Battle for the Ballet: Black women a powerful force

PHOTO PROVIDED Ida B. Wells-Barnett, noted black journalist and newspaper editor, spoke out against the horrors of lynching and co-founded both the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People NAACP). She also marched in the 1913 Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C. with her white friends, refusing to march at the back in the segregated units.

Editor’s Note: This is another in a series of articles on women’s suffrage written by local writers. The articles will be published in The Express throughout the year, leading up to the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States on August 26, 2020.


For The Express

The black women’s suffrage movement began before the famous 1848 Seneca Falls convention where a group of 200 women demanded full rights, publically, for the first time. It has its roots in the abolitionist movement, and was seen as a way to fight back against the systematic violence perpetrated on black people. Suffrage, for both black men and women, was meant to secure rights and protections under the law, and keep them. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass and many others were essential in those early days to the cause.

The road was not always clear, and had plenty of obstacles, including other members of the suffrage movement. Fredrick Douglass himself spoke at the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, declaring, “In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.” Douglass had freed himself from bondage and was an eloquent orator and writer who spoke on the topic of abolition as well as women’s rights.

PHOTO PROVIDED Mary Church Terrell was one of the first black women to earn a college degree from Oberlin College. She was a member of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and served as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). She focused her efforts on general human rights and the rights for all to vote, regardless of color.

Despite her regard for Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton stood in opposition to the 15th Amendment giving black men, but not white women, the right to vote. She later stated that “we educated, virtuous white women are more worthy of the vote.” There were many others like her, and often black women were entirely shut out of white women’s meetings and gatherings, or were forced to form their own organizations and events.

Even though black women fought for the rights of all women and for black men to vote, their own needs were unique. Often they were treated as “breeding stock” by their owners. Black women would be forced into producing many children, often being raped by their owners. This is because it created more people in which to enslave, which meant they did not need to be bought. They were “free” labor.

Black women also lost their children to slavery. Families were routinely broken up. Children would be sold or rented out to other plantations and owners. It was not unusual to never see a child or spouse again. Black women needed rights in order to protect themselves and their children from grave harm and death, and the protection of family is a powerful motivator. This meant black women had all the incentive in the world to fight for justice, and they did so fiercely.

But before black women could obtain the vote, they had to be freed from American slavery. Even though he penned the Emancipation Proclamation, which was intended to give freedom to enslaved people throughout the north and the south during the Civil War, Lincoln did not originally intend for the Civil War to solve slavery. He was afraid of angering Border States and that it would make reunification impossible. This is because every state that left the union cited the need to maintain slavery as one of their reasons for separating.

Many people pleaded with Lincoln to emancipate enslaved people, including Harriet Tubman. Like Douglass, Tubman was born into slavery. She also freed herself and returned to free her family and others, seventy people in total over 13 trips. Additionally, she was a scout and spy for the Union.

At the point where it became helpful to the Union cause, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Not all enslaved people were freed immediately, and word took years to reach some parts of the south. The 13th amendment, barring almost all slavery, save for imprisoned people, was not ratified until 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination by a southern sympathizer in the same year.

Despite freedom, the right to vote eluded both black men and women. There was even debate as to whether black people were citizens of the country. The 14th Amendment (1868) secured citizenship for those born in the country, but still did not promise the right to vote for all citizens. It was not until 1870 that the 15th Amendment granted the right to vote to all men, but not women.

The formerly enslaved people were promised “forty acres and a mule” by the government, and many were given land captured by the North during the Civil War. One person who fought for the land promised was Sojourner Truth. She escaped slavery and later took a white man to court in 1828 to win custody of her son. Like Douglass and Tubman, she was an exceptional public speaker who delivered her most famous speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention extemporaneously. Unfortunately, her efforts to secure land for the black population were not successful. She continued with the black women’s suffrage and civil rights movements until her death in 1883.

