From Sojourner Truth and Mary Church Terrell to Kamala Harris: Black women suffering for Women’s Suffrage

Today marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment, one that in 1920, granted women the right to vote. White women, I remind, due to Jim Crow laws that did not allow Black women to reap the benefits of their tireless work to bring the 19th Amendment to fruition.

Indeed, the journey to the franchise for women was a winding one and like most political and social matters in America, one fraught with racism. From the earliest American history lessons in grade school, many of us were taught to revere women like Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for their efforts in pushing for women’s suffrage. What often gets barely mentioned–or goes completely untold–is the roles that Black women like Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, and Ida Barnett Wells played in fighting for women’s voting rights–all the while fighting white supremacy and abject racism from white women’s suffrage icons as well.

By 1896, only 30 years removed from slavery, Mary Church Terrell led the National Association of Colored Women. The organization’s primary aim was to rectify a glaring weakness of the 15th Amendment, which was its discrimination based on gender. During this same period, the noted journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida Barnett Wells recognized that access to the ballot box would be key in stopping Southern trees from bearing “Strange Fruit,” a scourge that was sweeping not only the South, but also the Midwest. Wells helped found the Alpha Voting Group and pushed for women’s suffrage across the Upper South and into Illinois.

The collective works of white and Black women’s suffragists met some success, with Wyoming granting women the right to vote in 1890. Wyoming was soon followed by Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, New York, Michigan, Oklahoma, and South Dakota–each granting white women the right to vote before 1918.

But despite these limited successes, white women within the suffrage movement were hesitant to fully join forces with Black women. One reason for this reticence was the fear that if a national women’s suffrage measure passed in Congress, that Southern States would never ratify it due to the Jim Crow laws in Dixie that relegated all Blacks to second class citizenship. A second and far more facile explanation is that some white women simply were just as racist as their husbands and while interested in elevating themselves to equal status with white males, harbored no such desires for Black women–or men.

The proof in this last assertion, racism exhibited by white women’s suffragists, could be found in the fact that some went as far as to side with Southern segregationists who argued that perhaps allowing white women the right to vote could offset Black male voting rights should the federal courts ever get around to invalidating the poll taxes, literacy tests, and other “legal” voting impediments that Southern State legislatures had adopted to limit the effectiveness of the 15th Amendment from 1890 to 1910.

In early 1913, white women’s suffrage organizers were so afright of Southern obstruction of women’s suffrage that when a determined group of 22 Black women from the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, founded that January at Howard University, sought inclusion, they were allowed to march but under one condition–that they form up not in the vanguard–but in the very back of the lines.


Undaunted, the Deltas marched proudly and boldly forward, showing little to no fear of being attacked by pernicious white counter protesters along the parade route.

In the years following this march, the outbreak of World War I placed women’s suffrage somewhat on the national backburner, but the fact that women answered their nation’s call to assist in the war effort by working in munitions and supply factories weakened the age-old patently false argument that women were the weaker sex and should not be eligible to vote. These efforts were strongly supported by Black women, many of whom migrated from the South to the Midwest and were major contributors to American economic success during the war.

Knowing this full history grants greater meaning to the fact that this week, nearly 100 years after the 19th Amendment was ratified, Sen. Kamala Harris, a graduate of Howard University and a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority from which those original courageous Deltas separated from to create their own organization, will accept the Democratic nomination for Vice President of the United States. These facts make it even more interesting that today, on the centennial of the Amendment’s ratification, that the namesake of what wound through Congress as the “Susan B. Anthony Act” in 1919-20, will be pardoned by President Donald Trump for the criminal act of voting, an act she committed in defiance in 1872.


But it is equally important to remind that the oft praised Anthony, along with her equally praised ally Elizabeth Cady Stanton, broke away from their long-time colleagues Ellen Frances Watkins Harper and Lucy Stone as the latter pair supported the passage of the 15th Amendment and its guarantee of voting rights for Black men. Again, both Anthony and Stanton believed that Black men were inferior to white women and should not have superior voting rights. Thus the racial realism of that era, one that proves that then and now, that race “colors” every aspect of American political thoughts and deeds and requires a full accounting free from bias.

Lest we forget…