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.
In 2018, Tammy L. Brown, an associate professor of Black World Studies, History, and Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University, wrote a provocative op-ed for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Celebrate Women’s Suffrage, but Don’t Whitewash the Movement’s Racism,” was the headline under which Brown captured the plight of African American women during the suffrage movement.
She noted that when suffragists gathered for the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848, they advocated for the right of white women to vote.
The participants were middle and upper-class white women, a cadre of white men supporters and only one African-American male — Frederick Douglass.
The esteemed abolitionist had forged a strong working relationship with fellow abolitionists and white women suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Brown said.
However, there were no Black women at the convention.
“None were invited,” Brown said.
Prior to and after the convention, women’s clubs became the norm. It was a means by which suffragists could meet and strategize. Black women were left out of those clubs, too.
They were forced to form their own — which they did.
“It was important for Black women to form their own clubs during the fight for women’s suffrage,” said Christine Michel Carter, a writer and author of “Can Mommy Go To Work?” “In the 19th century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought for women’s rights, but notoriously contradicted herself when asked if Black women should be able to vote. Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth still befriended and supported Stanton in hopes she too would push our agenda.
“Eventually, Truth distanced herself from Stanton and the increasingly racist language of the women’s groups,” Carter said. “I think the relationship between Truth and Stanton opened the eyes of Black women during the fight for women’s suffrage — we needed to create our own space.”
African American women believed that the issue of suffrage was too large and complex for any one group or organization to tackle alone, according to research performed by officials at the National Park Service in D.C.
While Black women sought to work with whites during the suffrage movement, mainstream organizations repeatedly failed to address any of the concerns and the hatred directed toward African Americans.
With no viable alternatives, Black women began forming their own clubs and organizations. They decided to focus on the challenging issues facing African Americans and the right to vote.
Several clubs were founded, including the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) which was started in 1896 by Black reformers such as Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Charlotte Forten Grimke.
During the NACW meetings, members discussed ways of attaining civil rights and women’s suffrage, according to the National Park Service.
The NACW’s motto, “Lifting as we climb,” reflected the organization’s goal to “uplift” the status of Black women.
In 1913, Ida B. Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, the nation’s first Black women’s club focused specifically on suffrage.
“The history of women’s suffrage in America is not nice or neat, because the impact of white supremacy is broad and human nature is messy,” Brown said. “Furthermore, a nation built on stolen land from Native Americans and stolen labor from African slaves is flawed from the start. We must constantly acknowledge this truth and engage in an intersectional celebration of women’s rights activists and landmark events.”
Carter concurred: “History always repeats itself when you don’t learn from it. Historically, we’ve advocated for all women. Hopefully in 2020, we learn our lesson. … It’s time to start advocating for us.”