African American Women and the Rhetoric of “Dignified Agitation”

African American Women and the Rhetoric of “Dignified Agitation”

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 2 Winter 2020

Author(s): Reva Sias

Dr. Reva E. Sias is an Assistant Professor in the Rhetoric and Writing Studies Program, in the Department of English at California State University-Fresno. She specializes and teaches courses in cultural rhetoric, critical race theory, composition theory and pedagogy, and writing program administration. Her research interests, as well as her published works, include archival studies, rhetorical feminist historiography, cultural literacy, African American rhetoric, Black Feminist/Womanist Theory, and women’s rhetoric. Currently, Reva serves on the NCTE College Section Steering Committee, and serves in the Modern Language Association Delegate Assembly, where she is the representative for Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing Programs.

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The 2020 Centennial is a celebration of women’s right to vote in the United States. With the passage and ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution, the law erased voter disenfranchisement based on sex. Today, public and private initiatives, commissioned monuments, and curated spaces mark the 100th anniversary by remembering those women who put their intellect and bodies on the line in the fight for their right to vote. The centennial initiatives, monuments, and spaces also commemorate exemplar women and activism, as a product of the American suffrage movement that began with the first women’s rights convention in 1848. Yet, the 2020 centennial anniversary is not a celebration of equal access to the American ballot box. Even as we celebrate and recognize that the Nineteenth Amendment afforded white women due process (i.e., fair treatment under the law), it did not guarantee the right to vote for people of color. Likewise, the tenacity, hardships, successes, and sacrifices of white women are acknowledged as essential in the fight for the women’s right to vote, while the contributions of women of color were marginalized and are less visible in recorded history and public memory.  

I appreciate the 2020 centennial initiatives, monuments, and curated spaces that attempt to show both gender and racial contributions. Today, for example, in anticipation of the 2020 centennial, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery includes the images of African American suffragists such as Sojourner Truth, Sarah [Parker] Remond, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell, in its Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence exhibit. Through a touch of revisionist history, the exhibit serves as a contemporary counter-narrative to the pervasive anti-black post-American Civil War and Progressive-era hegemonic views on African American women in general, and as suffragists specifically. White women actively ignored, threatened, and silenced black women during this activist moment; as Rosalyn Terborg-Penn explains, “Black women were either invisible or expendable because they, even more than poor white women, represented a lesser class, which created problems for many of the white women in the woman suffrage network” (134). As a contemporary countermeasure, the Smithsonian’s Votes for Women exhibit illuminates and provides first-, second-, and third-generation African American women a space for equitable recognition and inclusion, as the exhibit “outline[s] the more than 80-year movement for women to obtain the right to vote as a part of the larger struggle for equality that continued through the 1965 Civil Rights Act” (Smithsonian). Still, how can we use the revisionist counter-narrative example of the Smithsonian’s Votes for Women exhibit to remember and speak to the past activisms and talents of African American women? What wisdoms, discourses, words, deeds, and strengths can we take from the past as examples and catalysts to embrace the work ahead and to celebrate all women and people, as we look forward to and beyond the 2020 centennial? 

In this essay contribution, I recall and analyze primary rhetorical historiographic artifacts that speak to the African American women’s experience within the women’s suffrage movement and at the Woman Suffrage Procession on March 3, 1913—the march in Washington, D.C., under the leadership of Alice Paul, chair of the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s (NAWSA’s) Congressional Committee, which brought together, by many accounts, over 10,000 women, and was pivotal in shaping the public narrative of disenfranchised women in the United States. I highlight the published and unpublished writing, personal discourses, and activism of Mrs. Mary Eliza Church Terrell, as a third-generation suffragist (as Terborg-Penn suggests). Terrell served on the frontlines and at the intersections for women’s suffrage, racial equality, and human freedoms, which should demand our attention. Enacting a rhetoric of “dignified agitation,” Terrell modeled and used her leadership as a writer, editor, educator, public speaker, and organizer to facilitate her calls for “meddling” and “agitation” to bring about social, gender, and political changes, in spite of Progressive-era hegemonic norms and Jim (and Jane) Crow racial segregation and discriminations. Through an examination of artifacts, this contribution relies on Terrell’s accounts about organizing and friendships with leading white suffragists and African American women’s club members. More broadly, Terrell’s papers, speeches, and articles show the black women’s desire for cross-racial collaboration and affiliations with white women’s clubs, even as white women found reasons to reject their participation. For example, speaking on the accomplishment of black women and “The Federation’s Attitude,” Terrell writes,

