On August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote, passed in the United States. This year marks the centennial of that historic moment. And though Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton were the primary leaders of the movement, that vote would never had happened without the advocacy of Black suffragettes.
In Central Park on August 27th, a new sculpture will unveil three suffragettes. Real women, for the first time, being recognized in the heart of the City.
One of those women will be Sojourner Truth.
Read about the many Black suffragettes who made the 19th amendment happeneds. They fought back in campaigns and in women’s club despite rejection from white women who wanted to ignore racial discrimination.
SOJOURNER TRUTH: c. 1797(?) – 1883
Born Isabella (later Van Wagener), a slave in upstate New York, she was the first known African American suffragist. An illiterate, itinerant preacher and reformer from Ulster County, New York, she was an emancipated slave who supported herself with menial jobs. She traveled throughout the eastern United States and attended woman’s rights conventions as an outspoken proponent for woman’s rights and woman suffrage. Her overwhelming presence, personal magnetism, and unique oratorical style captivated audiences and won even skeptics to the cause. She also earned money by selling the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, written for her by Olive Gilbert. In 1852-53, she spent several days with Harriet Beecher Stowe, who called her “The Lybian Sibyl,” who spread Truth’s fame in an Atlantic Monthly article in 1863. She was said to have delivered a powerful speech in favor of woman’s rights at the Akron, Ohio woman’s convention in 1851, remembered as “Ain’t I a Woman?” a speech which some historians today question because it is written in Southern slave dialect, while Truth had the speech of one raised in Dutch-speaking New York. This speech secured her reputation as a famous champion of the woman’s rights cause. In 1864, she traveled to Washington D. C. where she was received by President Lincoln in the White House. In December of that year, the National Freedman’s Relief Association appointed her “counselor to the freed people” at Freedman’s Village, Arlington Heights, VA. Truth also attended meetings of the American Equal Rights Association where she called for the vote for both Black men and for women. In the mid-1850s, she moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived among an enclave for free Blacks. In 1875, Truth returned to Battle Creek , amid forays of lecturing, where she died in 1883.
CHARLOTTE VANDINE FORTEN, SR: (1785 – 1884)
An abolitionist and suffragist, Charlotte Forten came to Washington, D. C. in the late 1870s with her husband, James Forten, a Black abolitionist. Charlotte worked in the government and taught school. She had been a founder and member of the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, many of whose members became active in the women’s rights movement.
HARRIET FORTEN PURVIS (1810 – 1875):
Daughter of wealthy sail maker and abolitionist reformer James Forten, Sr., Harriet and her sisters were founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and members of the American Equal Rights Association, where Harriet served as a member of the executive committee. Affluent and educated, the sisters helped lay the groundwork for the first National Woman’s Rights Convention in October, 1854, and helped organize the Philadelphia Suffrage Association in 1866.
MARGARETTA FORTEN (1806 -1875):
Margaretta was an educator and abolitionist. She and her mother, Charlotte Forten ,and her sister, Harriet, were founders and members of the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. The Forten sisters had never been enslaved.
HARRIET (HATTIE) PURVIS, JR:
A niece of the Forten family of reformers, Purvis was active in the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association and a member of their Executive Committee. Between 1883 and 1900, she served as a delegate to the National Woman Suffrage Association. She also served as Superintendent of Work among Colored People for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, championing both reforms. Unlike Gertrude Mossell, who made her voice heard through the Black press, Purvis did not. As a result, her views about woman suffrage remain little known. A friend of Susan B. Anthony, she, like Frances Harper, represented the second generation of Black women suffragists. Harriet was a member of the Executive Committee of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association in 1884, and was a delegate to the National American Woman Suffrage Association between 1883 and 1900.
CHARLOTTE FORTEN GRIMKE (1837 – 1914):
An abolitionist and suffragist, Charlotte, a niece of Harriet Purvis and Margaretta and Sarah Forten, was raised in a family of abolitionist zeal. She was tutored at home, but attended a high school in Salem, Massachusetts where she lived with the Charles Remond family, having been sent there by her father because Black students were denied admission to the Philadelphia public schools. She graduated with distinction in 1855. She was among the volunteer teachers to the community of former slaves at Port Royal, GA. Charlotte became a teacher, author, and educator of freedmen, as well as a suffrage supporter. Moving to Washington, D. C. in 1873, she held a clerkship in the Treasury Department. In 1878, she married Francis James Grimke, a former slave and son of white South Carolina planter, Henry Grimke, and nephew of white abolitionists and feminists, Sarah and Angelina Grimke-Weld. In Washington, she mentored her niece, Angelina Weld-Grimke and the prominent Black teacher, Anna Julia Cooper. As a suffragist, she affiliated with the American Woman Suffrage Association.
