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5 Black Suffragists Who Fought for the 19th Amendment—And Much More

August 4, 2020 in History

By Lakshmi Gandhi

Obtaining the vote was just one item on a long civil rights agenda.

When Congress ratified the 19th Amendment on August 18,1920, giving American women the right to vote, it reflected the culmination of generations’ worth of work by resolute suffragists of all races and backgrounds. Historically, attention has focused on the efforts of white movement leaders like Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But they worked alongside many lesser-known suffragists, such as Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee and Nina Otero-Warren, who made crucial contributions to the cause—while also battling racism and discrimination.

For their part, “Black suffragists came to the suffrage movement from a different perspective,” said Earnestine Jenkins, who teaches Black history and culture at the University of Memphis. Their movement, she says, grew out of the broader struggle for basic human and civil rights during the oppressive Jim Crow era.

But while many 19th-century women’s rights advocates got their political start in the anti-slavery movement, not all were keen on seeing Black men leapfrog women for voting rights with the 15th Amendment. Viewing the issues competitively, some leading white suffragists aggressively sidelined Black women—and their broader civil rights issues, like segregation and racial violence—from the movement. One strategy? Using their platforms to perpetuate stereotypes that women of color were uneducated or promiscuous.

Even after the 19th Amendment passed, promising that the right to vote would “not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” women of color continued to be barred from casting ballots in many states with tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests. Suffrage battles continued for decades—often against a backdrop of intimidation and violence. Yet mid-century activists, like Fannie Lou Hamer, fought on, knowing the vote was a crucial tool for changing oppressive laws and dismantling entrenched racism. Here are five Black suffragists whose resourcefulness and persistence became instrumental in passing the 19th Amendment.

READ MORE: Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, circa 1898.

At a time in America when the majority of Black people were enslaved and women were rarely encouraged to have political opinions—much less share them in public—Frances Ellen Watkins Harper became a genuine celebrity as an orator. Second only to abolitionist Frederick Douglass in terms of …read more


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When a New Polio Vaccine Faced Shortages and Setbacks

August 4, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

The 1955 announcement of a new vaccine was met by jubilation. But then the problems began.

On April 12, 1955, every American newspaper and TV set jubilantly announced that Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was a success. Just three years earlier, during the worst polio outbreak in U.S. history, 57,000 people were infected, 21,000 were paralyzed and 3,145 died, most of them children. Pools and movie theaters were shuttered, and panicked parents kept their kids at home, haunted by black-and-white images of toddlers in leg braces and rows of infants sealed in iron lungs.

Nationwide, news of the Salk vaccine was greeted with tears of joy and relief. Even the usually stoic President ran a story on May 8, 1955 describing how the original “wave of exuberance” over the vaccine was being replaced in less than a month with “confusion, conflict, and doubt.”

READ MORE: How a New Vaccine Was Developed in Record Time in the 1960s

Salk Vaccine Replaced by Sabin’s Live-Virus Formula

Once the source of the polio infections was discovered, vaccinations were allowed to continue, but the Cutter incident stained the integrity of the Salk vaccine and opened the door for a competing polio cure developed by Salk’s scientific rival, Albert Sabin, director of Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital.

Unlike Salk’s killed virus, Sabin’s vaccine was made from a live “attenuated” virus, meaning a weakened virus that’s strong enough to produce antibodies, but too weak to cause an active infection. Also, the Sabin vaccine was taken orally in one dose as opposed to receiving multiple injections of the Salk vaccine. The oral vaccination route had distinct advantages, explains Gupta from the March of Dimes.

“Al Sabin said, ‘The way this virus infects is through the GI tract and the way we have to fight this is through the GI tract,’” says Gupta. “He was working from the inside out. Also, a live attenuated virus would actually shed through fecal contamination and provide herd immunity.”

A Cold War Vaccine Race

Dr. Albert Sabin holding a vial containing a new oral polio vaccine he developed.

It was the Soviet Union, America’s Cold War enemy, that was the first to test the Sabin vaccine. Sabin was born in Poland, then part of the Soviet Union, and accepted the communist nation’s invitation in 1959 to conduct a massive trial of his oral vaccine on 10 million Soviet children. When the trial was a success, the Soviets …read more