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We March On Celebrating 100 years of Women's Suffrage

Part 2: LIFTING AS WE CLIMB

You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1866

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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, c. 1898

Despite the original connections between the suffrage and abolitionist movements, participation in national organizations, including the predominately white National American Woman Suffrage Association and National Woman's Party, was difficult for African American suffragists due to racism.

Many African American supporters, including Frederick Douglass, broke away from these organizations because of certain leaders' refusal to support the 15th Amendment, which granted all men, but not women, the right to vote regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude"

Seeking to engage in more activism, African American suffragists instead established their own organizations to encourage women of color to participate in politics and the electoral process.

Although many of these groups began locally, in 1896 Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Harriet Tubman, and others met in Washington, D.C., to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which brought together more than 100 local clubs. Mary Church Terrell was chosen as the first president of the NACW. Under her leadership, the organization's focus and motto was "Lifting as we Climb", which represented their advocacy not only in support of women's suffrage, but also to improve the status of African Americans generally and remove discriminatory voting restrictions, such as literacy tests and poll taxes.

Mary Church Terrell, c. 1900

Racism persisted in other national suffrage organizations, leading to segregated protests and parades.

In 1913, at the first national parade in support of women's suffrage in Washington, D.C., white leaders requested that African American marchers, including the NACW contingent, remain segregated at the back of the parade so as to not offend southern supporters. In an inspiring act of resistance, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a brilliant and creative journalist known for her relentless work in the anti-lynching movement in Tennessee and founder of the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, refused to do so. Instead, she stepped out of the crowd of onlookers to march at the head of the all-white official delegation from Illinois.

The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

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Ida B. Wells-Barnett Marching at Suffrage Parade
To struggle and battle and overcome and absolutely defeat every force designed against us is the only way to achieve.

Nannie Helen Burroughs, 1933

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Recent scholarship has uncovered these and other histories of African American women's role in the suffrage movement, but the contributions of all women of color are only beginning to emerge.