Women of color vital to suffrage work

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In this year marking the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment and in this month (February) marking Black History Month, it is important to note that when “women” got the vote in 1920, that right first was only given to white women.

Stephanie Cain, one of the co-creators of “The Legend of the Legendary League” drew attention to this incomplete voting right and emphasized the powerful and courageous roles played by Hawaiian, Asian, Latina, Native American and, especially, African American women during the suffrage era and beyond. Cain spoke and narrated “The Legend of the Legendary League” for a crowd at the Crawfordsville District Public Library earlier this week.

Indiana’s own Polly Strong was not a suffragist but she played a key role in Indiana women’s history — and a very early one. Strong was born enslaved in the Northwest Territory and was purchased by an innkeeper from Vincennes. Since slavery and involuntary servitude were illegal in Indiana, Strong sued for her freedom. That was in 1820. A court in Knox County ruled against her but the Indiana Supreme Court freed her (though not others in the same circumstance).

Other 19th-century African American women, whose valiant work is too often neglected in mainstream histories, devoted their lives to the dual cause of African-American rights and women’s equality. One of these women has made it into the history books but in an ironic and troubling way. Isabella Baumfree, known as Sojourner Truth, was born into slavery in the North at the end of the 18th century.

Truth became a visible presence in the young country, speaking publicly and advocating for her views on temperance, abolition and women’s rights. She was educated, well-spoken and had a Dutch accent from her New York upbringing. This articulate voice has been misrepresented to modern audiences because a white woman, early on, recreated Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech as uneducated so-called “slave patois” and that’s the only version we modern people have heard. Readers may google “Ain’t I a Woman” to hear the speech read in an accent and words that closely resemble the voice and vocabulary of the historical Sojourner Truth.

In Sojourner’s footsteps followed several prominent 19th century African American women public figures whose bravery to speak out for abolition and women’s rights can hardly be overstated. These women were active at the time when slavery was still widely in practice and when women had virtually no legal rights.

Many of them started their careers as teachers who then “went public.” Frances EW Harper, for instance, refused to give up her trolley seat to a white person in Philadelphia, a century before Rosa Parks refused to give up hers. Harper, the “mother of African-American journalism” did many public speaking tours in favor of suffrage, abolition and temperance. She reportedly sent fees from her speaking to support the Underground Railroad.

Mary Church Terrell, Adella Hunt Logan and Ida B. Wells weren’t far behind. Terrell founded a suffrage group for black women. She was educated at Oberlin and worked on for the Civil Rights Movement during the 20th century. Logan was a college professor at Tuskeegee University who, like Terrell and others received a hostile reception not only from the public at large but even from her colleagues. Because of her mixed racial ancestry, she could attend both white and black suffrage events — at terrible personal cost as it proved.

Wells, the daughter of former slaves, got herself an education, became a teacher, and, after also refusing to give up a seat in “the ladies’ car” of a train, began to speak out powerfully as a journalist. She founded the National Association of Women’s Clubs to bring women together to fight. Her burning passion was speaking out about the crime of lynching. In 1892 she published her first book “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.”

Unfortunately, the originally shared enterprise forwarding African American and women’s rights came to a quick end when the two causes split over who should have voting rights first. In 1866, the American Equal Rights Association was founded by Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady-Stanton. It advocated “for universal suffrage for all.” That this organization was unable to prevail is a sad chapter in our nation’s history. Had it unified people as intended, universal voting rights might have been achieved by the end of the Civil War.

Here at the conclusion of Black History Month, we wish to applaud these pioneers and scores of unnamed others, most of whom died before the 19th Amendment passed and certainly before the Voting Rights Act passed in the mid 1960s. American history is a complex and multi-voiced story.

The next Fourth Monday event will take place at 6 p.m. March 23 at the CDPL when Indiana author Ray Boomhower will join us to discuss his book Fighting for Equality, his biography of Indianapolis’s pioneering educator and suffragist, May Wright Sewell. Please join us. These events are free and for the public.

 

All men and women are invited to join the non-artisan League of Women Voters which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website: www.lwvmontcoin.org or send a message to LWV, P.O. Box 101, Crawfordsville, IN 47933.

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