This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the hard-fought passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. The decades-long fight was heavily impacted by racism, a fact illustrated in American Experience’s new film The Vote. When the movement for suffrage began in the mid-nineteenth century, the country was still fighting the Civil War. At that time, abolition and suffrage were closely intertwined causes.
Early suffragists disagreed over the approach to the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote in 1869, leading the two movements to split. Of course, the 15th Amendment’s passage didn’t mean African Americans were fully enfranchised. In the decades to come, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and barriers like poll taxes would keep Black men from fully exercising their rights at the ballot box, and the same methods kept Black women disenfranchised for decades, even after the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Despite their victories, white suffragists were influenced by the prevalence of racism in America, and The Vote shows how Black women were sidelined in the movement for suffrage. Nevertheless, Black women persisted and played an essential role in the movement, viewing the right to vote as critical in the larger struggle for racial justice. Here are some key figures in that movement.
Sojourner Truth, considered the first African-American suffragist, advocated not just for abolition, but for temperance, women’s rights, and civil rights during the 19th century. Born a slave in New York, she ran away as a teenager and found freedom. She became a preacher and started delivering speeches on both abolition and women’s rights. She split with abolitionist Frederick Douglass when he advocated for Black men’s suffrage before women; she thought the rights could be embraced at the same time.
Truth is well-known for her speech at a women’s rights conference in Akron, Ohio in 1851 titled “Ain’t I a Women?” in which she called attention to her intersecting identities as a woman and a Black person, and challenged the notion that women’s suffrage would automatically elevate Black women without also fighting for civil rights. In 1854, she was invited to the White House to meet with President Abraham Lincoln and continued to advocate for freed slaves after the Civil War.
Frederick Douglass described himself as a “woman’s rights man” and used his prominence as a famous abolitionist to advance the cause of women’s suffrage. When the abolitionist and suffrage movements were in alignment, Frederick Douglass was a committed advocate for the cause. In his autobiography Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he wrote eloquently about his belief: “We should all see the folly and madness of attempting to accomplish with a part what could only be done with the united strength of the whole. Though his folly may be less apparent, it is just as real when one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the world is excluded from any voice or vote in civil government.”
At the pivotal Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, Douglass was the only African American in attendance and delivered a passionate speech. Despite his unwavering belief, The Vote shows how the 15th Amendment caused a rift between Douglass and the leaders of the women’s movement. When Susan B. Anthony planned a suffrage meeting in Atlanta in the 1890s, she asked Douglass to stay away, over fear of alienating white suffragists. He remained committed to women’s suffrage, but ultimately advocated first for Black men’s right to vote. “I believe in women’s suffrage, I always will,” we hear him say in The Vote. “But the Black man needs it first. My people are being killed.”
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Harper was actively involved in organizing African American women on key issues like abolition and suffrage. She launched her career as a lecturer when she delivered an antislavery talk, “Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race,” in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1854. Harper was also a successful author, and was the first African American woman to publish a short story.
In May 1866, Harper spoke at the National Women’s Rights Convention in New York. In her speech, “We Are All Bound Up Together,” she called on attendees to incorporate Black women into the movement for suffrage, explaining that Black women faced a double burden of racism and sexism. When the movement split over the 15th Amendment, she pointed out how white women didn’t prioritize racial equality in the fight for suffrage: “When it was a question of race, I let the lesser question of sex go,” we hear her say in The Vote. “But the white women all go for sex, letting race occupy a minor position.”
Ida B. Wells
We can’t talk about women’s suffrage without talking about the immense contributions of Ida B. Wells. She was born into slavery in Mississippi and freed with the Emanicapation Proclamation. She became a journalist and dedicated her life to fighting racial injustice in the South. When Black men gained the right to vote, she witnessed the violent reaction by political elites, including the lynching of a close friend. She recognized that the ballot would be an indispensable weapon of defense in the fight for equality. “With no sacredness of the ballot, there can be no sacredness of human life itself,” she says in The Vote.
Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club for African-American women, the first suffrage club for Black women in Illinois, and they set out to join Alice Paul’s national suffrage parade in Washington DC. Under fear for how the white community in DC would receive them, Paul did not exclude Wells and her marchers, but also did not welcome them. The Black women were asked to march in the back of the parade, but Wells persisted and moved up to march alongside the white women in the Illinois delegation.
Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell, a daughter of former slaves, was a member of the Black middle class who used their standing in society to push for racial equality. She was one of the first African American women to earn a college degree, from Oberlin, where she also received a master’s degree. She became a teacher in Washington, DC and went on to be the first African American woman appointed to the school board of a major city.
As the co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women, Terrel’s words “Lifting as we climb” became the group’s motto. She joined the women’s suffrage movement, and worked to persuade Black men to support the cause after Black women were sidelined by suffragists like Alice Paul. As she says in The Vote, “The same arguments used to prove that the ballot be withheld from women are advanced to prove that colored men should not be allowed to vote.”
Watch The Vote July 6 and 7 at 9pm on WGBH2 and stream it now with PBS Passport.