Women's suffrage, but for whom? These 10 Black suffragists fought for the vote before—and long after—the 19th Amendment

Published 5:00 pm Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Women’s suffrage, but for whom? These 10 Black suffragists fought for the vote before—and long after—the 19th Amendment

Open an American history textbook from the last 50 years to the women’s suffrage chapter, and you will likely find a summary that places Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the forefront of the movement and Seneca Falls as a key location for women’s right to vote.

The 1848 Seneca Falls convention has become the de facto point of origin for feminist activism in the U.S. In mainstream retellings of the suffrage movement, Anthony and Stanton are heralded not only as the primary leaders of the movement but as devoted abolitionists who dedicated themselves as intently to fighting for racial equality as they did to the struggle for the vote. Until recently, few accounts of the movement acknowledged that many white suffragists, including Anthony and Stanton, started as abolitionists but ultimately turned against Black Americans when Black men obtained the right to vote in 1869.

While more attention has been brought to the racism within the suffrage movement over the past several years, classroom narratives often perpetuate a sanitized version of events—one that also leaves out the contributions of Black suffragists. Even the fact that Black women did not fully secure voting rights until 1965 and that Latina, Asian American, and Indigenous women fought for enfranchisement for decades after the 19th Amendment passed is frequently omitted from accounts of the movement.

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Yet Black women played a crucial role in the movement—both in advocating for the vote for all women prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 and fighting for its equal enforcement after 1920, as Jim Crow laws kept Black women and other women of color from the polls. Black suffragists fought not only for the vote but also for the life and livelihood of all Black Americans, campaigning hard for anti-lynching legislation and opportunities for advancement after the Emancipation Proclamation. They also created broad, diverse bases for change, bringing together people across races, genders, and classes.

As historians uncover a more complete picture of the suffrage movement, the contributions of underrecognized figures can be more clearly contextualized and celebrated. Stacker sifted through news articles, historical documents, and critical analyses of the U.S. to commemorate the legacies of a small fraction of Black suffragists often omitted from the women’s suffrage movement narrative.

Mary Church Terrell smiling during a radio show, 1953.

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Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell was born in 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee, entering the world the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation. Her parents, who had formerly been enslaved, were both businesspeople, and her father later became one of the first Black millionaires in the South. Always an engaged student, Terrell obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin College and became a teacher in Washington D.C. She married lawyer Robert Terrell in 1891.

Her political activism was sparked in 1892 by the lynching of her childhood friend Thomas Moss back in Memphis. She quickly joined in anti-lynching efforts alongside peers like Ida B. Wells and became an advocate for racial uplift, the idea that Black people could help end racial discrimination through their social advancement, including education and activism. She also co-founded the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and was one of the founding members of the NAACP.

A committed suffragist who advocated for Black women’s right to vote, Terrell was just as much an active anti-segregation advocate until her death in 1954, two months after segregation laws were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.

Illustration portrait of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1872.

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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born in Baltimore in 1825 to free Black parents. Orphaned at 3 years old, she was raised by her aunt and an uncle, an outspoken abolitionist. Harper fell in love with reading and literature at an early age and began writing poetry and fiction, a passion that would later blossom into a barrier-breaking career.

At around 20 years old, she published her first book of poetry. She moved to Ohio and then Pennsylvania to teach. In 1853, Maryland passed a law forbidding free Black Northerners from entering the state, an offense that would be punishable by enslavement—a law that made it impossible for her to return home.

Catalyzed into action, Harper threw herself into the abolition of slavery, moving in with her uncle’s friends, William and Leticia Still—one of whom (William) was a stationmaster for the Underground Railroad.

Harper became a writer and speaker for the cause and was well-known for her writing. Her short story was the first to be published by a Black woman.

She also became an active member of the suffrage movement, advocating for Black women’s right to vote and ultimately splitting off from the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton over their lack of support for the 15th Amendment. Alongside Frederick Douglass and others, she helped co-found the American Woman Suffrage Association.

Fanny Hamer speaks out for the meeting of her delegates at a credential meeting prior to the formal meeting of the Democratic National Convention, 1964.

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Fannie Lou Hamer

Born to sharecroppers in 1917 in Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer entered the world just three years before the passage of the 19th Amendment gave white women the vote. Forced to work in cotton fields by age 6, she attended a few years of school, where she learned to read and write. In 1944, she married Perry Hamer, and the two worked on a plantation for over a decade.

In 1961, Hamer was forcibly sterilized without her knowledge while getting a procedure done at a hospital—forced sterilization of Black women was so common that it was known colloquially as a “Mississippi appendectomy.” Hamer became active in the Civil Rights Movement shortly after this experience and was particularly involved in securing voting rights for Black Mississippians.

After finishing a voter registration program in 1963, she and other Black women were arrested for being at a “whites-only” restaurant in Mississippi. She was beaten in jail so severely that her injuries would cause her chronic problems for the rest of her life.

In 1964, she helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She was also one of the organizers of the Freedom Summer Project, which brought college students to the South to work on civil rights efforts. Hamer died in 1977.

Portrait of Ida B. Wells, 1920.

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Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells was born enslaved in Mississippi in 1862, with the Civil War raging around her. After the war, her parents became politically active and helped found a school, which Wells, her siblings, and her mother all attended. After her parents died of yellow fever in 1878, Wells left school to care for her siblings.

She became a journalist and, in 1892, was active in anti-lynching efforts after three of her acquaintances were lynched. Her writings and field work investigated the causes and numbers of lynchings in the South, and she ultimately concluded that lynching was being used as a tool of economic retaliation against Black men who were financially successful.

Wells got involved with the suffrage movement, believing Black women’s ability to vote was a key part of advancing civil rights. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Women with Mary Church Terrell and others, as well as the NAACP.

