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.
Perhaps no one has done as much research and educating the masses about the history of Black women in the suffrage movement as Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, the late historian and professor emerita at Morgan State University.
Terborg-Penn, who captured the essence of Black women and the struggle, died in 2018 but left behind a treasure trove of historical details that could help African Americans and others further appreciate the eventual passage of the 19th Amendment.
One reviewer of her 1998 book, “Blacks in the Diaspora,” wrote:
“Rarely has a short book accomplished so much as Terborg-Penn’s seminal work. With the utmost attention to detail, Terborg-Penn examines the contributions of Black suffragist stalwarts. … It undoubtedly will become the definitive work on African American women’s involvement in the mainstream woman suffrage movement and specifically on Black women’s struggle for the vote.”
Mari Lyn Henry, who counted among the throngs to read Terborg-Penn’s book, could hardly contain her enthusiasm for the work.
“Thanks to Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, founder of the Association of Black Women Historians, for her research and determination to bring into focus the African American women in the struggle for the vote for seven decades,” Henry wrote in her review. “As a researcher on suffrage and women’s rights between 1900 and 1920, I have found so little information about the contributions of women of color to the cause. They were excluded from white women’s clubs and even segregated in the marches, parades and protests.”
Henry said that more attention had always been paid to the upper-middle class, the “new white women,” and the affluent women who could fund the cause and wield their power connected to their husbands and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs founded in 1890.
“Ms. Terborg-Penn analyzes the racism and classism that prevailed in the society and politics of the time,” she said. “Anyone interested in knowing about the divisions in education and social status needs to absorb this book for the truth and the heroic and independent Black women who braved the cruelty and prejudice to establish their own identity in the struggle for the vote and equality.”
Born in New York City’s Brooklyn borough on Oct. 22, 1941, Terborg attended Queens College, where she first became involved in the civil rights movement as a charter member of the campus NAACP chapter.
While at Queens College, she also protested its decision to prohibit Malcolm X from giving a speech there. She tutored Black students in Prince Edward County, Virginia, where schools had been closed following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in history from Queens College in 1963, Terborg-Penn moved to Washington, D.C., to attend George Washington University, where in 1964, she joined D.C. Students for Civil Rights and lobbied for the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s passage.
Terborg-Penn worked at Friendship House, a settlement house in Washington, where she met her husband, William Penn. She received a master’s degree in U.S. and diplomatic history from GWU in 1967, and in 1969, began working at Morgan State University in Baltimore, according to her biography on BlackPast.org.
In 1975, Terborg-Penn published, “A Special Mission: The Story of Freedmen’s Hospital.” Two years later, she earned a doctorate in African American history from Howard University. Her dissertation was titled “Afro-Americans in the Struggle for Woman Suffrage.”
In 1978, she was promoted to associate professor at Morgan State University and became its coordinator of history graduate programs. She also developed the history doctorate program and was the director of the Oral History Project.
Terborg-Penn died in Baltimore on Dec. 25, 2018. She was 77.