This year’s theme is African Americans and the Vote
Since Black History Month (originally created as Negro History Week by founder Carter G. Woodson) was established, there have been a series of themes to focus attention and learning, to bring attention not only to history, but how that history has shaped our world today. As a dear friend once said to me, “Black History is American History.” In fact, it wasn’t until 1976 that the entire month of February was dedicated to Black History.
As this year marks the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution and also the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, it is particularly important in this election year to focus on the vote and on those sacrifices our predecessors endured to guarantee that right.
The 15th amendment (1870) to the Constitution of the United States guaranteed that the right to vote could not be denied based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The amendment complemented and followed in the wake of the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments, which abolished slavery and guaranteed citizenship, respectively, to African Americans.
The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted American women the right to vote, a right known as women’s suffrage, and was ratified Aug. 18, 1920, ending almost a century of protest.
It is important to note that the years in between the ratification of the 15th amendment and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s were marked by discrimination in the form of poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation and violence to deny African American men and women a voice in their government. There are many men and women who fought that fight and deserve more than a footnote in history books, not the least of which are the Black Suffragists who fought side by side with the white women of the time and sometimes persevered in spite of them.
Following is a bit about a few of those women:
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella, the youngest of 12 children in Ulster County, N.Y. in 1797. She was sold when she was nine years old, the first of several times. She walked her way to freedom in 1826 from the Dumont farm where she was a slave for 17 years.
She was living in New York City in the late 1820s when she became involved with the Methodist Perfectionists, a group who believed strongly in the power of the Holy Spirit. In 1843, she was “called in spirit” on the day of Pentecost. She said the spirit instructed her to leave New York, a “second Sodom,” and travel east to lecture under the name Sojourner Truth. This new name signified her role as an itinerant preacher, her preoccupation with truth and justice and her mission to teach people “to embrace Jesus, and refrain from sin.”
During the Civil War, Sojourner Truth took up the issue of women’s suffrage. She was befriended by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but disagreed with them on many issues, most notably Stanton’s threat that she would not support the black vote if women were denied it. Although she remained supportive of women’s suffrage throughout her life, Truth distanced herself from the increasingly racist language of the women’s groups.
Truth is most famous for her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. An excerpt reads, “Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him. If the first woman God ever made (Eve) was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, together women ought to be able to turn it right-side up again. And now they are asking to do it. And the men better let ‘em.”
Ida B Wells
Ida B. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Miss. July 16, 1862. Wells was the oldest daughter of James and Lizzie Wells. The Wells family, as well as the rest of the slaves of the Confederate states, were decreed free by the Union thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation about six months after Ida’s birth. Her parents died of yellow fever when she was 16, so she and her sisters went to live with an aunt in Memphis, Tenn.
She continued her education at Fisk University, became a journalist and a teacher and was well-known for her writings on lynching following the lynching of three African American businessmen in 1892. Staying in the North, Wells wrote an in-depth report on lynching in America for the New York Age, an African American newspaper run by former slave T. Thomas Fortune. She eventually took her anti-lynching campaign all the way to the White House during the McKinley administration.
Wells also created the first African American kindergarten in her community and fought for women’s suffrage. In 1930, she made an unsuccessful bid for the Illinois state senate. One of the most famous quotes attributed to Wells is, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell was born Sept. 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tenn. The daughter of small-business owners who were former slaves, she attended Oberlin College. Terrell was a suffragist and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women.
After marrying Robert Terrell, she lived in Washington, D.C., where she focused much of her attention on securing the right to vote. But within the movement she found reluctance to include African-American women, if not outright exclusion of them from the cause. Terrell worked to change that. She spoke out frequently about the issue and with some fellow activists founded the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. She was immediately named the organization’s first president, a position she used to advance social and educational reforms.
One of the famous quotes of Mary Church Terrell is, “And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition were long. With courage, born of a success achieved in the past, with a keen sense of the responsibility which we shall continue to assume, we look forward to a future large with promise and hope. Seeking no favors because of our color, nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice, asking an equal chance.”
This is only a small representation of the courageous women who championed the cause for justice, equality and the right to vote.
Editor’s Note-Biographical information was taken from Wikipedia and Biography.com.