We explain the purpose and functioning of the ballot and teach that voting is a duty as well as a right. We use every opportunity and every device at our command to inspire patriotism, knowing that, with all its faults, our country is a much better place to live in than others of which we read, and believing that unfavorable conditions may be improved in proportion as clear thinking citizens participate actively in its affairs.
Janie Porter Barrett
Twenty-Third Annual Report of the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls (1938).
In her 1938 annual report for the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls, Superintendent Janie Porter Barrett explained why she taught her students about the importance of voting. Barrett had long supported voting rights for women, but as an African American woman, she had not been allowed to join the suffrage organizations established by white women in Virginia early in the twentieth century. At that time, only fifty years after the Civil War, the political climate in Virginia was extremely inhospitable for interracial cooperation in reform movements. The Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902 had undone many of the democratic reforms of the nineteenth century and severely restricted the abilities of black men to register and vote, which had been guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment. The St. Luke Herald, on which Richmond businesswoman and civil rights activist Maggie L. Walker served as managing editor, pointed out in 1914, “…there are those who declare that the enfranchisement of the Negro was the greatest mistake and crime of the nation. We think not so; had not the Negro been armed with the ballot his freedom would have meant nothing. . . .”
African American women who sought reforms in education, public health, labor laws, and other areas knew that having the right to vote would help them achieve those goals. There is no evidence that African American women in Virginia formed their own organization devoted solely to suffrage, but they sometimes attended public speeches given by the white members of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. This does not mean that suffrage was unimportant to them. They followed public discussions of race and suffrage in newspapers and in such periodicals as The Crisis, published by the NAACP. They talked about voting rights at their women’s club meetings, and when the National Association of Colored Woman met in Hampton in 1912, members of clubs in Hampton and Norfolk staged a suffrage parade as part of a demonstration honoring prominent African American women.
At the 3 March 1913 national suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., African American women participated despite being segregated from white participants, and Lynchburg native Jimmie Bugg proudly marched with other Howard University students who had recently founded the Delta Sigma Theta sorority there.
An editorial in the St. Luke Herald emphatically stated the nature of the problem for African American women who wanted the vote. “The South is still under the blight and everlasting curse of slavery… Race hate rules and predominates. There is no law for the Negro, but injustice and oppression—civilly, politically and educationally.” Opponents of woman suffrage invoked the threat of “Negro rule” in Virginia if African American women could vote. White suffragists countered that the state had effectively disfranchised most African American men and would do the same to African American women so that white supremacy in Virginia would not be threatened.
African American women continued to advocate voting rights for women despite such opposition. In a prize-winning essay, Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute student Susie Shepperson argued that “the great woman suffrage movement that has been stirring the political world for many years” had convinced men that women “should be allowed to exercise every political right extended to ma[l]e citizens of this country. Negro suffrage and woman suffrage are insolubly bound together.” Portsmouth educator and reformer Josephine Mathews Norcom spoke about suffrage before the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. In 1916, she was a member of the resolutions committee at the National Association of Colored Women’s convention that endorsed a woman suffrage amendment to the United States Constitution. After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, she helped organize Republican clubs for African American women in the autumn of 1920.
When Virginia women registered to vote in September 1920, African American women turned out in large numbers despite the many obstacles they faced at registrars’ offices. The day before registration opened in Richmond, a newspaper reported that “Colored churches and social organizations are urging the women to qualify as voters at the first opportunity.” Thousands of African American women throughout the state registered, although an unknown number were not allowed to register as a result of racial discrimination. Mary Branch, Anna Lindsay, Edna Colson, Edwina Wright, Johnella Frazer, Nannie Nichols, Eva Conner, Evie Carpenter, and Odelle Green, faculty members at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute (now Virginia State University), proudly marked the occasion of their registration with a photograph.
Although African American women won the right to vote, it took decades before they were able to freely exercise that right at the polls, and barriers to voting still exist in the 21st century. In 1921, Richmond activist Ora Brown Stokes reminded members of the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs that they had a responsibility to register and to vote wisely. “Let our vote be cast always,” Stokes urged her audience, “with the one sublime purpose of making all agencies, whether political, social or otherwise, contribute their quota to the realization of our dreams of a world which has been made better by our having lived in it.”