ANGELINA WELD GRIMKE (1880 -1958):
Archibald Grimke moved to Washington with his daughter Angelina Weld Grimke, where he became a Republican Party diplomat and Civil Rights activist. His daughter, a well-known feminist in the District of Columbia, was a journalist, playwright, poet, lesbian, suffragist and teacher of English at Dunbar High School (formerly the M Street High School). She was a member of a family of distinguished women reformers, including the Fortens and the Grimkes. A radical feminist, Angelina wrote for several journals such as Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review. Educated at Wellesley, she became a talented short story author, dramatist, and orator, whose literary works exposed her ideas about the pain and violence in Black women’s lives, and her rejection of the double standards imposed on women by the courts, education, employment, and marriage. Her works foreshadowed the Harlem Renaissance. She, herself, never married. Angelina used the above rationales saying, “The injustices will end” when women get the ballot. In remaining single, she maintained her position on the Dunbar High School faculty for many years, because school practices at the time forced married women out of their careers. Angelina became an important member of the social and intellectual Black elite of Washington, D. C.
SARAH REMOND (1826 – 1887(?)):
Sarah Remond was an antislavery lecturer and physician, one of eight children. The Remonds were a noted abolitionist family, well known in anti-slavery circles and, as a child, Sarah had attended abolitionist meetings. She was an activist in the Salem and Massachusetts Antislavery Societies. In 1856, Sarah was appointed an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society. From Salem, Massachusetts, Sarah and her brother, Charles, spoke at the national woman’s rights convention in New York City in 1858, where both were honored for their speeches advocating woman suffrage. She also took her anti-slavery cause to British audiences, where she drew large crowds. She was a member of the American Equal Rights Association, where she served as a guest lecturer, and toured the Northeast campaigning for universal suffrage. Discouraged by the split in the woman suffrage movement after the Civil War, she left the United States, becoming an expatriate in Florence, Italy, in 1866, where she studied medicine and is said to have received a diploma certifying her for “Professional Medical Practice.” Little is known of her later life and death. Her departure from the United States suggests the hopelessness she felt about African American women ever achieving equality in their homeland. The summaries of her lectures published in newspapers and periodicals are the remaining record of her anti-slavery work.
CHARLOTTA (LOTTIE) ROLLIN (1849 – ?):
After the Civil War, the woman suffrage movement split into two separate organizations: the National Woman Suffrage Association (the more radical group led by Stanton and Anthony), and the more mainstream group, the American Woman Suffrage Association, (led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe). Lottie Rollin joined the American Woman Suffrage Association. During Reconstruction, Blacks participated in Southern Reconstruction politics, and Rollin became active in South Carolina where she and her sisters, Frances and Louisa, influenced state politics in the late 1860s and 1870s. She worked for Black congressman Robert Brown Elliott. Rollin spoke on the floor of the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1869 in support of universal suffrage. By 1870, Lottie chaired the founding meeting of the South Carolina Woman’s Rights Association and was elected secretary of the newly-organized Association and, in 1871, led a meeting at the state capital to advocate woman suffrage.
Lottie and her sisters, Frances, Kate and Louisa, were all active in promoting woman suffrage at both the state and national levels.
MARY ANN SHADD CARY (1823 – 1893):
A veteran suffragist from Washington, D. C., Cary worked as a journalist, teacher, lawyer, and politician. Born in Wilmington, Delaware, she was perhaps the first African American suffragist to form a suffrage Association. During the 1850s, she was a leader and spokesperson among the African American refugees who fled to Canada after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. In 1853, she founded the Provincial Freeman, a newspaper dedicated to the interests of Blacks in Canada. She was acclaimed as “the first colored woman on the American continent to establish and edit a weekly newspaper.” By 1869, she was a widow. She moved to Washington, D. C. and decided to study law and became the first woman student at the newly established Howard University Law School, while teaching in the District of Columbia school system during the day. Although listed in the Howard law class of 1871-72, Cary was not permitted to graduate because the D.C. legal code did not permit a woman’s admission to the bar. After a decade, Cary returned to Howard and received her law degree. She spoke at the 1878 convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association. In her arguments advocating suffrage, she clearly applied the principles of the 14th and 15th Amendments to women as well as men. She called for an amendment to strike the word “male” from the Constitution. In 1871, Cary unsuccessfully tried to vote in D. C. but she and 63 other women prevailed upon officials to sign affidavits attesting that women had tried to vote. In 1876, Cary wrote the National Woman Suffrage Association on behalf of 94 Black women requesting that their names be enrolled in the July 4th (1876 was the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence) autograph book as signers of the Woman’s Declaration of Sentiments, which demanded the immediate enfranchisement of American women. Unfortunately, the names were not included. In her suffrage work, Cary connected education, women’s labor questions, and economic and business development to political empowerment. In 1880, she organized the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association in Washington, D. C., whose statement of purpose included an agenda both political and economic.
