12 African American Suffragists Who Shouldn’t be Overlooked

African American women suffragists

Presented here are twelve African American suffragists whose contributions shouldn’t be overlooked, a mere fraction of those who fought for women’s right to vote.

The women’s suffrage movement in the United States led to the establishment of the legal right for women to vote nationally when the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920. 

As the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Black women were often marginalized. They dealt with the political concerns of white suffragists who were aware that they needed the support of  Southern legislators both on the state and federal levels.

In 1890, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

NAWSA’s members excluded Black women, believing that would gain them greater support. The view of women’s suffrage was thus narrowed, focusing primarily on white women.

Yet despite the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) racism they experienced from white suffragists, Black suffragists made important contributions to the fight for women’s voting rights.

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African-American Suffragists

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Racism was as much an issue in the right to secure the vote for Black women as was sexism. Susan Goodier and Karen Pasternello, the authors of Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State, observed: 

“They [Black women] did not rely on white women to tell them they needed the right to vote; they began organizing for the franchise in New York State as early as the 1880s and, in spite of the racism they faced, they would actively seek their enfranchisement throughout the entire struggle.

African American women rarely separated the quest for the vote from the other activism in which they engaged.

Many Black women came to fear that white women would ‘devise something akin to an exclusionary ‘grandmother’s clause’ to keep Black women from voting once they won the vote. Some scholars argue that, in fact, ‘racist attitudes provided additional impetus” for Black women’s struggle.

Much of their activism and work for woman suffrage and women’s rights occurred as a fundamental component of their activities in clubs such as the Negro Women’s Business League or in the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs or its affiliates …”

Though there were many obstacles in the way, African American women fought tirelessly on all fronts secure the vote. Thanks to the devoted and determined women who participated in the women’s suffrage movement and helped it progress, women gained the right to make their voices heard through voting, at least on paper.

The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, unfortunately, didn’t end the fight for voting rights for all women, as we well know. 

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Nannie Helen Burroughs (1871-1961)

Nannie Helen Burroughs was born in north-central Virginia and later attended school in Washington, D.C., where she graduated with honors. Due to racial bias, she was unable to find a job, neither in the D.C. schools, nor the federal government.

She relocated to Philadelphia and worked as a secretary for the Christian Banner, the National Baptist Convention’s paper. This experience motivated her to advocate for civil rights for Black Americans and women. One result was her founding the National Training School for Women and Girls.

Burroughs believed women should be given a fair opportunity to get an education and job training. She also discussed the need for Black and white women to unite in the fight voting rights; she strongly believed that suffrage for African American women was necessary to protect their interests.

She believed a Black woman’s vote was an essential antidote to racial and gender discrimination.

She left behind an impressive legacy, which included assisting Black women of the suffragist movement when they went through hard times. She’s also one of the most quoted suffragists of her time. One of her most memorable quotes was “Having standards isn’t really for anyone else. You should want to have them for yourself.”

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Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823 – 1893)

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born into a family that lived to help others. As she grew up, her family was actively helping those seeking to escape slavery by participating in the Underground Railroad. This became ever more urgent after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed by Congress in 1850.

Her drive toward social justice followed her into adulthood, as she became involved in the women’s suffrage movement among many other causes.

While in Washington D.C, Shadd Cary became a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association and spoke at their convention in 1878. She worked alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to testify before the House Judiciary Committee and founded the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise in 1880 to push for equal rights for women.

Cary strongly advocated for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments at a House Judiciary Committee hearing. The Fourteenth Amendment defined citizenship and the Fifteenth Amendment gave African American men the right to vote.

Though Shadd Cary supported the Fifteenth Amendment, she was vocal in her criticism of this amendment that left women out. Her hard work and dedication paid off when she testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on Women and the Vote, after which she registered to vote in Washington, D.C.

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Coralie Franklin Cook (1861 – 1942)

Coralie Franklin Cook was an outspoken leader in the Black community, best known in West Virginia and Washington, D.C. She was a very powerful public speaker, a professor, appointed Board of D.C, a leader in the Black women’s club movement.

She focused primarily on issues of women’s suffrage and education. She was an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and took part in participating in the association’s inner circles.

The NAWSA hierarchy acknowledged her hard work, though rather patronizingly praised her as an educated, professional, middle-class woman who she matched the intelligence of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Cook was disheartened by the reality that African American women weren’t a priority for white women active in the suffrage movement and insisted that they do not ignore the political rights of the less fortunate.

