The Fight of Black Women for Suffrage

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Mary Townsend Seymour (credit: Shoeleather History Project)

One hundred years ago— for the first time in history— African American women in Hartford went to the polls. It was November 2, 1920. Black women turned out in larger numbers than Black men; the total number of white women who voted surpassed that of white men. All women had just won equal suffrage, and were determined to act on that new freedom and the political power it might provide.

The Hartford Courant reported at the time: “Most of the colored women from the southern states who came here during the last few years live in this [Second] district and election officials said that it appeared that nearly all of them had voted…In the Third Ward…most of the native colored women of this city were seen.”

There was no assurance that when woman suffrage was approved that Black women would benefit. Up to the last moment, southern senators  (and northerners like Connecticut’s Frank B. Brandegee) pressed to exclude them from the law. That effort failed, but it did not stop the Klan from marching through cities in 1920 to suppress the Black womens’ vote just a few days before the election.

This year we mark the long struggle for woman suffrage with celebrations across the state. These events should also acknowledge that this right was opposed by Connecticut’s governor, both U.S. senators, and Hartford’s leading newspapers.

I am not optimistic that Black women will receive the proper recognition for their local suffrage organizing efforts. This is partially due to the suffrage movement itself. For instance, the plaque on the south side of the State Capitol recognizes thirty-one Connecticut women “who helped win the vote for the women of their country.” But not one is a woman of color.

Most of the burden now, though, lands in the laps of our education system and historians whose job it is to accurately identify the forces of change. They have done little to correct the record. Credit should be given, for instance, to Gertrude Brown, the force behind Hartford’s “Historical Club.”  Likewise, Minnie E. Bradley should commended as a charter member of the state’s League of Women Voters, 

The Northeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs made suffrage a top priority for decades. Although the coalition was officially excluded in 1902 by the all-white National federation, Black women went on to establish their own networks. 

Connecticut’s Federation chapter frequently hosted regional gatherings of several hundred women, working closely with local African American churches. Hattie A. Cooke and Clara A. Burr, both from Norwich, served as officers; their conventions dealt with federal efforts to outlaw lynching, segregation of public accommodations, pervasive racism in government and the armed forces, and the fight for woman suffrage. 

The only Black woman with even moderate name recognition today is Mary Townsend Seymour. She and her husband hosted W.E.B. DuBois in 1917 to organize the first NAACP chapter. She went undercover as a tobacco worker, learning first hand about the mistreatment of Black women on the job, and later helped them start a union. Seymour was the statewide head of the Anti-Lynching League which lobbied for federal action against vigilante murders. In 1920 she ran for state representative from Hartford. In 1922, Seymour was on the Socialist and Farmer-Labor Party tickets for statewide office.

Today, a calculated assault on voting access is taking its toll. Voter suppression threatens the rights of millions of Americans. According to the Brennan Center for Justice: 

”State voter suppression is a real, persistent, and urgent threat to our democracy. Since 2010, at least half of the states in our nation have passed new policies that make it harder for people to register and vote. These practices include cutbacks to early voting, new obstacles to voter registration, and onerous voter identification requirements, among others.”

Despite the last decade of these concerted attacks, there is a harmonic convergence taking place: the 100th anniversary of woman suffrage and the 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment. February is Black History month, and last week, hundreds of people commemorated the life of Hartford’s Carrie Saxon Perry, the first African American woman elected mayor in a New England city.

It is easy to take voting for granted– until we recall the flesh and blood struggles that have made the franchise a reality, and the women and men who made it happen.

 

 

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