The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stacey Abrams’s fight against voter suppression dates back to the Revolution

Black female activists have been reshaping America for centuries

Democrat Stacey Abrams walks on the Senate floor on Dec. 14 before members of Georgia's electoral college cast their votes at the state Capitol in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)

The recent effort by the Georgia legislature to suppress African American votes through the newly enacted Election Integrity Act reflects a longer history of exclusion and marginalization. As voting rights activist and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams points out, the act revives “Georgia’s dark past of racist voting laws.” Abrams is continuing a long tradition of Black women fighting against institutional practices that keep African Americans from exercising their voting rights. Many have celebrated Abrams’s accomplishments, pointing out that her effective marshaling of community resources led to Georgia electing two Democratic U.S. senators and a Democrat winning its electoral votes for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Abrams’s efforts embody how Black women have been at the forefront of movements to address inequity, social oppression and freedom for the Black community for centuries. In fact, African American women waged their political battles against slavery using similar forms of grass-roots activism. Black women employed escapes from slavery, petitions to courts for freedom, written testimonies of racial violence and organized protests as strategies to ensure freedom, equality and justice for themselves and their communities. These informal and formal political strategies were important forms of Black women’s political activism.

The roots of Black women’s activism can be traced back to the Revolutionary Era, when thousands of Black women protested with their feet and ran away from their enslavers. The flight of enslaved women was one of institutional invisibility — there was no formal organization, no leaders, no manifestoes and no name. And yet, their escapes constituted a revolutionary social movement in which fugitive women made their political presence felt, ultimately shaping the radical Black politics following the war.

During the American Revolution, one-third of fugitives were enslaved women. Lack of oversight and the presence of British troops provided an opportunity for them to escape and lay claim to the same philosophical arguments for liberty that White revolutionaries made in their own fierce struggle against oppression. Thousands of women of diverse circumstances, many of them mothers and wives, did just that. The stories of Margaret, Jenny and Bett, all enslaved people, reveal both the precariousness of these lived experiences and their resolve for freedom.

Margaret escaped slavery not once, but twice, in Baltimore: first in 1770, then in 1773. The first time, she sought to conceal her identity by dressing as a waiting boy to an escaped English convict servant, John Chambers, attempting to pass as both White and male.

Jenny was eight months pregnant when she ran away with her 2-year-old daughter from Monk’s Neck near Petersburg, Va. She probably spent months planning her escape and had been aware of Dunmore’s Proclamation, which offered freedom to enslaved people who would aid the Loyalist cause. Her enslaver noted that she would attempt to pass as a free woman and may have been headed to Richmond, which had a significant free Black population.

Bett, at the age of 21, escaped slavery with her 3-year-old daughter in British-occupied Pennsylvania in 1781. Two White men accompanied them, which probably provided the pathway for a successful escape, reducing the probability of being stopped by slave patrols or other inquisitive White people.

Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved woman in Massachusetts took a different tack, suing for her freedom in May 1781 on the grounds that slavery had never been legal in Massachusetts and therefore her enslaver could not “own” her. She won her case at a time when the prevailing belief was that a Black woman could not bring a lawsuit in a court of law to gain her freedom, blazing a path for centuries of activism to come.

After the Revolutionary War, Black women helped lay the foundation for Black institutional life in the North and South during the first half of the 19th century and became the conscience of the nation. Free Black women became more politically active as the desire for citizenship and equal rights became central to women’s activism. Women such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Charlotte Forten and Sarah Douglass worked in the antislavery movement to the benefit of not only their communities, but also the nation at large. This organic link between the circumstances of Black women’s lives and their political thought and action underscores the agency of Black women. In seeking to hold the post-revolutionary generation to its founding principles, Black women pressed the nation toward its highest possibilities and toward a more perfect union.

Their ideas and activism persisted after slavery ended and constitutional amendments gave Black people, and then later women, the rights of citizenship. Women such as Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, both co-founders of the NAACP, worked unceasingly against white supremacy and social injustice.

During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, women such as Septima Clark, Diane Nash and Fannie Lou Hamer fought state laws to gain access to the ballot. Their efforts and the actions of scores of women on Bloody Sunday in Alabama during the march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The informal and formal politics in which Black women engaged to thwart inequality can be seen in the actions of countless women who played vital roles in their communities by becoming the backbone of mutual aid and benevolent societies, Black churches and schools, which were first established within Black churches and in the homes of free African Americans during the post-Revolution era.

Telling the story of Black women’s efforts to create a more perfect union is a necessary act of recovery for understanding the ethical and racial foundations of the nation. It has been 245 years since Thomas Jefferson issued the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming that all men are created equal and have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet America is still struggling to live up to the ideals enshrined in that document. The actions of Black women past and present matter to the present-day discussion of freedom and equality.

Abrams’s efforts today are in part an extension of Black women’s long war against injustice and white supremacy. Her activism and her work to address voter suppression are representative of the ways in which Black women continue to shape and perfect America’s democracy. This is a fight that began during the Revolutionary era.