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  • The Nineteenth Amendment and Its Outcome for African American Women
  • Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (bio)

African American women were not promised inclusion in the Nineteenth Amendment. The ratification was achieved at a time when segregation and racial discrimination characterized American institutions. Although Black women had been woman suffrage advocates since the movement began in the post-Civil War years, their inclusion in the Nineteenth Amendment was not a given. This was a struggle that took considerable effort, primarily among African American women who set out to educate Black people about strategies for change. Nonetheless, like Black men a generation earlier, the majority of African American women—those living in the South—were disenfranchised, or lost the right to vote, soon after the amendment was ratified in 1920. Not until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, did Black women and men living in the South regain their lost right to vote.1

Most Americans are surprised to learn that Black men and women were part of the nineteenth-century woman suffrage movement, which began officially at a small women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. During the over seventy years that followed, hundreds of African American women mobilized to gain the right to vote, especially during the years 1900 to 1920. Some organized in women's clubs formed in churches and in neighborhoods to aid Black communities. However, most joined national African American organizations like the National Baptist Woman's Convention and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), often through state federations. Still others were members of Black secret societies like sororities of Black college women or Black women's auxiliaries of Masonic orders. Each developed appropriate strategies for gaining the ballot or, in states where women could vote, for electing candidates of their choice. In associations, Black women focused on voter-education classes and other vehicles for helping inform their communities and preparing women to vote effectively.2 Some Black clubwomen lived in the few states where woman suffrage had been legislated before 1920. Their goals included working to support an all-inclusive woman suffrage amendment that would give all women the right to vote in any type of election. For example, in the summer of 1906, the Colorado State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs met in Denver, where members discussed the role of Black [End Page 23] women voters. Women were encouraged to be educated voters and to seek candidates who supported justice for Black people. Elizabeth Piper Ensley, who was second vice president of the federation, delivered the address "Woman and the Ballot."3

Once Illinois women won local suffrage in 1914, Chicago's African American clubwomen immediately went to work. During 1914 and 1915, members of the Alpha Suffrage Club led by Ida B. Wells-Barnett published a newsletter, The Alpha Suffrage Record, which sought to educate the community about candidates and local issues that would appear on the ballot.4 Some Black women enthusiastically joined the club, founded in 1913, when Wells-Barnett explained how they could use their votes for the advantage of themselves and their race. As a result of her efforts, over sixty members of the club traveled to Washington, DC, to march in the 1913 suffrage parade in front of the White House. Some Black men in Chicago, however, were suspicious of the club's efforts. According to Wells-Barnett, they jeered at the women as they canvassed African American neighborhoods to recruit Black voters and told them that they ought to be at home taking care of babies. Other men accused the women of trying to take men's places in politics. However, African American women suffragists in Chicago were able to disarm these men. The women responded to male fears by telling them that they were registering to vote in order to put Black men into elective offices, which was their goal.5

Because most Black women in the nation did not live in places where women had earned the right to vote, throughout most of the first twenty years of the twentieth century, African American women's clubs sought strategies for gaining enfranchisement rather than...


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