On Aug. 18, 2020, the nation will observe the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women in the United States the right to vote.
It was a long, arduous and, at times, even bloody battle for women’s suffrage. But it was a fight that’s all too often remembered through the lens of white women.
Beginning in August 2019, The Washington Informer has featured a weekly series that focused on key events and dates in the fight for women’s suffrage. Our reporting has primarily focused on the critical, but unsung, role of Black women in the suffrage movement.
We began with a profile of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who was born in 1823 to activist parents who raised 13 children. Fugitive slaves often found refuge in Shadd Cary’s childhood home. She grew up around notable Underground Railroad conductors including William Still, and she was a champion of the suffrage movement.
Later, we introduced — or reintroduced — our readers to Charlotte Vandine Forten. Born in 1886 in Philadelphia, Forten lived for 100 years and she and her family were freedom fighters and suffrage advocates.
“In terms of African American history, the Fortens and their five children, as well as their granddaughter, Charlotte L. Forten Grimke, played a significant role in ending slavery as African-American abolitionist leaders,” said April Logan, president of the Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins Society and associate professor and coordinator of Ethnic and Global Literatures at Salisbury University in Maryland. “They were conductors on the Underground Railroad, organizers of the first American biracial anti-slavery society of women, and educators of the formerly enslaved African-Americans after the Civil War.”
Through our series, our readers were reminded that the fight for the right of women to vote had met various challenges at the beginning of the 20th century.
America wasn’t at all receptive to the women casting a ballot. And, the country indeed couldn’t conceive of Black women participating in the political process.
On March 3, 1919, a large gathering jammed the streets of Washington, D.C., for the Women’s Suffrage Parade, held in support of a constitutional amendment that guaranteed women the right to vote.
The 22 bold founders of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority — a Black collegiate organization — were among them. The sorority endured threats, racial epithets and violence. The Deltas were spat on, pushed and repeatedly struck by men. White women, there to demand and to celebrate their right to vote, joined in the beating of the Black sorority.
None of that stopped the Deltas from participating. Delta member Ida B. Wells-Barnett would go on to found the first African American women’s suffrage organization and she and others crusaded against lynching. Since its founding, more than 200,000 women have joined Delta Sigma Theta.
The organization is a sisterhood of predominantly Black, college-educated women, according to its website. The sorority currently has 1,000 collegiate and alumnae chapters located in the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Republic of Korea.
Today, most remember the founders of Delta Sigma Theta as true heroines of the suffrage movement.
“The founders of Delta Sigma Theta were activists before that term was popular,” said Gwendolyn Boyd, an engineer, prominent STEM education advocate and past president of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. “When the suffrage parade announcement happened, they came forward. They knew that the march was somewhere they needed to be. Even though, as Black women, they didn’t have rights, they knew the vision for the future and felt this was too important.”
Repeatedly, agitators told the founders that they couldn’t attend or participate in the parade.
“But that teaches us that just because somebody says no, it doesn’t mean that they’re right all of the time,” Boyd said.
The Deltas continued to pursue attending the parade. Eventually, they received a permit to leave their Howard University campus, as women couldn’t leave the school then without permission and an escort. Once off campus, the challenges grew more intense. White southern suffragists threatened a boycott because of the Deltas.
The sorority eventually was asked to march in the parade at the back and a segregated unit. But Wells-Barnett and her fellow Deltas refused to march in the back — they were the only African American women’s organization at the parade.
“They were called names, and they were told, ‘Go back home, you don’t belong here,’ which sounds familiar today,” Boyd said. “But they knew that this was the right thing to do. They knew that they was also sending a message to future generations to fight for your freedom and what it’s like to fight for your rights.”
As we move into 2020 and toward the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote, The Washington Informer and its partners will continue to enlighten and remind readers of the crucial role of Black women in the movement. We invite readers to connect with us and tell us your stories of Black women who courageously led voters and elected politicians in the 20th century.