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.
On Aug. 18, 1920, lawmakers ratified the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In just a couple of short weeks, many will observe the centennial of that historical moment and reminisce about its importance.
Over the past year, as the date drew near, African American women of the suffrage movement began to receive overdue praise for their gallant and self-sacrificing efforts to achieve voting and civil rights.
NBC News correctly noted that while the 19th Amendment nationalized suffrage of women, allowing most American women to vote, all across the West, women were voting by the millions before 1920.
Wyoming Territory granted women the right to vote in its 1869 constitution, followed by Utah in 1870, Nevada in 1871, and Colorado in 1893, historians told NBC News.
“Laws included barriers keeping non-white and Native American women from voting,” Lisa Tetrault, a historian, and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told NBC News. “If you were a woman of color, you would find that states still had some prohibitions in terms of literacy tests and poll taxes — which were disproportionately applied to women of color. So if you were a Latinx woman living in New Mexico, you might find yourself subject to a literacy test.”
Until recently, the role of African American women in the suffrage movement was significantly downplayed or outright denied even though the Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s founding members participated in the Women’s Suffrage March in Washington before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson.
The founders placed their education and lives on the line, daring to have their voices heard in the battle for women’s suffrage.
Even before the Deltas’ courageous act, Black suffragists such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Mary Ann Shadd Cary were active during the Reconstruction era.
“Harper was an incredible civil rights and gender activist. She says we are all bound up together in our struggles,” said Tetrault, adding that Harper particularly focused on the racism she experienced as a Black woman living in the North during the 1850s and 1860s.
In Tetrault’s view, it is more accurate to view the 19th Amendment’s ratification as the middle of the suffrage movement rather than the end, according to NBC News.
“The movement continued after 1920 for all of the women who didn’t get the right to vote then — the movement is alive and well in some ways,” she said.
While many Black women in the North were voting after the 19th Amendment was ratified, she added it would be decades until most Black American women in the South obtained the right to vote.
“It is really the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that finally eliminated lots of those obstacles for women of color,” Tetrault said.