(Note: This is the seventh essay in a series on “Notable Women.” It was originally published as “Fighting to vote after the 19th Amendment” in the Newport Daily News on August 31, 2021.)
In 1870 the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted. It reads: “The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
One year ago we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment. It states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
These amendments would seem categorically to give citizens of all races and all men and women—without reservation or qualification—the right to vote, the most fundamental right in a democracy.
However, just as the 15th Amendment did not definitively enable African American men to vote, the 19th Amendment could not stand up against the racism and discrimination in many states, in effect, disallowing African American women from voting.
Laws serve a vital role in a society; however, laws alone cannot ensure rights. Law has its limitations, especially when the majority is determined to deny the rights of a minority, when the powerful refuse to share power.
In her book, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, Martha S. Jones offers us an ambitious history of the political and civil struggles of Black Women in America from the 1820s to the present.
She clarifies that the 19th Amendment was passed in the middle of the “Jim Crow” era, the period 1877-1960s, when many states—mostly in the South—passed segregation laws and codes, used terror and violence against Blacks, and suppressed their rights.
States could not expressly deny the vote to Blacks; rather they imposed restrictions and requirements which disproportionately affected Blacks, both men and women. For example, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Washington imposed grandfather clauses which disallowed descendants of slaves, though now free, from voting.
Second, states used literacy tests in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. Since many Blacks had been barred from schooling, this requirement disproportionately affected them.
In addition, local election officials could give harder tests to people of color. So-called understanding clauses required potential voters to read and explain a segment of the state or federal constitution.
Third, state officials required the payment of a poll tax—a tax to vote—sometimes requiring voters to pay it months prior to the election. This was required in sixteen states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Poorer African Americans were faced with spending this money in the hope of voting. Also, in order to vote they may have had to pay years of unpaid poll taxes.
Facing these tactics and suppression, many Black women in numerous towns and cities took action to educate each other, to register and to vote, for example, running suffrage schools in St. Louis; canvassing and helping register in Akron, Ohio; coaching and teaching each other in Chattanooga, Tennessee; being encouraged to vote by their minister in Baltimore; and uniting at the polls to overcome white supremacy in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Jones highlights important individual Black women who helped to champion voting rights. Along with suffrage, they became advocates for change in the areas of temperance, education, prison reform, and the labor rights of working people.
Hallie Quinn Brown was one such leader. She and other Black women leaders came to push for suffrage through different paths: antislavery societies, churches, and women’s clubs. Brown made a major contribution after she was elected the president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1920.
Of Brown, Jones states that “she was part of a ‘great vanguard’ prepared to fight back and further empower a ‘great nation of women.’”
Looking to the future beyond the 19th Amendment, Brown vowed to lead the NACW forward to use Black women’s voting power to gain influence in the Republican Party and in Washington, DC.
Brown asserted: “Let us remember that we are making our own history. That we are character building; building for all eternity. Woman’s horizons have widened. Her sphere of usefulness is greatly enlarged. Her capabilities acknowledged….”
She continued: “We stand at the open door of a new era. For the first time in the history of this country, women have exercised the right of franchise. The right for which the pioneers of our race fought, but died without the sight.”
Martha Jones summarizes what the 19th Amendment meant to Black women. “For Black women, ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment was not a guarantee of the vote, but it was a clarifying moment. Like the 15th Amendment before it, so much about voting rights depended upon state law and the discretion of local officials that the 19th Amendment was little more than a broad umbrella under which a wide range of women’s experiences unfolded.”