African American women played significant roles throughout every stage of the woman suffrage movement in the United States from the beginning of the movement in the antebellum period to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. In the mid-nineteenth century, African American women had little opportunities to join in woman suffrage organizations due to exclusions from their white counterparts. They instead often focused on anti-slavery organizations that concentrated on educational and relief reforms. For example, Harriet Forten Purvis and Margaretta Forten founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, which later organized to become the Philadelphia Suffrage Association. However, after the Civil War, African American woman suffrage mobilizations expanded on a national level with the development of a Black women’s club movement. While some of these clubs made woman suffrage their primary goal, others had the suffrage cause as one of several departments in their organizations. Nevertheless, this club movement for African American women progressed as a vehicle for change that would promote racial “uplift” and improve African American communities as a whole for its people. Therefore, by the end of the nineteenth century more Black women’s voices began to emerge that not only reflected the growing number of organizations, but also new strategies of suffrage that identified with African American women’s status as women of color.
In 1896, African American women decided to unite the smaller clubs that were formed, most prominently the National Federation of Afro-American Women and the National League of Colored Women, to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The founders of the organization included Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. The NACW became the largest federation of African American women’s clubs in the nation. The NACW also encouraged Black women to work in order to improve the conditions of both their communities and race. Women involved in the NACW contributed to many positive developments for Black communities, such as providing services to the poor and enhancing the standards of living, especially for other African American women. Additionally, the NACW had a “Suffrage Department” in which they distributed information about woman suffrage in order to educate club members about the benefits of supporting the movement. Members of the NACW understood their fight for suffrage in terms of both gender and race. Many African American women wanted suffrage to give women the right to vote as well as African American men who were still disenfranchised. Thus, the NACW adopted the motto “Lifting as We Climb” and advocated for inclusive women’s rights along with the “elevation” of the status of all African American people.
As hundreds of Black women rallied for the vote into the twentieth century, these women continued to be excluded from white women clubs and some dominant suffrage organizations. While there were African American women who refused to accept this exclusion from white organizations and continued to participate in the National American Woman Suffrage Association, their contributions to the movement were frequently dismissed. Also, segregation laws still persisted, thus prohibiting African American women from speaking at several suffrage conventions. African American women were also frequently forbidden from partaking in activities alongside white suffragists, forcing them to be separated during events such as suffrage parades. Despite this lack of support from white suffragists and organizations, African American women and the NACW continued to fight for both civil and women’s rights. When the woman suffrage movement was victorious and the Nineteenth Amendment was officially ratified, African American women would remain disenfranchised in the United States until 1965. Black women played active roles throughout the entirety of the woman suffrage movement, gaining more support by the end of the nineteenth century with the creation of the National Association of Colored Women. African American suffragists understood their unique roles with gender and race and embraced strategies that would uplift both of these features. Even though they faced exclusion and backlash from multiple white suffragists in the movement, African American women continued to struggle for their right to vote and their contributions should not be disregarded.
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