Redefining suffrage, ‘unerasing’ Black women




Sojourner Truth. Harriet Tubman. Ida B. Wells. Shirley Chisholm. Rosa Parks.

These household names, spanning a couple of centuries, qualify for the Suffrage Hall of Fame.

Almost a buzzword synonymous with the  Year of the Woman,  in 2020  the centerpiece of suffrage will be marked by the 100th   anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women’s voting rights. Suffrage will be celebrated as America’s march to full democracy.

Can we unpack the significance of suffrage and inclusive democracy  for Black women? Words matter. But the impact and impetus of their meaning matter more.

What it means

Here’s a composite definition from online dictionaries:
“Suffrage is the right to vote in public elections. Universal  suffrage means  everyone gets to vote, as opposed to only men or property holders… For example, after trying for about a hundred years,  American women  were granted suffrage and voted for the first time in 1920.”

The 19th  Amendment was adopted Aug. 18, 1920, after the required number of states ratified the constitutional measure. Though many Black women led suffrage campaigns, the 19th  Amendment put White  women on an empowerment tract to electoral engagement.

Interestingly, the suffrage movement, festooned in the symbolic color white, is often portrayed through a narrow window uncomplicated by the strictures of race and power that framed the amendment then and now.

Lynchings and riots

Look no further than the historical landscape of that moment. Congressional approval
of the Act in 1919 was the same year as  the infamous  Red Summer, a tumultuous White supremacist  reign of  terror and lynching in Black communities across the country.  One year after the 19th Amendment was adopted in 1921, racist mobs set ablaze Tulsa, Okla., decimating what was revered as “Black Wall Street.”

The  Year of the Woman  battle cry is perversely at odds with Black women’s unbroken quest for liberation. Although lauded today as the most reliable and consistent voting bloc for democratic change, we’ve historically endured being marginalized, dismissed and erased.

Black women’s demand to be equal and heard extends beyond the century run-up to the 19th Amendment. It was intersectional and linked with abolition of slavery, anti-lynching battles, literacy drives, sharecropper land rights campaigns and the establishment of a radical Black press that was led by many Black women suffragists.

Our suffrage quest continued through the  civil  rights  era and passage of the  Voting Rights Act of 1965 which finally, for the first time, delivered the franchise to Black people in the South.

Rewind centuries earlier

Our demand to self-govern predates the formation of this republic, beginning in 1619 when the first Africans, snatched from their ancestral home, landed on these shores.

Those nameless suffrage pioneers joined with their men to resist and carry the torch for all people – Native Americans, Chinese immigrants and even Irish indentured servants – denied fundamental liberty. Then and now, we wage claims to own our bodies, voices and choices.

We build on that truth by redefining suffrage beyond the limited
act of casting a ballot. For Black women, the narrative is rooted in telling  herstory, unerasing the achievements of yesterday and the possibilities for the future.

This centennial year is an appropriate time to redefine universal suffrage through the prism of triumphs and tragedies.  “Trust Black women” must be more than a cliché.

Real talk

Unerased Black Women promises to create brave spaces and in alliance with Black newspapers across the country, unfurl a frank public conversation about  Suffrage, Race, and Power.

Through a digital destination, we’ll turn our ear to a beating heart of resilience, resistance, words and deed. Daughter of slaves, descendants of warriors, writers, journalists, teachers, mentors, activists – universal suffragists all – have something to say.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Anna Julia Cooper. Mary Ann Shadd. Harriet Jacobs. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. Mary McLeod Bethune. Fannie Lou Hamer. Ella Baker. Gertrude Bustill-Mossell. Charlotta Bass. Marvel Jackson Cooke.

Most of these women can’t claim household name status in the traditional suffrage roll call. But their noble stories will be unerased. Stay tuned as suffrage, redefined, meets our truth.


Gwen McKinney is campaign director of an initiative, “Suffrage. Race. Power: Unerased Black Women,” that will launch in March.




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