10 Black Suffragists You Should Know
On August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote. As Americans mark the 100th anniversary of the historic ratification, many people are only just realizing that the law primarily helped white women, while Black women and other women of color faced discrimination and intimidation when they tried to assert their right to vote.
Despite fighting alongside well-known suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, many accomplished Black suffragists haven’t received the same recognition. Black women were forced to march separately from their white counterparts during rallies, and even after the 19th Amendment was ratified, Jim Crow laws in the South kept Black women and men from voting. It wasn’t until these restrictions were lifted with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Blacks in the South could exercise their right to vote. Here are 10 Black women who helped shape the suffragist movement.
1. Sojourner Truth
A charismatic speaker, Sojourner Truth was a preacher, abolitionist, and the first known Black suffragist. Born in 1797 as Isabella Baumfree in Ulster County, New York, she was enslaved until she ran away in 1827 to an abolitionist family, who paid for her freedom. She then moved to New York City, where she worked for a local minister. She eventually changed her name to Sojourner Truth when she felt the holy spirit call her to preach. She became a leading activist against slavery and for women’s rights, attending conventions across the eastern United States and electrifying audiences with her calls to action. At an Akron, Ohio, women’s convention 1851, she delivered her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Though the true text from that speech is debated by historians, an excerpt from an 1863 version is hard to argue with:
"That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? … If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them."
2. Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s light bulb moment came when, after buying a first-class train ticket, she was forcibly removed from the train when she refused to sit in the car for Black passengers. (She sued the railroad and won.) Born in Mississippi in 1862, Wells-Barnett fought against segregation as an investigative journalist, newspaper publisher, educator, and activist. In 1892, when three of her friends were lynched, Wells-Barnett wrote a groundbreaking exposé of white supremacist murder against innocent Black citizens, and continued to call on officials to hold perpetrators of the system accountable. Her stories resulted in violent backlash, which forced her to move from Memphis to Chicago. It was in the Windy City that she co-founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, an organization focused on public service, and founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, one of Chicago’s most important suffragist organizations, which worked to engage Black voters and field Black candidates in elections. That same year she marched in the segregated Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C.—and again, she refused to move to the back.
3. Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell, a classics scholar at Oberlin College, was one of the first Black women to earn both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. After moving to Washington, D.C., Terrell taught Latin at the M Street School, the country’s first public high school for Black students, and immersed herself in the women’s rights movement. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs with Ida B. Wells-Barnett and other leading activists, where she served as the organization’s first president and coined the group’s motto, “Lifting as we climb.” In 1910, she founded the National Association of University Women, which promotes fellowship among professional women. Terrell toured the country lecturing on women’s voting rights, noting in her speeches and writing the hypocrisy displayed by white suffragists fighting for women’s rights while disregarding those of Black people.
4. Mary B. Talbert
Born, raised, and educated in Oberlin, Ohio, Mary B. Talbert was an educator, activist, and co-founder of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, the Buffalo, New York chapter of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. In 1905, she helped found the Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization that was a precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where she served as vice president. Her years-long campaign on behalf of women’s suffrage led to her serving as president of the National Association of Colored Women between 1916 and 1920, transforming it into a nationwide organization (one of the achievements of her tenure was saving and restoring the Frederick Douglass Home in Washington, D.C.). In addition to writing articles about the suffrage movement for The Crisis, the NAACP's magazine, Talbert was a gifted speaker, becoming an international voice for Black women while touring abroad and lecturing on women’s rights.
5. Nannie Helen Burroughs
Nannie Helen Burroughs was a devoted educator, religious leader, and feminist who believed that Black women and girls should have greater opportunities for job training and careers—and she made it her life’s mission to empower Black women. Burroughs attended the M Street School in Washington, D.C., which is where she met her mentor, Mary Church Terrell. Burroughs helped co-found the National Association of Colored Women, as well as the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention, an organization of more than 1 million women that she led in support of women’s suffrage. In 1909, she convinced the National Baptist Convention to establish the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, which was funded exclusively by Black donors, to educate and train Black women. She served as president of the school until her death in 1961, after which the school was renamed in her honor.