In refusing to receive a delegate from a colored woman’s club at its fifth biennial, the General Federation [of Women’s Club’s] has taken a long step backward. I feel sure, however, that on its sober thought it will not be so unjust and unkind as to exclude colored women’s clubs. Efforts have been made in the past to debar colored women from local white women’s clubs even in the broad and liberal West. . . . I have no doubt that the question of admitting colored women’s clubs to the General Federation will be eventually settled according to the eternal principles of right and justice, rather than according to the unworthy behests of prejudice and arrogance. (“What Colored Women Have Done”)

Terrell saw value in intercultural communication and participation as tools in the fight for the women’s enfranchisement. She was certain that white women would see the social and educational strides and uplift that black women had achieved since emancipation. Terrell hoped that “eternal principles of right and justice” would garner black women equitable treatment within the women’s rights movement, whereby white women could enter into fellowship with black women. We can learn from the primary rhetorical historiographic artifacts of Mary Church Terrell, as her experiences and voice are but one example of countless African American women, who contributed to the women’s suffrage movement in America, and whose memories should invigorate to the 2020 centennial anniversary. It is the intercultural fellowships and affiliations of the women’s suffrage activism that the 2020 centennial must address and celebrate.

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) devoted her life to service. Born the daughter of former slaves, into an affluent black family, Terrell recognized her privilege within the African American race, and she was determined to be a voice for women’s suffrage, in general, and to be a champion for African American women and the race, more specifically. Contemporary scholars of African American rhetoric and nineteenth-century women’s rhetoric recognize Terrell as one of the elite black womens’ voices of the age. For example, in Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women, Jacqueline Jones Royster identifies Terrell and other like-minded African American women (i.e., Mary Jane Patterson, Fannie Jackson Coppin, Frances Joseph Norris, Anna Julia Copper, and Ida Gibbs Hunt) as “agents of change,” who processed a “type of ethos, nurtured both formally and informally by a spirit of both intellectual engagement and social activism” (195). As one of the earliest African American women to complete a B.A. degree from Oberlin College, Terrell and others “demonstrated leadership abilities that were unparalleled in terms of power and influence, and they set the pace for how leadership among African American women would be shaped for generations to come” (Royster 195). In We Are Coming: Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women, Shirley Wilson Logan reflects on Terrell’s contributions as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women and as editor of the Woman’s Era’s Washington, D.C. column. Logan recounts Terrell’s public activism as an anti-lynching crusader, writing that Terrell “refuted the standard lynching-for-rape connection, associating it instead with slavery, race hatred, and lawlessness in her 1904 article ‘Lynching from a Negro’s Point of View’” (96-97). As an editor, writer, and public speaker, Terrell was uniquely positioned to use her rhetorical skills and powerful presence to challenge injustices based on race, gender, and class. Reflecting on Terrell’s 1950s activism to desegregate public spaces, Pauli Murray remembers,

Mary Church Terrell, militant civil rights activist and longtime feminist who had fought for woman suffrage . . . A patrician born in the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the essence of Victorian respectability, Mrs. Terrell led picket lines against downtown eating places and ultimately chaired the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws. (Song in a Weary Throat, 231)

As Murray’s memory recalls genteel propriety and social justice radicalism, it frames Terrell’s enactment of “dignified agitation” as a means for political redress and activism. From a review of contemporary scholarship, one may find Mary Church Terrell’s name, memberships, and leadership in connection with multiple civil rights campaigns, literacy and educational initiatives, women’s clubs, civil and human rights organizations, and quests for international human freedoms. In 2020, We should revisit Terrell’s first-hand accounts of the African American women’s suffrage experience, in light of the founding of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (1869) and of the founding of the National Colored Women’s Association (1896). The 2020 Centennial must be a tribute to all suffragists.

Despite antebellum and Progressive-era prejudices and black segregation, history shows that African American women have consistently worked for women’s rights and suffrage, even though it is true that no woman of color was present at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. At that convention, an enfranchisement collaboration was forged between white women and black men, as signified by the invitation and attendance of Frederick Douglass. It was through Douglass, by extension, that a mutually beneficial working relationship with free colored women was recognized. With the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, African American men were granted the right to vote. In effect, the amendment’s passage ended the close ties that were shared between white women and black men, during the abolitionist and early women’s rights movements. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in New York. The NWSA enacted a Southern campaign strategy that sought to gain the support of Southern white women. Anthony and Stanton weaponized The Revolution (1868-1872), the weekly newspaper of the NWSA, to publish racist discourses and attacks against black civic participation in general, and against black men’s suffrage in particular. In contrast, Lucy Stone supported the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and the enfranchisement of black men, thinking that it would eventually lead to a women’s rights amendment. Later, Stone founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), in Boston, in 1869. Although the two women’s suffrage organizations functioned independently, until the groups merged in 1890, they were keenly interested in enfolding Southern white women into their ranks. Marjorie Spruill Wheeler explains,

