Brent Staples’ “When the Suffrage Movement Sold Out to White Supremacy”

African-American women were written out of the history of the woman suffrage movement. As the centennial of the 19th Amendment approaches, it’s time for a new look at the past.

 

Shadd Cary galvanized black women in Washington when she tried unsuccessfully to register to vote in 1871 — a year before Anthony was arrested in Rochester for voting illegally in the presidential election.

Shadd Cary’s biographer, Jane Rhodes, writes that she was attracted to ideas put forward by Stanton and Anthony’s National Woman Suffrage Association and stayed close to the organization even though its leaders “spurned any association with the cause of black suffrage” and adopted the stance that “educated white women were better suited to vote than illiterate black males.” Shadd Cary was typical; black women often stayed with white organizations that were hostile to African-American interests to raise issues that would otherwise be ignored.

‘Turned Their Backs on Women of Color’

The ratification of the 19th Amendment set off celebratory parades all across the country. But confetti was still rustling in the streets when black women across the South learned that the segregationist electoral systems would override the promise of voting rights by obstructing their attempts to register.

Some black women succeeded in adding their names to the rolls. But as the historian Liette Gidlow shows in her revelatorystudy of the period, the files of the Justice Department, the N.A.A.C.P. and African-American newspapers were soon bursting with letters, investigations and affidavits documenting the disenfranchisement of black women, especially in but not limited to former Confederate states.

In Virginia, Gidlow writes, a college-educated mother of four named Susie W. Fountain was required to take “a “literacy test” that consisted of a blank sheet of paper; the registrar subsequently determined that she had failed. She later told an N.A.A.C.P. investigator she was “too humiliated and angry to try again.” A Birmingham, Ala., teacher, Indiana Little, was arrested and sexually assaulted after leading a large crowd to the registrar’s office. As Little said in a sworn affidavit, she was “beat over the head unmercifully and … forced upon the officer’s demand to yield to him in an unbecoming manner.”

In what became known as “The Election Day Massacre,” a white mob burned to the ground a prosperous black community in the Central Florida town of Ocoee after African-Americans tried to vote.

By this time, white suffragists had declared the battle for women’s voting rights won and embarked on a campaign to prove the amendment successful. They had no interest in signing on to a cause that would undercut that story line.

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Coralie Franklin Cook
Coralie Franklin Cook

This betrayal was especially painful for the black suffragists like Coralie Franklin Cook, who had once said of her idol, Susan B. Anthony, who died 14 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, that “thousands of torches lighted by her hand will yet blaze the way to freedom for women.” By 1921, however, Cook lamented that, even though she had been “born a suffragist,” she had no choice but to retire from the field. The movement, she said, had “turned its back on women of color.” Organizations that are gearing up to commemorate next year’s centennial of the 19th Amendment are at risk of repeating that insult.

 

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