Despite the tremendous risk, African American women marched for suffrage, too

March 3, 2013

Women suffragists at the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C. (photo via dclibrary.org)

One hundred years ago this month, 5,000 women marched on Washington.

The Women’s Suffrage Parade, organized by activist Alice Paul in support of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote, took place one day before Woodrow Wilson became the 28th president of the United States.

On March 3, 1913, protesters were pushed, shoved, tripped, spat upon and injured and the police “didn’t hold the mobs back.”

Mary Walton described what these women faced:

“The violence erupted minutes after the parade began. The crowd broke through steel cables and spilled into the street. Men, many of them drunk, spit at the marchers and grabbed their clothing, hurled insults and lighted cigarettes, snatched banners and tried to climb floats. Police did little to keep order. Observed one of Paul’s supporters, ‘I did not know men could be such fiends.’ ”

By the end of the day, 100 marchers were taken to the local emergency hospital and “Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, responding to a request from the chief of police, authorized the use of a troop of cavalry from nearby Fort Myer to help control the crowd.”

The protesters had to have known the risk before they left the safety of their homes for Washington. But women, black and white, traveled across the country anyway to make their voices heard.

Marching against the status quo was not easy for white women, but it was even more difficult for African American women because of the racist sentiment of the day, as well as white suffragists who did not favor suffrage for black women.

According to Catherine H. Palczewski, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Northern Iowa, after the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a “racist component” of the suffrage campaign ensued. Suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony did not support black male suffrage unless women also had the right to vote.

As pointed out by Mary Walton, “Everyone was welcome to participate, including men, with one exception. In a city that was Southern in both location and outlook, where the Christmas Eve rape of a government clerk by a black man had fanned racist sentiments, [Alice] Paul, a white woman, was convinced that other white women would not march with black women. In response to several inquiries, she had quietly discouraged blacks from participating. She confided her fears to a sympathetic editor: ‘As far as I can see, we must have a white procession, or a Negro procession, or no procession at all.’ ”

Sorority founders, 1913
Founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (photo via deltasigmatheta.org)

So, despite the fact that the right to vote was no less important to black women than it was to black men and white women, African American women were told to march at the back of the parade with a black procession.

Despite all of this, the 22 founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority marched. It was the only African American women’s organization to participate.

The group was founded on Jan. 13, 1913, at Howard University, and its contribution to the Washington’s Women’s Suffrage Parade was the founders’ first public act.

Mary Church Terrell was an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority who marched with the women under their banner. The daughter of former slaves, Terrell was one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women.

While fighting against lynching and Jim Crow laws, Terrell advocated women’s suffrage. She spoke with authority because she represented “the only group in this country that has two such huge obstacles to surmount …both sex and race.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, another member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, marched. A journalist, outspoken suffragist and  anti-lynching crusader, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, the first African American women’s suffrage organization. Her members joined her in marching for women’s suffrage at the 1913 parade in Washington.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett marching with other women suffragists in the Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 (photo via womenssuffrageandblackwomen.wikispaces.com)

When the Illinois procession instructed Wells-Barnett of the edict that she march with an all-black delegation, she “refused to take part unless ‘I can march under the Illinois banner.’ ”

And so she did, walking between two white supporters in the Illinois delegation.

One hundred years ago, dressed in white astride a white horse befitting an archangel, Inez Milholland Boissevan led the march for women’s suffrage.

One hundred years later, on March 3, 2013, it was the highly accomplished women of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in all their red-and-white glory that led the Suffrage Centennial Celebration. In so doing, they showed the world what it means to be an American woman and all that African American women have contributed to making the nation what it is today.

124th Rose Parade Presented By Honda
Members of Delta Sigma Theta at a 2013 Centennial Celebration of the founding of the sorority (Getty Images).

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as the 28th president of the United States and Ellen Louise Axon was the first lady. In 1913, women were not guaranteed the right to vote (that wouldn’t come until 1920). There were no women serving in Congress. There were no female Cabinet secretaries.

Now, President Obama, our nation’s first African American commander in chief, has been inaugurated for a second term. Our first lady is African American. Female mayors, Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress and governors — black, white, Latina, Asian, and of all religions — are common. Women, including Rosa Parks, are celebrated with statues in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. And it is the coveted women’s vote that determines the outcome of many of our national elections.

All of this change occurred because of many brave women, black and white, who marched on Washington 100 years ago.

The word Delta means change. And change is good.

Michelle D. Bernard is the president and chief executive of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy.  Follow her on Twitter @michellebernard.

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