The overtures of Northern women were crucial in the decisions of [Lucy] Clay, [Belle] Kearney, [Nellie Nugent] Somerville, and the Gordons [Jean and Kate] to become suffrage leaders; and once converted, these Southern suffragists helped recruit others. Clay, who was recruited into the movement with her mother and sisters in the 1880s by the combined efforts of Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone, in turn converted many other Southern women. (New Women of the New South 63)

Laura Clay, “the woman who was to become the key link between Northern and Southern suffragists” (114), supported Lucy Stone’s husband’s (Henry Blackwell) plan to make women’s education a qualification of suffrage. Blackwell, Clay, and others “would subsequently argue for woman suffrage as the key to solving ‘the negro problem’” (114). With the addition of the white women’s votes, they argued that “[t]he South had an opportunity to insure white political supremacy without taking the vote away from those already enfranchised” (114). By the time that the NWSA and AWSA merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890, its main appeals for women’s suffrage were to the legislatures of Southern states, the Democratic Party, and to Southern white women.

African American women were pushed further to the margins, as half of the black race gained the right to vote, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) continued the Southern campaign strategy that was carried over from the NWSA. For a decade, from 1890 to 1900, Anthony and Stanton, respectively, led the NAWSA. By the turn of the century, the NAWSA presidency transferred to Carrie Chapman Catt (1900-1904; 1915-1920) and Anna Howard Shaw (1904-1915), even as the organization blessed the segregation and exclusion of black women from the suffrage movement. The NAWSA leadership and members-at-large did not officially prohibit African American women from membership in the national organization. Still, state and local women’s chapters, leagues, and groups maintained their own autonomy, and only coordinated their suffrage efforts through national means. The NAWSA thus allowed each women’s club affiliation in each state to make membership decisions based on reasons such as race, to accommodate Southern white women, at the expense of black women.

As Terborg-Penn explains, “Despite arguments that national suffrage leaders were not really racists when they ignored or rebuffed Black women who sought inclusion, there is evidence that northern woman suffrage leaders used southern suffragists as foils for racist behavior among white women nationwide” (161). Although black suffragists did not completely trust their white counterparts, Terrell encouraged intercultural communication and coalitions. She was not a member of the NAWSA, but Terrell attended its national meetings, and she counted Susan B. Anthony as a friend, “which lasted till she passed away” in 1906 (Terrell, Colored Woman 143). As an educated black woman, Terrell worked in close proximity to spaces that were established for white women. Taking a page from the suffragists’ meetings, Terrell exclaims that she “entered enthusiastically into club work among the women of my own race” (Terrell, Colored Woman 148). She set her eyes on the creation of a national women’s association for the benefit of the African American women and the race. In 1893, she published “What the Colored Women’s League Will Do,” which was a call for support of her plan for such an organization. Speaking directly to black women, Terrell wrote, 

There is every reason for all who have the interests of the race at heart to associate themselves with the League, so that there may be a vast chain of organizations extending the length and breadth of the land devising ways and means to advance our cause. We have always been equal to the highest emergencies in the past and it remains for us now to prove to the world that we are a unit in all matters pertaining to the education and elevation of our race. (qtd in Terrell, Colored Woman 149)

While Terrell’s article is credited as the first written call to establish a national colored women’s league, there was a rejoinder from Mrs. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin who sent out a national call that brought black women to action. African American women answered Ruffin’s “Call to Confer” to discuss measures that would be needed to bring together the force, strength, and talents of black women, on behalf of the race. Guided by its motto: “Lifting as We Climb,” under the leadership of Terrell as the first president, and with the joining and collaboration of colored women’s clubs from around the country, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was founded in 1896, which started the nationally recognized Black Women’s Club Movement.

