Martha S. Jones on The Power of Black Women That Led to Kamala Harris' Nod for VPRoundup
tags: African American history, womens history, Kamala Harris
Jones, a prize-winning historian, tells PEOPLE what she's learned from the long line of brave Black suffragists in her own family — and how the history of such activists can guide modern-day Americans as they confront voter suppression in the Nov. 3 presidential election. She also explains how Black women have become one of the most powerful forces in U.S. elections. ("Black American women vote as a bloc," says Jones, "and that's part of what makes their vote so dangerous.")
I write in an office where portraits of the women in my family hang on the wall. They are there because they inspire me, but they're also there because I am accountable to them. When I write a history about women and the vote, I know that they want me to write a history that is true to the archives. But they also want me to write a history that has meaning in our own time, because I think they would recognize the urgency around voting rights that we are confronting in the 21st century and how it is not so different from the challenges that they faced a hundred years ago.
I didn't know enough of their stories two years ago, when I started to write a book about the subject. What I discovered by going back to the newspapers where they lived is that they were controversial figures, whether it was my great-grandmother who lived in St. Louis, Missouri in 1920, or my great-great-grandmother who was living in Danville, Kentucky in the same moment. That's because there was a tremendous fear of the power of African American women's votes to change Southern politics.
My great-grandmother, Fannie Williams, was part of a community of women in St. Louis who opened a suffrage school, in the YWCA there, to teach and train one another how to overcome hurdles like poll taxes and literacy tests. In St. Louis, even some African American men showed up there because they were also being disfranchised by local laws. They thought that the women at the Y might be able to help them figure out how to overcome those barriers. We oftentimes think that 1920 marks the beginning of women's votes. But what that version of the story doesn't account for are the ways in which individual states still had a great deal of latitude to block access to the polls.
Today, as long as states don't write laws that say, "Women can't vote," as long as they don't write laws that say, "Black people can't vote," they can continue to enact laws that disproportionately affect Black Americans in ways that are also constitutional. We think that, for example, citizenship and voting rights go hand in hand in the United States, but they do not — even today. No one is guaranteed the vote, which is why voter ID laws, or the shuttering of polling places, or exact match requirements, are going to keep many Americans from getting to the polls this November.
In the long history of the women's rights movement, many white suffragists left anti-Black thinking unchallenged. Some even promoted it, and left barriers to Black women’s votes in place. Racism prevented Black and white women from building meaningful and effective coalitions. As early as the 1860s, women's rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony colluded openly with white supremacist leaders, thinking that that might be a strategy for winning votes, at least for white women.
By the start of the 20th century, Black women were being sacrificed, marginalized and excluded in suffrage politics in an effort to win white Southern support. This made meaningful and sustained alliances between Black and white women nearly impossible. African American women, many of whom were deeply interested in winning political power, set out then to build their own movement.
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