The Black sorority that faced racism during the suffrage movement but refused to walk away


Sydney Trent

Aug. 8, 2020

The air was chilly, the trees still bare, yet the sky was clear and bright. March 3, 1913, was shaping up to be a perfect day for a grand and purposeful parade. Thousands of showily dressed suffragists had amassed in Washington from across the nation — indeed the world — to march along Pennsylvania Avenue on the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

A young woman in striking white robes and a golden crown sat astride a white horse at the vanguard of the procession. Row upon row of suffragists followed, gliding by on floats and golden chariots or on foot bearing banners aloft amid the cacophony of marching bands and the buzzing crowd, wrote Rebecca Boggs Roberts in “Suffragists in Washington, D.C.: The 1913 Parade and the Fight for the Vote.” Professional women in thematic costumes — including writers stained with ink — marched alongside college women arranged by alma mater.

A spectator observing the vast sea of faces that day might have been excused for thinking that all the marchers were White. Yet a combing of the crowds would have revealed African American women, unlisted in the official program, who had for decades battled racism within the movement to take their rightful place in history.

Among them were the 22 young founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. at Howard University debuting as warriors for their race. There was Bertha Pitts Campbell, a vivacious young student who loved to dance but as valedictorian of her Colorado high school knew how to be serious, too. There was her sorority sister, Osceola Adams, a Georgia native with a dramatic flair who drew applause on the university stage. And marching nearby was Vashti Turley Murphy, a stylish graduate of D.C.’s Dunbar High who was pursuing a career as a teacher.

Segregated in the back of the suffrage parade by its White organizers, the Deltas and other African American women were pioneers in paving the way for future Black political activism. More than a century later, African American women’s powerful role as political organizers and committed voters is once again in the spotlight as presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden considers naming a Black woman as his running mate.

Yet their presence at the 1913 parade is still not widely known. “We don’t yet have the story of women’s suffrage in a way that shows Black women’s impact and our significance in the movement,” said Paula J. Giddings, professor emeritus at Smith College who has written about the role of Black women in American society. “The story is the way it is now because Susan B. Anthony wrote it that way. That’s the power of narrative — historians will go back to that story. The next thing we need to think about is how to re-narrate the story.”

‘A tower of strength’

At the turn of the 20th century — more than 50 years after the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls — many White women remained opposed to suffrage, fearing a fall from their domestic pedestals. Meanwhile, Black women, with less to lose and so much to gain, were almost uniformly in favor of the vote.

If “White women needed the vote to acquire advantages and protection of their rights,” noted Adella Hunt Logan, the leading suffragist of the Black Tuskegee Women’s Club, “then Black women needed the vote even more so.”

Black women viewed the vote as a means of protecting themselves against sexual exploitation. They also saw it as a way to boost education for African Americans by exerting influence on school boards and state legislatures. And as the great majority of Black women were employed, they believed enfranchisement could help secure their rights in the workforce.

Although Black men had been technically able to vote since the 15th Amendment’s passage in 1870, they had been effectively disenfranchised, particularly in the South. The passage of the 19th Amendment, Black women reasoned, could re-empower the race, carving away at white supremacy.

When Black women get the vote, “it will find in her a tower of strength of which poets have never sung, orators have never spoken and scholars have never written,” wrote Black feminist and civil rights activist Nannie Helen Burroughs in the August 1915 issue of the Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Meanwhile, NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois praised the moral scrupulousness of Black women, who he believed would never sell their votes as some poor Black laborers had. “You cannot bribe a Negro woman,” Du Bois declared.

And yet racism within predominantly White suffrage organizations, including the National American Woman Suffrage Association, prevented the integration of Black women into the movement. White suffragists were loath to elevate Black concerns or feature Black women in their public events, lest they alienate Southern politicians.

So Black women set about organizing themselves. In 1896, two Black women’s civil rights groups merged to form the National Association of Colored Women under the leadership of prominent Black women’s civil rights activist and suffragist Mary Church Terrell. By the 1900s, Black suffrage clubs had been launched all over the country.

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(An historic photo montage is included in the article.)