By the end of the Civil War it became clear that women had differing points of view as to why their right to vote was essential. White women sought the vote to join their husbands, fathers, and brothers to vote equally on issues. Black women, especially those who lived in the South, sought the ballot for themselves and their men as a way to empower black communities being subjected to the racial backlash and terror that erupted after emancipation of the slaves and more so on the passage of the 15th Amendment which barred states from denying Negro men the right to vote. Frederick Douglass summarized the differences between the interests of black and white suffragists and the need for federal protection of black voters. He also stated the central fallacy of the white suffragist push, which was that black women could somehow miraculously separate their blackness from being a female.

The period directly after the Civil War is known as the Reconstruction Era. After Lincoln’s assasination, President Johnson supported states’ rights, and allowed states to form their own ways of handling the newfound freedom of 4 million formerly enslaved people and their integration into a previously white-only society. Johnson also saw to it that land seized by the Union and given to black people was returned to its previous owners.

This was all disastrous for the newly freed. It lead to states enacting a series of laws called “Black Codes,” which were designed to restrict freedoms of the black populace and ensure a continued labor force for the southern economy.

Fortunately, this enraged a lot of people, including congress. They attempted to pass a civil rights bill, and another that would benefit the Freedmen’s Bureau, which aided refugees and freed slaves, but they were both vetoed by Johnson. This created a large rift between him and congress that would later culminate in his impeachment.

After the vetoes, congress took a larger role in Reconstruction and enacted the Reconstruction Act of 1867. It outlined how universal male suffrage would work, and forced southern states to ratify the 14th amendment, which extended the definition of citizenship, before they could rejoin the Union. The 15th Amendment was passed in 1869, giving black men the right to vote.

After 1870, white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, began in earnest to oppress black people in the south. In 1874, a recession took hold in the south and the more conservative Democrats won major elections throughout the region. This marked the end of the federal involvement in Reconstruction and opened the floodgate to Jim Crow laws and unbridled abuse of black people in the south, including the suppression of the black vote.

The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that assured racial segregation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were put into place by Democrat-held governments throughout the south. They set forth harsh penalties for so much as fraternizing across racial lines and absolutely forbade inter-racial marriages. Businesses likewise had to separate their black and white customers.

Despite these enormous social setbacks, freed black women continued to work with and sometimes parallel to white women to obtain the right to vote. Often, black women were torn between standing with their white sisters, who sometimes framed women’s place in society as a form of slavery, and black men, who were facing the burden of the violence and injustice that prevented them from experiencing a safe life, much less from voting.

To prevent voting, laws were made that restricted the rights of those who did not own land, those who could not read, and other challenges. To meet these obstacles head on, education became deeply important to the movement, and remained so through the revitalized civil rights movement in the 1960s and to today.

Charlotte Forten Grimk was one such proponent of education. She was born to free parents who were part of the Philadelphia black elite in 1837 and was educated by private tutors. She moved to Massachusetts where she joined the Salem Anti-Slavery Society. Later, she went to a normal school to become a teacher. She went on to teach in several schools and in 1896 formed the National Association of Colored Women, which still operates to this day.

Violence against those who chose to exercise the right to vote was also an issue. Lynching, which is a mob killing that takes place without legal authority, was used as a form of voter suppression, and to control black people, all the way through the 1960s. The last lynching in the United States was in 1981 and was not made a federal crime until 2018.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a well-renowned journalist and newspaper editor, engaged in a campaign against lynching in the late 19th century. She was led to this cause after three of her friends were lynched. In response, a white mob destroyed her offices and printing press. She moved from Memphis to New York due to threats on her life. Later landing in Chicago, she wrote a book detailing the horrors of lynching. Eventually, she cofounded both the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Wells-Barnett marched in the 1913 suffrage march in Washington, D.C., but refused to march in the back. Starting with the segregated unit, she rushed to the front of the parade. Throughout her life, she remained an advocate for women’s political activism. She also worked to educate the black community on political issues.

The black female vote was seen as vital to living in a just society, and as a way to protect the black male vote. Unfortunately, it did not help that white women wanted the support of black suffragists, but also wanted to exclude them. The National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) prevented black women from joining. Later on, when more frequent demonstrations began in the early 20th century, black women were not permitted to march with their white sisters and were often relegated to the back of parades.