FRANCES ELLEN WATKINS HARPER (1825 – 1911):
Harper was a Philadelphia lecturer and organizer of African American women. Born in Baltimore, MD, about 1845, she published a collection of poetry and prose entitled, Forest Leaves. In 1854, she delivered an antislavery lecture in New Bedford, Massachusetts, “Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race,” whose success launched her career. She interspersed her lectures with selections from her Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, her volume of antislavery poems. She married Fenton Harper in 1860 and settled near Columbus, Ohio. With the death of her husband in 1864, she resumed lecturing. She published numerous articles, poems, and books in the periodicals of her day. She was a founding member of the American Woman Suffrage Association, and in 1873, after returning from a tour of freedman’s communities in the reconstructed states of the South, she delivered the closing speech at the AWSA convention in New York. Harper told the convention, “As much as white women need the ballot, colored women need it more.” She called for equal rights and equal access to education for Black women, clearly defining race as a factor in the denial of women’s rights. Harper also spoke out against substance abuse, particularly alcohol, in the Black community. By 1887, she joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, where she served as the Superintendent of Work among the Colored People. She lectured and organized Black women into Temperance Unions, publishing reports in the Methodist Episcopal Church journal. In 1896, she was an organizer of the National Association of Colored Women and became its vice president. She died in Philadelphia at the age of eighty-five.
GERTRUDE BUSTILL MOSSELL (1855 – 1948):
From Philadelphia, Mossell was from a prominent free African American family of reformers, and married a physician. A professional journalist (Mrs. N. F. Mossell), she wrote a women’s column in T. Thomas Fortune’s newspaper, The New York Freeman. Her first article, entitled “Woman Suffrage,” published in 1885, encouraged women to read suffrage history and articles on women’s rights. Like Frances Harper, Mossell believed intemperance to be a great hindrance to the progress of the Black community. Her pro-suffrage arguments were similar to other African American suffragists of that era in calling for a Federal Amendment to enfranchise women, and she directed her arguments to the Black community through the Black press. As an affluent mother of two, as well as a professional writer, she could relate to middle-class views of housewives who were feminists.
JOSEPHINE ST. PIERRE RUFFIN (1842 – 1924):
Ruffin was a Massachusetts journalist and noted abolitionist before the Civil War. She joined the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association in 1875, and affiliated nationally with the American Woman Suffrage Association. In addition, she was a Black woman’s club leader in that state. She was the wife of George L. Ruffin, one of the woman suffrage representatives from Boston in the state legislature. In later years, she stated that she had joined the Massachusetts suffragists because of the warm welcome she was offered by the leaders Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and other suffragists. In 1895, she convened the first conference of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, probably the first national organization of Black women, in Boston, thereby becoming a leader in the Black woman’s club movement. Hundreds of Black women answered the call to convene, published in the Woman’s Era. She challenged the opposition to woman suffrage in Boston, writing an editorial in her Black women’s newspaper, the Woman’s Era, co-authored with her daughter, Florida Ridley. She edited the Woman’s Era, the first newspaper published by and for African American Women. She sarcastically told her audience that because of the organized opposition of the men toward woman suffrage, “Not for many years has so much enthusiasm and interest been shown” in support of women’s voting rights. Throughout the 1890s, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin continued to urge white women to join with Black women to further women’s advancement, but her pleas fell largely on deaf ears outside of Massachusetts, and she was personally discriminated against when seeking to represent her club at the 1900 convention of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, leading to the virtual segregation of Black and white women’s clubs.
CARRIE LANGSTON (EXACT DATES UNAVAILABLE – LATE 19TH EARLY 20TH Centuries):
From Lawrence, Kansas, Carrie was the daughter of civil rights activist Charles Langston and mother of Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes. A journalist, she wrote for the newspaper, The Atchison Blade, encouraging African American women to seek education, become politically active, and enter the profession of journalism. Refuting what she called “the male notion” that women were contented with their lot, she criticized men who attempted to keep women in an inferior position in society. She was the mother of famed African American poet Langston Hughes.
Text source: Suffragette Memorial