Battle for the Ballot

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

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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.

Image: Women on horseback lead a procession on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington calling for women's suffrage in March 1913. Black suffragists were relegated to the back of the procession.

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.

Image: Bertha Pitts Campbell, right, with Osceola Macarthy Adams, was a co-founder of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority at Howard University. The sorority members were told to stay in a segregated section when they joined the march for suffrage in 1913.

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.

Image: Civil rights activist and suffragist Mary Church Terrell marched alongside the sorority members in the 1913 procession.

In 1913, Ida B. Wells-Barnett founded the nonpartisan Alpha Suffrage Club in Illinois, which that year granted women limited voting rights. Wells-Barnett viewed enfranchisement and Black political representation as essential in passing a federal bill against lynching, which had surged since Black men won the vote. Wells-Barnett and other Black suffragists were encouraged in their activism by their White peers in Illinois — but that support had its limits.

As organizing for the March 3 parade got underway, led by 28-year-old Alice Paul, Wells-Barnett was forbidden to march with the all-White Chicago delegation out of fear that her presence would offend Southern women. The fiery crusader, her 60-member strong suffrage club and the other African American activists were consigned to bring up the rear.

Some cheers, many jeers

The 1910s were a heady time at Howard for Campbell and her classmates. Alain Locke, the first Black Rhodes Scholar and chronicler of the Harlem Renaissance, taught young Campbell philosophy. And the famous mathematician and sociologist Kelly Miller underscored her mother’s maxim of an “education being a gateway to everything,” Campbell told her biographer Pauline S. Hill in “Too Young To Be Old: The Story of Bertha Pitts Campbell.”

In 1912, Campbell, Adams and Murphy joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in search of like-minded sisters. But by the end of the year, they and 19 other members had left the AKAs to form their own sorority in pursuit of a high-minded calling: the betterment of their race.

“We wanted to change some ideas,” Campbell later recalled to Giddings, author of “In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement.” “We were more oriented to service than to socialize.”

On Jan. 13, 1913, the first chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. opened for business. It didn’t take long before its members found an opportunity to prove their mettle.

What better way, the ambitious sisters reasoned, to publicize their purpose than to take part in the national suffrage parade?

Image: Women at Howard University formed the Delta Sigma Theta sorority in 1913 to focus on civic initiatives for African Americans.

They were urged on, according to some reports, by Mary Church Terrell, whose National Association of Colored Women was headquartered in D.C. In truth, the Deltas were also, like most of their peers, “frisky and boy-conscious” according to a history of the Deltas’ first 50 years by Mary Elizabeth Vroman, and the prospect of leaving campus was clearly an added draw.

Somehow, the sorority secured the permission of Howard’s president, perhaps with Terrell as their champion, as long as the women agreed to be escorted by a male chaperone.

There were rumors that the parade would be met by catcalls and perhaps violence, an even more fearful prospect for the young Black women.

Ballot box
(Library of Congress)
Abolitionists and suffragists were intertwined
The women’s rights movement sprang from the abolitionist movement before the Civil War, but the relationship was often uneasy. Some felt women should be able to vote before Black men, or vice versa. Others insisted everyone get the vote simultaneously. And some wanted to bar African Americans from the women’s movement, fearing their involvement would turn Southern legislators against the cause.

On the gleaming morning of March 3, 1913, Campbell, a senior, donned her cap and gown and joined the other Delta founders at the rear of the parade.

“Some cheered, however, many jeered and tried to disrupt the marchers by throwing things, spitting on, beating and slapping the women, and trying to pull the women off the floats,” Campbell recalled in the biography. And yet the Deltas’ arrival to the final rally at Memorial Continental Hall, Terrell by their side, resounded just as they had intended.

The Deltas and other African American marchers who overcame resistance and indignities “are to be congratulated that so many of them had the courage of their convictions,” Du Bois wrote in the April 1913 issue of the Crisis.

Some reported that the Deltas broke from their segregated section to mix with the rest of the parade. Barnett-Wells was also seen slipping into line between the White women of the Chicago delegation, thus living up to her motto: “One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”

It would take seven more years before the passage of the 19th Amendment, but the course for Black female engagement in politics was set. In 1914, the first Black alderman, Oscar De Priest, was elected in Chicago with the backing of the Alpha Suffrage Club, a harbinger of Black political muscle in the city that has endured to the present. But the battle by African Americans to exercise their voting rights in the face of racism continues to this day, with Black women still at the fore.

The Deltas’ participation in the 1913 parade has become a touchstone for the sorority, which now claims 300,000 members, including seven in the halls of Congress. The Deltas run voter registration drives, battle for access to the voting booth, serve as poll workers and train women to run for office, National President Beverly E. Smith said. The organization is gathering its records so they can be included, finally, in the archives of the Library of Congress.

“This is the perfect moment to do it. … It’s important for us to make sure the story is told right and that Delta is recognized,” Smith said.

As for Campbell and her sorority sisters, Adams adopted the stage name of Osceola Archer and later went on to teach dramatic arts at Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. Vashti Turley Murphy founded the Baltimore alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, sat on the board of directors of the city’s YWCA and married Carl J. Murphy, publisher of the Afro-American newspapers.

Image: Winona Cargile Alexander, Bertha Pitts Campbell, Zephyr Chisom Carter and Osceola Macarthy Adams are among the co-founders of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. The sorority's participation in the 1913 march heralded future political activism by Black women.

And Campbell herself? She moved to Seattle soon after graduating and became a grass-roots organizer. She co-founded the Christian Friends for Racial Equality, an organization that for decades worked to expand housing and other opportunities for African Americans, and was the first Black member of the board of directors of the YWCA of Seattle-King County.

On a sunny and bright and hot August day in 1981, Campbell led 10,000 Deltas, wearing white and waving banners, on Pennsylvania Avenue to commemorate the early highlight of her life. At 92, she insisted on marching with her sisters.

About this story

Illustrations by Bárbara Malagoli for The Washington Post. Editing by Lynda Robinson. Art direction by Amanda Soto. Design and development by Madison Walls. Design editing by Suzette Moyer. Copy editing by Anne Kenderdine. Photo editing and research by Mark Miller.

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Sydney Trent has been a journalist at The Washington Post since 1999. Most recently, she was Senior Editor/Social Issues, supervising award-winning coverage of religion, gender, poverty and other topics. In this role, she ran coverage of the 2013 inauguration of Barack Obama and Pope Francis' U.S. papal visit in 2015. FollowFollow
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