She even addressed Susan B. Anthony, saying “… and so Miss Anthony, on behalf of the hundreds of colored women who wait and hope with you for the day when the ballot shall be in the hands of every intelligent woman; and also in behalf of the thousands who sit in darkness and whose condition we shall expect those ballots to better, whether they be in the hands of white women or Black, I offer you my warmest gratitude and congratulations.”

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Anna Julia Cooper (1858 – 1964)

Anna Julia Cooper (1858 – 1964) was born to a house slave named Hannah Stanley Haywood in Raleigh, North Carolina. In the course of her long life, she lived through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the early Civil Rights movement. She also lived to see the fruits of the women’s suffrage movement.

Not only was Cooper an author and educator, but she was also a social commentator. She participated in numerous conferences, including Woman Suffrage Congress in 1893, where she delivered formidable speeches focusing on racial and gender equality and education. She was among one of the most dedicated of African American women suffragists.

Cooper encouraged women of color to push back against the belief that a Black man’s experiences and needs were the same as theirs. They needed a voice — and a vote — of their own.

She became known for her statement, “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence or special patronage; then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”

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Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837 – 1914)

Charlotte Forten Grimké  was an abolitionist and diarist who grew up in a prominent and abolitionist family of color in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Grimké was an influential activist and civil rights leader. In 1892 she formed the Colored Women’s League in Washington, D.C. as a service-oriented club working to promote unity, social progress, and other interests of the Black community. She contributed much to the formation of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896.

Even as she grew older, she continued to speak publicly on abolitionist issues and also arranged lectures for other prominent speakers. Grimké continued to stay an active force advocating for the rights of Black Americans until the time of her death.

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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 – 1911)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper combined her talents as a writer, poet, and public speaker with a deep commitment to abolition and social reform. She was an avid supporter of progressive causes both before and after the American Civil War, including prohibition and women’s suffrage.

Her life changed after a trip to the South when she witnessed the mistreatment of Black women during Reconstruction. She gave lectures on the need for racial equality along with women’s rights.

Years later, Harper founded the YMCA Sunday Schools and become the leader in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She also joined the American Equal Rights Association and the American Woman’s Suffrage Association to help fight for racial and women’s equality.

In 1866, Harper gave a speech demanding equal rights for everyone, including Black women, before the National Woman’s Rights Convention. She stated:

“We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the Negro … You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me …”

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Adella Hunt Logan (1863 – 1915)

Adella Hunt Logan was a writer, educator, administrator, and suffragist. She was active in advocating for education and voting rights for women of color. 

The National American Woman Suffrage Association held a convention in Atlanta in 1895. At the time, the organization was having a difficult time gaining support for a constitutional amendment on women’s suffrage, so they turned to southern states for help.

NAWSA appealed to white southerners because it observed segregation and had previously barred African American men and women from their conventions.

Around this time, Mississippi and other southern states had passed a constitution to disenfranchise Black citizens through 1908. Although the atmosphere was extremely unwelcoming to Black Americans, Logan attended the convention. She was inspired by a speech by Susan B. Anthony and became a member shortly after.

She began writing for NAWSA’s newspaper, The Woman’s Journal, and contributed to other magazines (including NAACP’s The Crisis) to promote women’s suffrage.

Logan also campaigned for women’s voting rights in western states that had statewide suffrage, and argued that Black Americans should have the right to vote in order to have a say in education legislation. 

Though her life ended sadly in depression and suicide, Logan’s contributions to the cause of suffrage were significant.

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Gertrude Bustill Mossell (1855 – 1948)

Gertrude Bustill Mossell was a journalist, author, teacher, activist, and suffragist. She was able to utilize her skills as a writer to give a voice to the ideas of Black women who advocated for women’s suffrage.

Although Mossell came from a comfortable family, she chose to give a voice to African American women suffragists who were often ignored.

She began supporting the women’s suffrage movement when she began writing a woman’s column for T. Thomas Fortune’s Black newspaper, The New York Freeman. Her first article for the column was “Woman Suffrage,” which encouraged Black women to educate themselves about the movement and get involved to work for its success.

She also encouraged women to become journalists to write articles for numerous publications and share their views on current events. Mossell personally favored the Constitutional amendment route favored by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton over the state-by-state method favored by Lucy Stone.

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Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842 – 1924)

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was a journalist, publisher, civil rights leader, editor of the Woman’s Era, and suffragist. She was best known for creating the club movement that encouraged Black women to fight for civil rights and suffrage.

