The History of Black Women’s Activism

by Earnestine Jenkins, P.D., Professor of Art History, Department of Art, University of Memphis. 

African American women actively worked in the women’s suffrage movement. In the struggle for the vote, black women fought racism and sexism simultaneously. Initially black men in prominent positions like Frederick Douglas were the public front of the suffrage movement, while black women’ activism was behind the scenes. During the late nineteenth century however, more black women stepped to the lead in local and regional organizing efforts.

During the antebellum era, black women abolitionists like Sojourner Truth, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Sarah Redmond, Harriet Forten Purvis, and Margaretta Forten, supported universal suffrage at a time when the power of the vote was extended to white males but not black men or women. Universal suffrage continued to be the goal after the Civil War. During the 1860s, divisions about strategy erupted over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments extending political power to men but not women.

The National Woman Suffrage Association, of which Truth and Cary were members, favored the former and protested the latter because it disenfranchised women. Some black women like poet Francis Ellen Watkins Harper supported the “Negro Suffrage” side of the argument, explaining like Frederick Douglass, that it was more important to support the enfranchisement of black men. This position was also supported by the American Woman Suffrage Association, which attracted more black women to its ranks. This group focused on state legislatures, and some black women suffragists like Frances Harper of Pennsylvania served as state delegates at national conventions.

During the 1880s and 1890s the social reform movements of the era were dominated by the formation of women’s clubs, and suffrage was included in the broader platform of many. In 1896, black women affiliated under the National Association of Colored Women. Mary Church Terrell, originally from Memphis, was elected the first president. From its beginnings, the platform included a department focused on women’s suffrage. Another powerful black organization, the National Baptist Convention also advocated for women’s suffrage. There were also clubs organized to specifically work on women’s suffrage, such as the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, founded by Ida B. Wells, another pioneer black woman activist from Memphis.

In 1890 the two women’s suffrage organizationS morphed into the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The NAWSA began to practice exclusionary tactics against African American women, to gain the support of most white men, who remained opposed to woman suffrage. The narrowed concerns and goals of the suffrage movement included making concessions to white women’s attitudes in the south, where African American political power was greatly feared.

By 1900, white suffragists were implementing discriminatory strategies like literacy requirements targeting black and foreign voters. Known as the “educated suffragist,” this increased suspicion that black women would be omitted from the amendment to assure white men that mostly educated, middle class white women would be extended voting rights.

Where black and white women aligned was on the necessity of political and civil rights to the progress of women. They argued that the power of the vote would strengthen women’s agency in dealing with the societal ills the social reform movements sought to address: intemperance, poverty and economic inequalities, crime, education, racial discrimination, and the dis-enfranchisement of black women. However, many of the priorities in black communities were rejected by the white middle class leadership in the suffrage movement, including racial issues, which were at times openly opposed.

Adopting the motto, “Lifting as We Climb,” the regional, state and city federations affiliated under the National Association of Colored Women developed institutions that served African-Americans for generations. They blended social reform and racial uplift into a self-help model that placed the onus on the privileged to help their social inferiors. One of the first initiatives black women organized were programs to care for aging former slaves such as the Cleveland Home For Aged Colored People, the Alpha Home in Indianapolis, or The Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People in Chicago. Clubwomen raised funds, purchased facilities, held social events, hired personnel to manage the homes, and charged membership fees to sustain these institutions.

Black clubwomen helped to create medical facilities in their communities, worked in segregated wards in white hospitals, and trained as midwives, nurses and doctors. Clubwomen provided mothers with instruction in childcare and hygiene. In Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Women’s Improvement Club established the Oak Hill Tuberculosis Camp to address the needs of black patients with tuberculosis.

Much of black women’s social welfare activities were directed towards the care and education of the young and youth. They developed nurseries and kindergartens in homes and churches staffed by volunteers. Clubwomen started orphanages for dependent children, such as the children home founded by The New Bedford Women’s Club in 1904. They were also concerned with the difficulties women encountered as they began to migrate to cities in search of better wages and working conditions. Clubwomen developed settlement houses such as The White Rose Home in New York City, that provided social services like industrial training for young girls and women.

By 1916 there were over 300 registered clubs with a membership of about 100,000. The United States entry into World War I provided black women with more opportunities for jobs, chances to express their patriotism, and more prospects for accruing services for their communities. The NACW raised over $5,000,000 in war bonds. At the same time, black women continued to lobby the government to act on lynching and other forms of racial violence, discrimination and segregation, and supported cultural activities related to racial heritage and pride as well.

Mary Burnett Talbert, president of the NACW from 1916-1920, and president of the NAACP in 1922, founded a movement dedicated to put an end to lynching called the Anti-Lynching Crusaders. They focused on fundraising to help pass the Dyer Anti Lynching Bill., raising over $10,000 by 1923. Prominent as a suffragist as well, Talbert spoke at the “Votes for Women: A Symposium by Leading Thinkers of Colored Women,” held in Washington, D.C., in 1915. Talbert conducted pioneering work in historic preservation, helping to save and restore the Frederick Douglass home n Anacostia, D.C.

By 1918 only seventeen of the forty-eight states in the union supported women’s suffrage. Race divided women in the suffrage movement right up until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in June 1919. By the time it was ratified in August of 1920, nine more states legislatures had enacted women’s suffrage, including two southern states: Tennessee and Kentucky.

When black women first became voters, they organized voter education groups, lobbied for candidates, ran for office, and resisted attempts to keep them from the polls. Less than a decade after 1920, black women were disenfranchised in the south, and elsewhere, and lost the political clout they had achieved. Even working class white women were disillusioned with what they perceived as elitist and exclusionary goals and practices of the middle class.

Despite the setbacks, the Nineteenth Amendment realized the right of all women to vote. African Americans would have to agitate another forty-five years for implementation of the rights guaranteed in the United States Constitution.


Ann D. Gordon and Bettye Collier-Thomas, editors, African American Women and the Vote: 1837-1965 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997).

Dorothy Salem, “National Association of Colored Women,” in Darlene Clark Hine, editor, Black Women in America: A Historical Encyclopedia, (Brooklyn, NY; Carlson Publishing Inc., 1993), pp. 842-851.

Gerder Lerner, “Early Community Work of Black Club Women,” The Journal of negro history, Vol. 59, No.2 (April 1974), pp. 158-167.

Jad Adams, Women and the Vote: A World History, Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (June 14, 2016).

John Cimprich, “the Beginning of the Black Suffrage Movement in Tennessee, 1864-65, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 65, No.3 (Summer, 1980), pp. 185-195.

Radhika Sanghani, ‘The Uncomfortable Truth about Racism and the Suffragettes,’:

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, “Suffrage Movement,” in Darlene Clark Hine, editor, Black Women in America: A Historical Encyclopedia, (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, Inc., 1993), 1124-1128.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote: 1850-1920 (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1998).

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