6. Frances E.W. Harper
Frances E.W. Harper, who was born in Baltimore in 1825, is known for her poetry and writings that criticized slavery, racism, and gender inequality. After being introduced to a range of literature while working in a Quaker household as a teenager, she became an abolitionist speaker and worker on the Underground Railroad. She supported her family with her speaking engagements and published poetry and prose collections, including Forest Leaves (1845) and the novel Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892). She was a founding member of the American Woman Suffrage Association and attended conferences and meetings concerning women’s rights, including the Women’s Convention of 1866, where she shared the platform with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It was there that she addressed the racial discrimination that she experienced as a Black woman in predominately white suffragist organizations, saying, “You white women here speak of rights. I speak of wrongs.”
7. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, a journalist and activist focused on engaging Black women in New England in civil rights, joined the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association in 1875 and co-founded the Women’s Era Club in 1893, one of the first public service clubs for Black women that advocated for Black voting rights and other civil rights issues. The Women’s Era Club then joined the Massachusetts State Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1895. When the state federation joined the National Federation of Women’s Clubs soon after, a controversy erupted: Ruffin demanded to be recognized at the national federation’s annual convention as the delegate of a Black women’s club. The national group’s president hadn’t realize she had admitted a Black club to the all-white national federation. (Ruffin was not recognized, but her point had been made.) Ruffin also established the club’s newspaper The Women’s Era, the first national newspaper for Black women, which she edited and published from 1894 to 1897. Black women from all over the country contributed their writing, which amplified their voices and achievements in the movement for civil rights.
8. Harriet Forten Purvis
Harriet Forten Purvis, born in Philadelphia in 1810, was the daughter of James Forten, the city’s most successful Black businessman and abolitionist. She helped found the biracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society [PDF] with her mother and sisters, plus suffragist Lucretia Mott and other leading abolitionists in 1833, which raised money to lobby lawmakers and provide housing, protection, and transportation to formerly enslaved people. She and her husband, Robert Purvis, worked as prominent station masters on the Underground Railroad. Purvis also gave speeches against discrimination in public spaces and initiated boycotts of products created by slave labor. A strong supporter of the suffrage movement, Purvis served as a member of the executive committee of the American Equal Rights Association, along with Mott, Stanton, Anthony, and Frederick Douglass. After the group split in 1869 over whether to support the Fifteenth Amendment, Purvis became a key member of Stanton and Anthony’s National Woman Suffrage Association. Along with her sisters, Purvis played a key role in organizing the fifth annual National Women’s Rights Convention in 1853.
9. Mary Ann Shadd Cary
Mary Ann Shadd Cary, born in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1823, wore many hats. A noted journalist, lawyer, teacher, abolitionist, and suffragist, she immigrated to Canada after Congress passed the Fugitive Act in 1850. (Though she was not enslaved, the Shadd family had helped enslaved people on the Underground Railroad.) Noting the wider range of economic opportunities for Black people in Canada, Shadd Cary founded the Provincial Freeman, an anti-slavery publication, making her the first Black woman in North America to publish a newspaper. In 1869, she moved to Washington, D.C. and attended Howard University Law school while supporting herself as a teacher. An ardent supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, she spoke at the 1878 convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association and was one of the 600 people who signed a petition arguing for women’s right to vote, which was presented to the House Judiciary Committee. She also organized the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association in 1880.
10. Daisy Elizabeth Adams Lampkin
Daisy Elizabeth Adams Lampkin, who was born in 1883, organized consumer protests in Pittsburgh before being elected president of the Lucy Stone Woman Suffrage League, a group that fought for Black women’s voting rights, in 1915. As a leading clubwoman, Lampkin served as national organizer and chair of the executive board for the National Association for Colored Women, where she collaborated with Mary Church Terrell and other Black suffragists. She was also a member of the National Suffrage League. Following the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Lampkin continued to organize Black voters in the Negro Voters League of Pennsylvania. She is credited with harnessing the power of Black voters and activists under the umbrella of the NAACP in the 1930s and 1940s, which provided an organizational foundation for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.