‘Lifting as We Climb’: A tale of African American women suffragists

‘Lifting as We Climb’: A tale of African American women suffragists
Gayle Converse and Pat Miller look at a portrait of Kate Waller Barrett in the Barrett Library on Queen Street. (Photo/Luke Anderson)

By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller

The two-mile long procession stretched between the U.S. Capitol and Treasury Building. As thousands of participants walked in solidarity to call for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee women the right to vote, Ida B. Wells-Barnett decided to make an even larger point. The suffragist and civil rights activist broke from her position in the rear of the parade and ran to the front.

The Woman Suffrage Procession – held March 3, 1913, on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration – helped pave the way for future civil rights protests, yet the momentous event had stopped short of recognizing that the fight for women’s equality should include equality for all women; African American suffragist delegations had been ordered to march at the rear of the procession.

Disparities within the women’s suffrage movement were nothing new. More than 60 years earlier, female abolitionists had begun to document conditions of enslaved Americans as well as their own circumstances within a male-controlled culture. However, the predominantly white suffrage movement often discriminated against black women shouldering the same objective.

In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed. It states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

The 15th Amendment proved stronger in concept than in practice. Many black men were prohibited from voting due to poll taxes, deceptive literacy exams and grandfather clauses. The 15th Amendment also excluded women.

Since they had been barred from white organizations including the National Woman Suffrage Association and American Woman Suffrage Association, black activists began organizing their own groups in the 1880s. The National Association of Colored Women created the motto, “Lifting as We Climb,” advocating for women’s rights as well as “uplifting” and improving the status of African Americans.

The 1913 march on Washington galvanized the women’s suffrage movement. However, it would take seven more years for women to secure the right to vote through the 19th Amendment in 1920. The new Amendment would also prove stronger in theory than in method, as racism and harassment at the polls denied many black women the right to vote until the 1960s.

In less than a week, when Virginia residents cast primary election ballots on the 107th anniversary of the first national women’s march, it is worth remembering the prolonged struggle for equality for all women.

In the words of Washington D.C. suffragist Nannie Helen Burroughs, “When the ballot is put into the hands of the American woman the world is going to get a correct estimate of the Negro woman. It will find her a tower of strength of which poets have never sung, orators have never spoken, and scholars have never written.”

The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a new nonprofit that is commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage and highlighting influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at AlexandriaCelebratesWomen@gmail.com.