5 Notable Black Women Who Led the Women’s Suffrage Movement

From the beginning of the suffrage movement, Black women worked side-by-side with white suffragists despite being often overlooked in the history of the women’s suffrage movement. In the nineteenth century, Black women engaged in significant reform efforts and political activism leading up to and following the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, the suffrage movement broke apart over the issue of race in the years after the Civil War. Because of this, Black women formed their own organizations to continue their efforts to secure and protect the rights to vote for all women in their communities. Many women continued to fight knowing that the right to vote was crucial for changing oppression laws and dismantling racism. Here are five Black suffragists whose resourcefulness and persistence became instrumental in passing the Nineteenth Amendment: 

Mary Ann Shadd Cary – (1823 – 1893) 

Mary Ann Shadd Cary became the first-ever female African American newspaper editor in North America when she started the Black newspaper The Provincial Freeman. Originally from Delaware, Cary was the eldest of 13 children. Born to a free African American family, her father wrote for an abolitionist newspaper called the Liberator and provided help to escaped enslaved people in the Underground railroad. 

Later on in her life, Cary helped recruit Black soldiers for the Civil War in Indiana against the confederates and founded a school for the children of freed slaves. She taught school by day while attending law school at night, becoming one of the first Black female law graduates in the United States in 1883. After the 15th Amendment granted the vote to Black men, she became an activist for women’s rights, including the right to cast a ballot. In 1874, she was one of a few suffragists who testified before the House Judiciary Committee about the importance of the right to vote. 

Mary Ann Shadd Cary died in 1893 in Washington, DC. 

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper – (1825 – 1911) 

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Frances Ellen Watkin Harper was the first African American woman to publish a short story, but also an influential abolitionist, suffragist activist, and reformer that co-founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. 

When it came to the cause of women’s suffrage, Harper was convinced Black women’s right to vote would not be achieved unless Black and white women worked together. She spent the rest of her career working for the pursuit of equal rights, job opportunities, and education for African American women. In addition to being a co-founder and vice president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the director of the American Association of Colored Youth, she was also the superintendent of the Colored Sections of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Unions.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper died in 1911 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

Ida B. Wells (1862 – 1931) 

Originally from Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida B. Wells was a journalist, researcher, and activist in the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite being known for her anti-lynching activism and ownership of two news publications, Wells was also a supporter of women’s right to vote. In 1913, she was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Alpha Suffrage Club, Chicago’s first African American suffrage organizations. Her work at the club was notable for its focus on educating Black women on its advocacy for the election of Black political officials. 

Ida B. Wells died in 1931 in Chicago, Illinois. 

Mary Church Terrell – (1863 – 1954) 

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Mary Church Terrel was one of the first African American women to earn a college degree and become known as a national activist for the civil rights movement and suffrage. In 1896, Terrel and co-founder Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin created the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Their organization became instrumental in uniting Black suffrage groups across the country. As NACW president, Terrell campaigned continuously for black organizations and mainstream white organizations. She also actively embraced women’s suffrage, which she saw as essential to elevating the status not only of black women, but also the entire race. Her personal agenda went beyond women’s enfranchisement, but also addressed issues of job training, equal pay, educational opportunities, and child care for African Americans. Later in her life, Terrel also became the first Black woman appointed to the Washington, D.C.’s Board of Education, and led a successful campaign to desegregate the city’s hotels and restaurants.

Mary Church Terrel died in 1954 in Highland Beach, Maryland. 

Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961) 

As an educator, feminist, and suffragist Nannie Helen Burroughs gave over 200 speeches across the country throughout her life, stressing the importance of women’s self-reliance and economic freedom. Originally from Orange, Virginia, Burroughs believed that women and girls should have the opportunity to receive a higher education and job training. Thus, she founded the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, DC. She believed suffrage for African American women was crucial to protect their interests in an often discriminatory society. As a member of the National Association of Colored Women, the National Association of Wage Earners and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, she saw voting as a crucial tool of empowerment. Burroughs defied societal restrictions placed on her gender and race and her work foreshadowed the main principles of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Nannie Helen Burroughs died in Washington, DC in May 1961. Her school was renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in her honor. 

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