Mary Church Terrell was the daughter of a former slave who rose to become a wealthy landowner. She earned a masters degree from Oberlin College and moved to the nation’s capital to teach. Terrell became deeply involved in civic life and became a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Later, she would become the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). She founded what later became the National Association of University Women and was widely published, both in the black and white press. In the 1913 suffrage march, she marched with other black women, in the segregated end of the parade. She worked for civil rights even into her 80s, when she organized to integrate lunch counters.

Terrell and other reformers such as Francis Watkins Harper and Harriet Tubman saw that race and sex intersected and affected both black women’s rights and opportunities. They focused their efforts on general human rights and the right for the vote for all, regardless of color, instead of just suffrage for black women, or just women. This included other disenfranchised races, including the Chinese and Native Americans. They spent the late 1800s developing organizations that supported these causes and others that affected only them.

In 1919, the 19th Amendment giving all women the right to vote was passed, and ratified in 1920. While aimed at all women, the reality was that black women had not fully achieved the vote. Like there had been for black men, numerous tests were put in the way as roadblocks for black women, ranging from literacy tests to a test that made the taker interpret the constitution. Registration locations were limited, and lines for both registration and voting could be many hours long. Black women also faced the same violence as black men, if they chose to exercise their right to vote.

Headway was made, however. For example, in 1935, Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and ardent supporter of gender and racial equality, was named a special advisor on minority affairs by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She also founded and was the president of the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. (NCNW). Like so many others, she was a great orator and was considered a great humanitarian.

In addition to the racial terror supported by segregation, Jim Crow laws, and the constant threat of lynching, during World War II, male black units continued to be segregated and the armed forces did not have a policy of integration until 1948 when an executive order was signed by President Harry Truman. Despite the order, forms of segregation persisted through the Korean War.

This was another large step toward recognized equality between the races, but less so for black women in the military, who were still separated by race, but also by gender. Women in general were also relegated to support roles and were often not recognized for their achievements and sacrifices.

At home, racial inequality was also reinforced by black men’s inability to fully utilize the GI Bill, especially to purchase houses. A practice of “redlining” developed, which denied loans to people who lived in certain areas. This worked to reinforce segregation and keep black people from moving into the newly invented suburbs of the post-war era, thus keeping them confined to depressed areas. Redlining was not made illegal until the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968.

Due to the continued violence and hardships faced by black people and the need for change, the number of civil rights organizations grew. The groups worked on rights for women and attempted to uplift the black community. In fact, the NACW’s motto was “Lifting as we climb.” They also fought for rights for black people, including the right to vote safely and without impediment or the threat of bodily harm. This particular push for civil rights lasted from the 1950s into the 1960s.

Legislation came from this movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended legal segregation and employment discrimination, but did not solve racism and protect the black vote.

Protesting, mostly peaceful, persisted throughout the 50s and 60s. Still, the KKK and other white supremacist groups were always at the ready to suppress the rights of black citizens. In addition to continued lynching by mobs of citizens, police violence was also prevalent. The right to vote without obstruction was not granted until the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Other laws were passed, assuring protections under the law. For example, in 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that laws blocking interracial marriages, a major Jim Crow law in many places, was illegal. The systemic nature of racism was changing.

In 1968 another Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act were passed, concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion or national origin. It did not eliminate redlining, but it did make it largely illegal.

While none of these acts “solved” racism in America, they gave legal protections to black people, including black voters. These protections were hard-won, and took over a century after the end of slavery to be realized. Other laws protecting civil rights have been enacted since, and work continues to protect the civil and voting rights of black citizens.

None of these rights would be possible without the mobilization and dedication of black women, who fought for everything from bodily autonomy to housing fairness to the vote. They organized, standing with both their white sisters and black men to in obtaining freedoms that white males took for granted since the founding of the nation. Black women continue to organize to support education, promote civic involvement and push back against racism. They work to assure the right to vote continues to be upheld in the face of closing polling locations, gerrymandering, long waits at the polls and voter registration purging. Black women have always been a powerful force in the America, and their engagement in the civic sphere has taken them from battle to battle over the centuries, but they have never given up.


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