Since 2018, Abrams’s election watchdog and voter mobilization group, Fair Fight Action, has worked to counteract a torrent of disfranchisement efforts targeting African American voters unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision. Though the scale of Fair Fight’s work, including voter protection efforts in 18 states, is noteworthy, its purpose is not new: southern Black women have been working to protect voting rights, for themselves and others, ever since most African American women first gained the franchise in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was approved.
Black men in Virginia and through most of the South had been proud and active voters in the period after the Civil War. Scholars estimate that thanks to the Union Army and then the 15th Amendment, 90 percent of southern Black men cast ballots. Their votes were powerful, helping to elect thousands of Black officeholders, including 16 members of Congress.
One of them was John Mercer Langston, who was elected to the House in 1890 after serving as the president of the Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute (today, Virginia State University), the state’s land grant college for African Americans, founded in 1882.
Langston’s experience showed the problems that southern Black voters faced then. Those in his district were singled out to wait in long lines, and, contrary to custom, his backers were not permitted to witness the tabulation of the ballots. When the Democratic vote counters declared that he had lost by a few hundred votes, Langston, a Republican, contested the results before the House. After protracted wrangling in which Democratic members walked out to try to prevent a quorum, Langston was finally seated as the representative from Virginia’s 4th District.
Using those tactics and worse, white supremacists in the South succeeded at the end of the 19th century in stripping Black men of their votes. In that era, as in our own, partisanship increasingly aligned with race as Democratic “redeemers” and “readjusters” captured power in Southern states and drove Republicans — both Black and White — out of the electorate and sometimes out of town.
White supremacist Democrats imposed restrictive registration laws, stuffed ballot boxes and threatened violence. Too often, they followed through on these threats. In 1898, a White mob in Wilmington, N.C., led by Alfred Moore Waddell, installed its supporters in office after they ousted duly elected city officeholders backed by Black voters, killed 14 Black residents and burned the city’s Black newspaper office to the ground — all without either the federal or state government stepping in to restore justice.
By the time World War I began, white supremacists had achieved their goal: Statistically, the percentage of Southern Black men who retained the ability to vote approached zero. Postwar racial violence in Washington and dozens of other cities in the “Red Summer” of 1919 intensified the sense that African Americans courted danger if they asserted themselves in public life. Even small cities, such as Norfolk, were not safe. There, on July 21, a fight broke out at a public event honoring Black veterans. When White law enforcement officers made arrests, they sparked a civil disturbance that quickly spread through Black neighborhoods in the city and left two Black veterans dead.
Southern Black women gained the right to vote only after southern Black men, in effect, had lost it. So when the 19th Amendment was ratified, they bravely insisted that the amendment applied to them and not just to White women, as many contemporaries assumed. They staked their claim to the ballot by showing up to register and vote. In Jacksonville, Fla.; Harris County, Tex.; and Caddo Parish, La., Black women mobilized through political party organizations, churches, sororities and other groups and turned out in the hundreds or thousands. Elsewhere, they turned to family and friends for support and approached election officials as couples or small groups.
Most aspiring Black voters, according to an NAACP report issued in December 1920, were turned away from the polls — rebuffed, defrauded or otherwise denied. But a significant few succeeded in casting votes, including nine Black women who worked at the university that Langston had led.
Mary Branch. Anna Lindsay. Edna Colson. Edna Wright. Johnella Frazer. Nannie Nichols. Eva Conner. Evia Carpenter. (Beatrice) Odelle Grein. These nine stand out because they are among the very few Southern Black female voters from 1920 whose names we know. Their success in casting ballots stemmed in part from the fact that they also knew one another. All were single at the time and lived on campus on Faculty Row, making them neighbors and co-workers, and, probably, friends.
Several were teachers and librarians. Colson taught at the college and was the daughter of James Major Colson Jr., the institute’s second principal. Frazer, hired as the Institute’s first professor of piano, was a graduate of the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers.
If the women were troubled by the racial violence in 1919, they overcame their fear.
Future generations of Southern Black women, laboring in the shadow of better-known Black men, did the same. On Election Day in 1923, Mary McLeod Bethune led 500 Black women to the polls in Daytona, Fla., despite being threatened on the eve of the vote by hooded Klansmen who marched through her property. In the 1940s in the South Carolina Sea Islands, Septima Clark taught reading and civics classes to prepare aspiring voters to pass literacy tests. After the 1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision, she lost her regular teaching job in Charleston, as well as her pension, for refusing to drop her membership in the NAACP. In 1965, Amelia Boynton Robinson crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge with John Lewis and others and endured the beatings of “Bloody Sunday” that paved the road to the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA).
Black women’s courage in the face of fear and their insistence on their right to vote is part of Abrams’s political origin story. As she tells it, her Mississippi grandmother had to gather her courage in the first presidential election after the VRA was passed. When Election Day arrived in 1968 and Abrams’s grandfather prepared to leave the house to go vote, his wife, Wilter (“Bill”) Abrams, sat “frozen” in fear. “I don’t want to face the dogs and the billy clubs. I don’t want to face the problems.” Still, she cast her ballot that day and every Election Day until her death.
For most Americans, casting a vote today requires more persistence and endurance than courage. In February, however, Abrams downplayed the differences between disfranchisement in the past and disfranchisement today. “Most of us understand voter suppression as the 1960s images of billy clubs and hoses. … But in the 21st century, voter suppression looks like administrative errors. … It looks like mistakes.”
Today’s coolly banal procedural disqualifications, such as voter purges and complex voter ID requirements, target Black voters much as poll taxes 120 years ago pushed poor voters of all races out of the electorate through the front door while grandfather clauses let only poor whites return through the back.
Currently, most voters don’t fear the threat of violent voter suppression that the Ettrick, Va., women and Abrams’s own grandmother had to face. Abrams’s work is designed to prevent any of us from facing it again. It may also hold the key to Harris’s future, because Harris’s ability to make more history and win the vice presidency may well depend on whether Abrams succeeds in protecting Black votes.