While serving as president from 1896 to 1900, the NACW offered Terrell access to black women on a national stage: “By the end of the [nineteenth-]century, the NACW was the largest federation of African American women’s clubs in the nation. From the outset, woman suffrage was a notable department of the NACW” (Terborg-Penn 88). But on the eve of the Woman Suffrage Procession, to be held on March 3, 1913, black women found active measures in place to exclude their participation in the Washington march. In fact, the 1913 women’s suffrage march in Washington reflected symptoms of the American racial divides, as well as internal disputes over the value and/or lack of value of African American women that had been allowed to fester within the American women’s suffrage movement. According to The Crisis, when black women attempted to register for the procession, they were rebuffed and ignored: “At first Negro callers were received coolly at headquarters. Then they were told to register, but found that the registry clerks were usually out” (“Along the Color Line,” 267). At the direction of Alice Paul, a white suffrage leader, the parade guidelines worked outrightly to hinder and reduce the visibility of black women “for fear that the Southern women affiliated with the parade and the populace of Washington would object to the presence of negro suffragists in the demonstration” (“Colored Women” 2). Regardless of tactics of evasion and misinformation, accounts show that African American women kept up a regular drumbeat to gain entry; they sent letters and telegrams to obtain permission to participate in the march. Although I was not able to find the names of specific NAWSA leaders who were against Paul’s directive, public accounts do state that the action was against the wishes of NAWSA leadership. For example, The Times Dispatch reports the following:

Miss Paul informed some negro suffragists who wished to march that while the National Association recognized equal rights for colored women, . . . the people of the South might take unkindly to their presence in the parade. This statement of Miss Paul rather discouraged the organization of a colored division in the parade. . . . But when the news of Miss Paul’s action reached the national headquarters, it was said it created a storm. (“Colored Women” 2)

While the rumors of fighting within the NAWSA were denied to the public, “at least one member of the national committee regarded Miss Paul’s action as disobedience of orders, as she had been instructed to permit negroes to march if they cared to” (“Colored Women” 2). It is clear from the suffragist infighting that the NAWSA leadership, at that moment, some members found value in black women’s participation and collaboration in the movement, but that esteem did not signal a reversal of the NAWSA’s systematic use of white supremacy policies regarding the “negro question” and marginalization of black women. On the other hand, the dispute to include black women over the wishes of Southern white women and the “disobedience of orders” may have foreshadowed Paul’s departure from the NAWSA because she left shortly after the 1913 suffrage parade, to start her own women’s suffrage organization, the National Women’s Party.

Despite systematic barriers, African American women were represented in the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession, as demonstrated by the participation of Colored Women’s Clubs members and other groups. More specifically, the suffrage march in Washington was important to black women because the suffrage parade was one of the first opportunities for racial and public activism for some of the black suffragists. For example, shortly after the foundings of (1) Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s Alpha Suffrage Club, located in Chicago, Illinois, and (2) Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, established at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., members of the Alpha Suffrage Club and the twenty-two founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority were included in the “Negro Women section” of the parade. According to sorority folklore, Terrell accompanied the twenty-two founder and carried the Delta Sigma Theta banner in the Woman Suffrage Procession. Under Terrell’s leadership, there was a well-appointed assembly of African American women in “the Negro Women section.” While Terrell was present on the day of the march, Wells-Barnett’s experience is most often recalled with regard to African American women and the Washington march: After she “consented to march with the women of her race when two [white] suffragists promised to join her,” Wells-Barnett defied the NAWSA’s directive to “keep [the Illinois] delegation entirely white” (“Illinois Women” 3). The Chicago Tribune reported that following behind the sixty-four white suffragists of the Illinois Delegation, “[s]uddenly from the crowd on the sidewalk Mrs. Barnett walked calmly out to the delegation and assumed her place at the side of [Miss Belle] Squire and [Miss Virginia Brooks]. There was no question raised of her eligibility and she finished the parade” (“Illinois Women” 3). For Wells-Barnett to complete the parade walking alongside white suffragists, without being arrested or assaulted, was a personal and political triumph. But she was not the only black woman who faced and challenged discriminatory practices at the march. 

Indeed, the presence of black women was a problem that caused objections from many of the “fair-minded” Northern white women delegations and the Southern white suffragists, despite some favorable newspaper reports of the day that stated, “no color line existed in any part of it.” Terrell’s public acclaim as the past-president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and as one of the leading members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) marked her as undesirable and a threat to Southern white-rule. In a 1974 interview, Alice Paul remembers her part in the 1913 parade, as well as Terrell’s. The interview reads in part:

I walked in the college section. We all felt very proud of ourselves, walking along in our caps and gowns. . . . It was very impressive. Then we had a foreign section, and a men’s section, and a Negro women’s section from the National Association of Colored Women, led by Mary Church Terrell. She was the first colored woman to graduate from Oberlin, and her husband was a judge in Washington. Well, Mrs. Terrell got together a wonderful group to march, and then, suddenly, our members from the South said that they wouldn’t march. Oh, the newspapers just thought this was a wonderful story and developed it to the utmost. I remember that that was when the men’s section came to the rescue. The leader, a Quaker I knew, suggested that the men march between the southern delegation and the colored women’s section, and that finally satisfied the southern women. That was the greatest hurdle we had. (Gallagher)

