Uncovering African American Women’s Fight for Suffrage

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Mary A. Johnson (center) was active in many civic, political, and reform organizations in Connecticut. She is shown here with (left) Elizabeth R. Morris and (right) Rosa J. Fisher representing Hartford’s Color Women’s Liberty Loan Committee, October 21, 1917. photo: Edward M. Crocker, The Hartford Courant, State Archives, Connecticut State Library

By Karen Li Miller

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2020

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On March 10, 1919, the “Prison Special” train arrived in Hartford, carrying 26 suffragists from across the country who had been imprisoned in Washington, D.C. for demonstrating in front of the White House. Having been released, they now were on a speaking tour, stopping in 15 cities in three weeks. The Hartford Courant reported the next day that an audience of black and white suffragists from Connecticut greeted them. The story of the white suffragists is well documented. Harder to uncover are the identities of Connecticut’s African American women’s rights activists. That work, recent research has revealed, yields a rich history of black woman suffrage activism and political activity in the early 20th century. 

As The Courant reported and other sources verify, African American women rallied for the woman suffrage cause. The most well-known of these activists is Hartford’s Mary Townsend Seymour, a founder of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. [See “Audacious Alliances,” Summer 2003.] Determined to ensure black women’s inclusion in women’s suffrage, Seymour made an announcement at the “Prison Special” train event, “urging that the Susan B. Anthony [19th] Amendment” be passed “without compromise.” In an April 1919 letter to Mary White Ovington, co-founder of the NAACP, she demanded confirmation that white suffragists were fighting for universal suffrage. The major suffrage organizations realized that the movement needed the efforts of all women and asked for support from African American organizations throughout Connecticut. This call to action was not an invitation to integrate, however, and woman suffrage activities were segregated. The exclusion was in part due to white suffragists’ worry that southern voters would not support the 19th Amendment if it included black women, as Rosalyn Terborg-Penn discusses in African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 (Indiana University Press, 1998).

More than a quarter-century earlier, Hartford’s Rose Payton made it clear that black women wanted electoral self-representation. In 1893 the women of Connecticut gained the right to vote on school issues. Payton was one of the earliest voters, “becoming the first woman of that race to be registered in Hartford and probably the only colored woman in the state who has registered to date,” The Hartford Courant reported on September 15, 1893. Payton, who hailed originally from Virginia, worked primarily as a laundress and a nurse, according to census records. Women’s votes were limited to school and, later, library issues, but Payton persisted in exercising her right to vote and registered for annual town elections.

In my research to date, it appears that Connecticut African American women did not identify as single-issue suffragists, but rather, as women’s rights supporters with multiple agenda. Their activism focused on protecting their communities, seeking policy changes, and building supportive cultures, especially for women and girls. Hundreds of African American women in New England formed organizations, often closely aligned with black churches, as historian Judith Weisenfeld has found. She notes in African American Women and Christian Activism (Harvard University Press, 1997): “…[L]ate-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century African American women’s activist projects, most notably the national club movement, remained deeply grounded in evangelical Christian concerns.” Some women advocated for the right to vote to help achieve their other goals of uplift. In April 1918 the Northeast Federation of Women’s Clubs convened at the A.M.E. Zion Church in Hartford and outlined its areas of work: “woman suffrage, temperance, education, literature, music, juvenile advancement, and a department for the suppression of lynching.”

Mary A. Johnson, Minnie Edwards Glover, and Daisy Trotter Daniels represent the many African American women who intertwined politics, church, and social service in the early 20th century. These women came to Hartford from Americus, Georgia as part of the “Great Migration” during the World War I era. Voter records reveal that all three women registered to vote within days of each other in October 1920, in time to cast ballots in the federal election. Yet they had been involved in establishing African American women’s right to political voice in Connecticut well before then. Daniels was active in the New England Welfare League, Mt. Olive Baptist Church, and the Colored Republican Voters League, eventually becoming the GOP delegate for the third ward.

In 1945 The Hartford Courant described a community celebration for Minnie Glover that honored her for her suffrage and community work. She was an organizer of the New England Colored Welfare League in 1918 and, after 1920, served as the Republican captain of the 21st precinct for many years. Glover was the first African American vice-chairwoman of the fifth ward and an active member of the Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church. Women’s rights held priority in Glover’s family, and her sisters, Lena Knighton and Anna B. Reese, also served as political and church leaders in Hartford. In 1968, when Knighton died at the age of 100, the Courant recalled that the three sisters “fought for women’s right to vote and for active participation of Negroes in politics.”

Mary A. Johnson and her husband Sidney Johnson ran the first African American undertaker business in Hartford. Soon after her arrival from Georgia, she joined the Colored Women’s Liberty Loan Committee in 1917 and showed the African American community’s patriotic involvement. By 1918 Johnson was the chairman of the Colored Republican Women of Connecticut and the vice president of the Connecticut State Federation of Colored Women. She was also the founder of Community House which offered skills training to young women new to Hartford, among other resources. As a member of the Mayor’s Committee on Unemployment in 1929, she established the Hartford Industrial Service and Exchange Bureau “to help the industrial situation among local Negro families,” The Courant reported on August 7, 1929. She hoped to help people develop “the ability to create and execute one’s own ideas.” In 1941 Johnson was appointed to the City Juvenile Commission and The Courant announced that she “is believed to be the first Negro woman appointed to a standing commission in Hartford” (December 9, 1941).

Both Johnson and Seymour ran for political office. In 1920 Seymour became the first African American woman to run for state office in Connecticut. In 1948 Johnson ran for the State House of Representatives as the People’s (Wallace) Party nominee. Neither woman was elected.

Research to identify the names and narratives of our state’s African American women’s rights activists continues. If you have information to share, visit chs.org/WOCVotes.

 

Karen Li Miller is the research historian at the Connecticut Historical Society and a visiting assistant professor of American Studies at Trinity College.

 

Read More

Find the full story of Women’s Suffrage HERE.

“The Constitution of 1818 & Black Suffrage: Rights for All?” Fall 2018

Read CT Explored‘s Op-Ed in The Hartford Courant: What About the Struggle for Black Suffrage in Connecticut?

No Taxation without Representation: Black Voting in Connecticut,” Spring 2016

“A Family of Reformers: The Middletown Bemans” Winter 2008/2009

 

Explore!

“The Work Must Be Done”: Women of Color & the Right to Vote
The Connecticut Historical Society, in partnership with Goodwin College Assistant Professor of Humanities Brittney Yancy, will present new research about Connecticut’s women of color and suffrage. 

LISTEN TO THE GRATING THE NUTMEG PODCAST, Ep. 97

A Vote of Her Own: The Long Fight for Women’s Suffrage
Summer 2020
Connecticut Historical Society
chs.org

October 1920
A special exhibition on view October 1 to November 30, 2020. See page 52.
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library
500 Main Street, Hartford
Hhc.hplct.org

 

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