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.
Caroline “Carrie” Mercer Langston, the mother of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, is among the most important suffrage movement heroines everyone should know.
That declaration by the British news magazine, The Week, recognizes Langston’s role as a staunch activist for women’s rights — specifically to vote.
“While her son is better remembered by history, Carrie was an activist who fought for women’s right to vote, picking up where her father, who was also a suffragist, left off,” the author wrote.
“Impulsive and vibrant, Carrie Langston pushed back on conventions of the day, penning an article in 1892 that refuted the ‘male notion’ that women are content with their positions in life,” the article declared.
Born on Feb. 22, 1873, to Charles Howard Langston, the son of a prosperous Virginia planter and a slave woman of both American Indian and African descent, Carrie Langston admired and followed the ardent abolitionist John Brown.
One reference work noted that Langston’s brother — Langston’s paternal uncle — was a post-emancipation congressman from Virginia. He later served as minister to Haiti and dean of Howard University’s Law School.
“It is because of the thousands of women like her across the country, who fought locally to be taken seriously as a political force, that 100 years on we can now celebrate the centennial of the right to vote,” the authors at The Week wrote.
Also, the tireless work performed by Langston and her peers helped paved the way for today’s Black women who have become a force at the polls.
Langston had the same plan to enfranchise Black women as other Black suffragists, stated the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, the dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Douglas, an expert on the intersection of the Black church and various social justice issues including Black suffragists and voting rights, noted that the most effective means for making sure Black women could exercise the right to vote was the formation of their own organizations like the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).
“Given the prevailing racism within the white suffrage movement and the compromises this movement made with white supremacy, along with the sexism within Black male organizations as well as the church, Black women suffragists knew that they had to look out for themselves and their own interests,” Douglas stated.
“Yet, they were not simply self-interested. They recognized that the way of Black women was the way of the Black community, as expressed by NACW member Anna Julia Cooper who said, ‘When and where [Black women enter] the whole race enters with her,’” she said.
Even with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Black suffragists knew that their right to vote was still not protected.
“They were simply on equal footing with Black men when it came to voting. Undeterred, they held rallies, went to churches, led grassroots organizing to educate Black women on how to vote, prepared them for the obstacles they would face in trying to vote and then led groups to register,” Douglas exclaimed.
“Black women turned out to register in record numbers, far outpacing white women. And, even though they were routinely turned away, they were never deterred,” she said.
Although her most recognized claim to fame remains as the mother of Langston Hughes, historians agree that Carrie Mercer Langston proved herself as a writer, actress and above all, a fighter for women’s suffrage.