She remained a vocal proponent of suffrage for Black women after being shut out by white women’s suffrage organizations that refused to take a real stand against racism. Wells died in 1931.

Illustrated portrait of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, early 20th century.

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Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Born in 1875 in New Orleans, Alice Dunbar-Nelson was among the first generation of Black Americans born after the Emancipation Proclamation. She graduated college in 1892 after studying teaching and nursing and began a successful writing career. She published her first book of poems and short stories in 1895.

Soon after, she began a letter correspondence with Harlem Renaissance poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and after she moved up north, the two married. The two divorced after years of abuse. Dunbar-Nelson married and divorced again until she settled down with civil rights activist Robert J. Nelson.

Dunbar-Nelson got involved with politics and activism a few years before her final marriage, becoming a suffrage movement organizer. She traveled widely, speaking to large audiences about how Black women’s right to vote would help Black communities and arguing for federal anti-lynching legislation. Dunbar-Nelson died in 1935.

Illustrated portrait of Fannie Barrier Williams,1885.

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Fannie Barrier Williams

Frances “Fannie” Barrier Williams was born in Brockport, New York, in 1855 to one of the only Black families in the area. She became the first Black graduate of the present-day State University of New York Brockport’s teacher training program in 1870.

After graduation, Barrier Williams moved South to teach and experienced intense racial discrimination and violence, prompting her to move back North. After attempting to study piano at the New England Conservatory, white Southern students there forced her to leave.

After meeting and marrying Samuel Laing Williams, the two moved to Chicago, where Barrier Williams became involved in suffrage and civil rights work. She gave lectures on Black women’s suffrage and was a founder of the National League of Colored Women, which would later merge with the National Association of Colored Women.

She also became a journalist focused particularly on issues relevant to Black women. Barrier Williams died in 1944.

Portrait of Sojourner Truth.

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Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth was born around 1797 to enslaved parents in a Dutch-speaking community in New York State. She was enslaved until she was almost 30 years old, at which point she and her infant daughter escaped and found refuge with an abolitionist family nearby.

She later sued her enslaver, who had illegally sold her son into slavery to farmers in Alabama; she won the case. This marked one of the first times a Black woman prevailed in court over a white man.

Truth became a Methodist and began traveling as a preacher. During her travels, she met abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison and soon became heavily involved in civil rights and abolitionist work. She also joined the women’s suffrage movement alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. However, she later split from the white women’s suffrage movement over racism within the movement and the unwillingness of many to support Black male suffrage.

She was a brilliant orator whose work earned her an audience with President Abraham Lincoln. After the Emancipation Proclamation, her work continued. She spoke out for women’s rights, prison reform, and universal suffrage. Truth died in 1883.

Hull House in Chicago, circa 1941.

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Lugenia Burns Hope

Born in St. Louis in 1871, Lugenia Burns Hope grew up in Chicago and had early jobs at settlement houses, including Hull House (pictured), where students and others would reside alongside less privileged community members to help them overcome their personal obstacles. These experiences helped spark Burns Hope’s activism.

In the 1890s, she studied at design, art, and business schools. She married John Hope in 1897. The two moved to the South, where Burns Hope became the president of Atlanta Baptist College (present-day Morehouse College). At the time, she got involved in community work even as she became a mother to two sons.

She helped create and lead a welfare agency called Neighborhood Union in 1908 and was involved in the Young Women’s Christian Association. Later, she helped found the Atlanta chapters of both the National Association of Colored Women and the NAACP. She died in 1947.

Mary McLeod Bethune speaks to a crowd at Madison Square Garden, circa 1945.

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Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune was born in 1875 in South Carolina. She was one of the last of 17 children born to formerly enslaved parents. Bethune’s mother worked for her former enslaver after the Civil War in order to eventually buy the land, and Bethune worked as a child to help out.

She attended school and became a teacher, marrying Albertus Bethune and having a son in 1899. In 1907, Albertus left Mary, though they would stay legally married until his death in 1918. To support herself and her son, she opened a girls’ school, which would later become the co-ed Bethune-Cookman College.

By 1941, a year before ending her presidency of the four-year college, the campus sat on 32 acres and had 14 buildings supporting 600 students. Bethune became involved in activist work during this time. After the passage of the 19th Amendment, she worked at voter registration drives, helping Black women register in the face of racist violence.

She took on leadership roles within Black women’s suffrage and civil rights organizations. She was eventually appointed director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration by President Franklin Roosevelt. She also served as vice president of the NAACP. Bethune died in 1955.

Nannie Helen Burroughs, flanked by other women, at Annual Woman's Day in Washington D.C., 1961.

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Nannie Helen Burroughs

Born in 1879 in Virginia, Nannie Helen Burroughs attended high school in Washington D.C., where she was taught by suffragists like Mary Church Terrell and Anna Julia Cooper.

After her application to teach at a D.C. public school was rejected, likely because of colorism—as the school seemingly preferred a lighter-skinned staff—she started working for the National Baptist Convention in Louisville, Kentucky.

By 1909, Burroughs (at age 26) opened the National Training School for Women and Girls in D.C. with the support of NBC. The school was unusual in that it emphasized both vocational and professional training, teaching women literature and history alongside practice skills that would help them earn wages. The school’s motto was: “Work. Support thyself. To thine own powers appeal.” At the end of the first year, the school had 31 students. After 25 years, it welcomed over 2,000 women.

In addition to advocating for Black women’s education, desegregation, and anti-lynching legislation, Burroughs was an active suffragist who later worked with Martin Luther King Jr. Three years after she died in 1961, the institution she founded was renamed the Nannie Burroughs School. The school is now a National Historic Landmark.

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Kristen Wegrzyn.