Paul praises Terrell for her community activism and organization abilities, even as she states that a division of white men marched between the black and white women suffragists. With the support of Southern white women hanging in the balance, Paul confirms that Terrell’s presence, specifically, and the black women’s presence and participation, in general, was the “greatest hurdle” to overcome at the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession. The black women’s participation in the march agitated the Southern white women who had bigoted reasons to despise Terrell and her fellow activists.

Terrell’s life and suffrage activism are examples of what the 2020 Centennial celebration should commemorate. Prior to her marriage in 1891, she accepted her role as a suffragist. Terrell explains, “The first large suffrage meeting which I attended was the one in Washington” (144). She recalls:

At the close of the one of the meetings the presiding officer requested all thoseto rise who believed that women should have the franchise. Although the theatre was well filled at the time, comparatively few rose. I was among the number who did. I forced myself to stand up, although it was hard for me to do so. In the early 1890’s it required a great deal of courage for a woman publicly to acknowledge before an audience that she believed in suffrage for her sex when she knew the majority did not. (Terrell, Colored Woman 144)

She accepted the call, and stood up. Terrell was trailblazer, as is evident in the women’s suffrage movement, as president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), as a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and the list goes on. In addition to her women’s club work, Terrell’s national attentions were far and wide, as she meddled, shamed, and agitated her target audiences with published rebukes and polemic titles, which are too numerous to mention here. With the power of her pen and oratorical skills, Terrell regularly pointed to the injustices against black women and the race as well as consistently called for women’s suffrage and equitable treatment of black women. Still, her rhetorical voice and leadership presents the “other side” of the case (as Terrell suggests), as her example indicates how African American women contributed to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and to the national women’s suffrage movement narrative.

Today, Terrell’s thoughts, writings, speeches, and activism still ring true, on so many fronts in America, as we look back at contributions of countless black suffragists and look to the promises of the 2020 suffrage centennial. Terrell exemplifies the successes and challenges of the African American women’s participation in the women’s suffrage movement. In addition to the images in the National Portrait Gallery, Terrell stands as only one example of the many African American women, who should be acclaimed and publicly recognized at this year and for years to come. Terrell’s presence in the centennial celebration is an acknowledgment and reminder of the racism, prejudice, and biased treatment that marked the women’s suffrage movement and our narratives about it. While we cannot correct the harmful actions of the past, the 2020 centennial should remember African American suffragists, who helped to deliver the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution. When the Votes for Women exhibit is removed and replaced at the National Portrait Gallery, let the record show that the 2020 centennial celebration included African American suffragists, who “lifted,” “climbed,” and enacted a rhetoric of dignified agitation to secure the women’s right to vote in the United States.

Works Cited

  • “Along the Color Line: Politics.” The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Editor: W. E. B. Du Bois, vol. 5, no. 6, April 1913, New York. Accessed 9 June 2019.
  • Anthony, Susan B., Editor. The Revolution. New York, 1868. Accessed 2 June 2019.
  • “Colored Women in Suffrage Parade.” The Times Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, 2 Mar 1913. Alexander Street. Accessed 10 June 2019.
  • Gallagher, Robert S., Interviewer. “Alice Paul: ‘I Was Arrested, Of Course,’” American Heritage. Accessed 15 June 2019.
  • “Illinois Women Feature Parade.” Chicago Tribune, 4 Mar 1913, p. 3. Accessed 14 June 2019.
  • Logan, Shirley Wilson. “We Are Coming”: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women. Southern Illinois UP, 1999.
  • Murray, Pauli. Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage. Pauli Murray Foundation, 1987.
  • National Portrait Gallery. Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence. Smithsonian Institute.
  • Royster, Jacqueline. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African-American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.
  • Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Indiana UP, 1998.
  • Terrell, Mary Church. A Colored Woman in a White World. Ayer Co., 1992.
  • —. “Pretty Writing Will Do No Good.” MCT Papers. Accessed 29 May 2019.
  • —. “What Colored Women Have Done: The Federation’s Attitude.” National Association Notes, vol. 3, no. 10, Nov. 1900, p. 1, 3. Alexander Street. Accessed 10 June 2019.
  • Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill. New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States. Oxford UP, 1993.