Ruffin joined Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone to create the American Woman Suffrage Association in Boston. She became the first Black member of the New England Women’s Club, a group created by Howe, Stone, and other AWSA members, when she joined in the mid 1890s.

After Massachusetts granted women the right to vote in School Committee elections, she became the founder of the Massachusetts School Suffrage Association. Here, she advocated for women’s suffrage and candidacy for office. Years later, she became the President of the West End League of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association.

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Mary B. Talbert (1866 – 1923)

Mary B. Talbert (also known as Mary Burnett Talbert) was an American orator, reformer, activist, and suffragist and one of the most distinguished African Americans of her time.

In 1905, W.E.B Dubois, John Hope, and thirty others secretly met in Talbert’s home to discuss the civil rights resolution that eventually led to the founding of the Niagara Movement. Dubois stated: “We want full manhood suffrage and we want it now …”

Though Talbert was unable to become a member of the Niagara Movement, it served its purpose as the forerunner of the NAACP. The latter allowed her to become a vice president and a board member of the organization from 1919 until her death.

Talbert used the media of the day to educate the public about suffrage and persuade African American women to fight for their right to vote.

In a 1915 article in The Crisis Talbert wrote, “It should not be necessary to struggle forever against popular prejudice, and with us as colored women, this struggle becomes two-fold, first because we are women and second because we are colored women.”

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Mary Church Terrell (1863 – 1954)

Mary Church Terrell, the well-known activist for civil rights, was one of the first African American woman to earn a college degree. Her interest in suffrage began when she was an Oberlin College student, and she continued her involvement in many aspects of activism into her later years. 

As a member of NAWSA, Terrell created a group of Black women to combat racial issues such as lynching, educational reform, and more. 

Terrell gave a speech called “The Progress of Colored Women” at a NAWSA session in Washington, D.C. as a call for the association to fight for Black women’s lives.

The speech received a great response from the association which led Terrell to serve as their unofficial African American ambassador. She went on to give other addresses aimed at uniting Black people in various causes.

Terrell led the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority women of Howard University in a suffrage rally, and became the first Black woman to hold a position in the District of Columbia Board of Education. 

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Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862 – 1931)

Ida B. Wells (also known as Ida B. Wells-Barnett) was an intrepid journalist, activist, and suffragist. She started her advocacy for women’s suffrage while also working for other forms of social and racial justice.

In 1913 Wells created the Alpha Suffrage Club, a women-focused political group. The club’s work laid bare that truth that many Black women didn’t have sufficient education to take part in politics and the electoral process. This inspired her to reach out to other clubs that catered to Black women to help remedy this situation.

This same year, she also traveled to the first suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. organized by NAWSA. At the parade, she and sixty Black women were told to march in the back. To this, Wells responded “Either I go with you or not at all. I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition. I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race.”

Wells’ great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, described her:

“… as an African American woman who battled both racism and sexism at a time when it was extremely dangerous to speak out… She used her gift of writing, speaking and organizing to help shed light on injustice. She was extremely brave and held steadfast to her convictions despite being criticized, ostracized and marginalized by her contemporaries.”


More African American Suffragists worth a mention

  • Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883)
  • Charlotte Vandine Forten (1785 –1884)
  • Harriet Forten Purvis (1810 – 1875)
  • Margaretta Forten (1806 – 1875)
  • Sarah Remond (1826 – 1887)
  • Hallie Quinn Brown (1845 – 1949)
  • Charlotta (Lottie) Rollin (1849 – ?)
  • Fannie Barrier Williams (1855 – 1944)
  • Janie Porter Barrett (1865 – 1948)
  • Naomi Talbert (Anderson; 1863 – ?)
  • Margaret Murray Washington (1865 – 1925)
  • Lucy Laney (1854 – 1933)
  • Lugenia Burns Hope (1871 – 1947)
  • Josephine Bruce (1853 – 1923)
  • Verina Morton Jones (1865 – 1943)

More about African American women suffragists

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Skyler Isabella Gomez is a 2019 SUNY New Paltz graduate with a degree in Public Relations and a minor in Black Studies. Her passions include connecting more with her Latin roots by researching and writing about legendary Latina authors.

2 Responses to “12 African American Suffragists Who Shouldn’t be Overlooked”

  1. Thank you for this article. This is very helpful to those of us interested in the history of the suffrage movement, who want to understand more about the role Black women had in that movement. I appreciate you naming specific individuals.

    • Thank you for your comment, Katy. When we talk about the suffrage movement in general, so much credit is given to a handful of white women, but it was truly a groundswell of so many diverse women who gave so much of their time and effort and passion!

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