Valethia Watkins, director of Women Studies Graduate Certificate Program and associate professor of Africana Studies in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. (Courtesy of Howard University)
Valethia Watkins, director of Women Studies Graduate Certificate Program and associate professor of Africana Studies in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. (Courtesy of Howard University)

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.

The 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution counts as an important and necessary milestone in Black women’s fight for the vote, according to Valethia Watkins, the director of Women Studies Graduate Certificate Program and associate professor of Africana Studies in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University.

“It did not end the disenfranchisement of Black women. Black women are not celebrating 100 years of voting rights, but effectively only half that many years,” Watkins said. “We must date our legally-protected right to vote to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When we center Black women’s voices and struggle, the entire story of women’s suffrage changes. Black women achieved the vote in spite of the often racist white woman suffrage movement, not because of it.”

The author of the widely acclaimed essay “Contested Memories: A Critical Analysis of the Black Feminist Revisionist History Project,” Watkins noted how in 1913, Ida Bell Wells openly defied white suffragists to demand that she accept, as a Black woman, her proper place at the back of the famous Washington DC Woman Suffrage March.

“Southern women threatened to boycott the parade if Black women were allowed to participate. Our rights were sacrificed to appease and accommodate their wishes,” Watkins said. “It was not the first or last time Black women’s interests were sacrificed to the priorities of white leaders in the woman suffrage movement. Wells did not acquiesce to the demand, demonstrating that her right to represent Black women suffragists on an equal basis was non-negotiable. Ignoring their demand, she assumed a place in the front ranks of the all-white delegation from Illinois, daring white suffragists to try to stop her if they dared, which they did not.”

Watkins added that Wells’ act of self-determination exemplifies the spirit by which many Black women powered their long fight for the vote.

“Exercising the right to advocate for this great cause on our own terms, we often chose to create our own organizations,” she said. “An army of remarkable and fearless African American women played leading roles in the fight for voting rights for Black women and men.”

An unbroken line stretches from Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Sojourner Truth in the 19th century to Mary Church Terrell, Mary McLeod Bethune, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and countless other powerful Black women leaders and activists well into the 20th century, Watkins said.

“Their fight for the vote occurred before, during, and after the civil rights movement,” she said. “We stand on their shoulders today, heirs to their legacy and stewards of a continuing fight for unobstructed and unsuppressed Black voting participation and its deeper objective, full Black political representation.”

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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