organizations existed all over the country, they were concentrated mainly in the Northeast. New York City clubwomen followed Ida B. Wells’ political activism against lynching.
Teachers concerned about children and their problems dominated the Washington, D.C. movement while other chapters supported homes for the aged, schools, and orphanages.
“It was important for Black women to form their own clubs during the fight for women’s suffrage. In the 19th century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought for women’s rights, but notoriously contradicted herself when asked if Black women should be able to vote,” stated author and entrepreneur Christine Michel Carter.
“Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth still befriended and supported Stanton in hopes she too would push our agenda. Eventually, Truth distanced herself from Stanton and the increasingly racist language of the women’s groups.
“I think the relationship between Truth and Stanton opened the eyes of Black women during the fight for women’s suffrage — we needed to create our own space.”
This feature is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement initiated by Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes. It lives in the institutional home of The Washington Informer Charities.