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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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