For Black Women, the 19th Amendment was the Beginning of a Long Fight for Voting Rights

Sep 14, 2020

The 19th amendment promised women the right to vote would not be denied because of gender.  But it was an empty promise for women with dark skin.

"It's an historical legacy that can't be ignored because it's inconvenient," says Sandra Slater.  She's an associate history professor at the College of Charleston and the director of the school's Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program.

Slater has been talking a lot about the suffragist movement this year as part of the centennial celebration of the passage of the 19th amendment.

Sandra Slater is an associate history professor at the College of Charleston and the director of the school's Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program
Credit College of Charleston

She says some of the most notable South Carolina suffragists were the Grimke sisters who were also abolitionists.  Then, there was Susan Pringle Frost, well known for saving Charleston's historic architecture and Virginia Durant Young, a temperance activist.

"You can't talk about South Carolina suffrage without talking about Eulalie Chafee Salley who is by far my favorite," says Slater.

Salley took the fight for equal rights into the boxing ring and even dangled from an airplane to drop leaflets.

The suffragists were fierce, outspoken and independent.  They often promoted causes that cloaked what many feared, their desire for equal rights.

"But while we celebrate these suffragettes, they're not doing this for black women, Latino women or for Chinese America women.  They're just not," says Slater.

Initially, the suffragist movement was tied to abolitionists. White women in particular saw themselves as oppressed by men and empathized with slaves.  They joined forces with African American women planning, protesting and marching for voting rights

But, by the late 1800s something changed.

The 15th Amendment had given black men the right to vote decades before women.  Although exercising that right was a challenge.  States could still determine who qualified through literacy tests, taxes and other forms of discrimination.

"After reconstruction amendments you see that fear of white women's power being diminished," Slater says.  "So, therefore they have to hold down men and women of color in order to feel empowered."

Black women were suddenly cast aside from the suffragist movement, no longer allowed to attend conventions and forced to march separate from white women.  The common goal of voting rights could not bridge the racial divide.

"They were smart enough and powerful enough to understand that whiteness equated power." - Sandra Slater on the racial divide during the suffragist movement

"People will say, 'well they were a product of their time,'" says Slater.  "Yes, but they were smart enough and powerful enough to understand that whiteness equated power."

Slater says white suffragists were ultimately unwilling to share their privilege and power for fear it would diminish their own.  The 19th amendment passed in 1920 giving women the right to vote.  But like black men, black women faced discrimination at the polls.

Slater is wearing a t-shirt with bold letters.  It reads, "Women Support Women".  If only they had.  African American women did not get to fully realize their right until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.