A Noble Endeavor: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Suffrage
With no sacredness of the ballot there can be no sacredness of human life itself.
On March 3, 1913, the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was in a Washington, D.C. drill rehearsal hall with sixty-four other Illinois suffragists. She was there representing the Alpha Suffrage Club (ASC)-- which she had founded as the first black suffrage club in Chicago just two months before. Ida planned to march with the women in what promised to be a parade of unprecedented scale and significance. Organized by the young suffragist Alice Paul and the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), thousands of suffragists from across the country would descend on the Capitol along with nine bands, four mounted brigades, twenty floats and an allegorical enactment on the steps of the Treasury Department.
Ida had been working closely with a number of the Illinois women for nearly two decades. Before settling in Chicago, she was an exile from her home of Memphis, Tennessee, where she had launched the nation’s first antilynching campaign. After her tour across the U.S. and the British Isles, she had come to Chicago where she was welcomed by a throng of two-thousand persons—including members of the women’s clubs. Soon after, Ida married Ferdinand L. Barnett—the first black assistant state’s attorney in Illinois—and threw herself into a number of campaigns for both black and white candidates.
In 1894 she worked on the iconic campaign of Lucy Flower, who was elected a university trustee and the first Illinois woman to hold a statewide position. In the election year of 1896, the Republican Women’s State Central Committee asked her to canvass the state for William McKinley, who had spoken against lynching as Ohio Governor. Ida had a six-month-old baby at the time and traveled under the condition that a nurse be provided at every stop. “I honestly believe that I am the only woman in the United States who ever traveled throughout the country with a nursing baby to make political speeches,” she later boasted. Wells-Barnett was also active in the National Association of Colored (NACW) which she helped found, with its Suffrage Department and 100,000- membership in Illinois and across the country.
For African Americans, women’s suffrage also meant black suffrage and few were more passionate than Wells-Barnett about the role women could play at a time of mob-rule, rape with impunity, and Supreme Court-sanctioned segregation. Women’s organizations were the “new power, the new molder of public sentiment, to accomplish the reforms that the pulpit and the law have failed to do,” she believed. Born in Mississippi in 1862, Ida had grown up with African Americans—like her formerly enslaved father—exercising the power of the vote to protect and provide for family and community. By the time she was thirty, Blacks were disenfranchised and at the mercy of a vengeful South. It was the 1892 lynching of one of her closest friends in Memphis, Thomas Moss, that marked the beginning of her anti-lynching career.
Wells-Barnett estimated that nearly 3500 men, women, and children had been lynched between 1885 and 1912; moreover, as attested to by the vicious Springfield, Illinois, riot in 1908, mob-violence was no longer limited to the South. As Ida would write in her 1910 essay, “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynching,” the alarming development made even more urgent anti-lynching laws, like that in Illinois, and the election of legislators who would make them. As the black Alabama suffragist, Adella Hunt Logan, member of both NAWSA and the NACW, pointed out, “If white American women with all their natural and acquired advantages need the ballot… how much more do black Americans, male and female, need the strong defense of the vote?”
In 1913, with the recent granting of the franchise by California, Nevada, and Arizona, women’s suffrage was gaining unmistakable momentum. Illinois had its own prospects. The stars were aligned for the passage of the Presidential and Municipal Suffrage Bill which Ida and others had been working toward for decades. It would allow women to vote for presidential electors, mayors, aldermen, judges, and other municipal offices. If the partial suffrage legislation passed, Illinois would be the first state east of the Mississippi to have such a law and it would make its activists influential actors not only in Illinois but in the national campaign for full suffrage. In anticipation of the bill, Wells-Barnett—with the help of the white suffragist Belle Squire—created the Alpha Suffrage Club at the beginning of the year.
Ida’s immediate goal was to make African-American women a force in electoral politics—beginning with Chicago’s deteriorating Second Ward where she and a burgeoning black population resided. Ruled by the Republican machine which maintained white leadership through graft, patronage, and corruption, it would take women, Wells-Barnett believed, to break the machine’s stranglehold and improve the quality of life of the ward’s more than 60,000 citizens. The initial step would be one of self-determination: the election of the first black alderman to preside over the Second Ward.
Wells-Barnett might have known about the reports of a debate among the protest organizers regarding the segregation of black marchers in Washington. She certainly knew that over the decade, NAWSA, in its strategy to gain support in the South, had appeared to capitulate to its white southern members and legislators like South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman who complained that the enfranchisement of black women would reinvigorate the resistance against white supremacy. In 1894, Ida, a guest in Susan B. Anthony’s Rochester home, had debated the pioneer suffragist about keeping African-American women at bay in the name of “expediency.” Ida’s retort that the strategy would only “confirm white women’s segregationist views” was borne out nine years later when black NAWSA members were banned from the organization’s national meeting in New Orleans. Ominously, some NAWSA leaders were now assuring white Southerners that the way to sustain white supremacy was to enfranchise educated white women—raising the specter of NAWSA’s willingness to pursue suffrage for white women only.
Moreover, Ida knew, such prejudice was not only found in the South. Just the year before, three leading black club women were refused admittance into the influential—if ironically named—Chicago Political Equality League (CPEL). Nine years earlier, Wells-Barnett had addressed the organization, exhorting them “to be emancipated from the prejudice which fetters their noblest endeavor and renders inconsistent their most sacred professions.”
While the women were rehearsing in Washington on the eve of the march in 1913, they got word that the national organizers advised them that their contingent was to be “entirely white;” black women were to march at the tail-end of the parade. In light of the past, this moment could be a historic inflection point. If segregation were allowed to stand in a march of this national—and symbolic—significance, it would signal that women’s suffrage would be more a boon to white supremacy than black empowerment. If “women got the vote in America,” warned the Chicago Defender, the nation’s leading black newspaper, “the colored race will suffer further ills in legislation.” Such an idea, unchallenged, would undermine black community support, squeezing black suffragists from both ends.
With her voice trembling, a tearful Wells-Barnett told the delegation that “if they did not take a stand now in this great democratic parade then the colored women are lost.” When Grace Trout, the leader of the contingent, sided with the segregation order, Wells-Barnett, vowing to march with them or not at all, left the room.
When the women began marching, Ida was nowhere to be seen—but then suddenly appeared out of the crowd to “calmly” take her place with the Illinois delegation. Two white suffragists, Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks, took positions on each side of her. Wells-Barnett “proudly marched with the … head Ladies of the Illinois delegation showing that no Color line existed in … the first national parade of the noble women who are in favor of equal suffrage …” remarked the Chicago Broad Ax, another black paper.
Indeed, black women at large were reported to have ignored the segregation order and marched with their respective delegations. The Broad Ax gave special commendation to black Howard University student members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, led by Mary Church Terrell, another leading black suffragist, who marched in the Education Section of the parade.
That spring, Illinois legislators were awed by the sight of several hundred ASC women lobbying for partial suffrage and against three discriminatory bills. The women succeeded on both counts. In 1915, the women’s vote was the determining factor in the election of Oscar DePriest to become Chicago’s first black alderman. The Club subsequently applied its canvassing and registration techniques to other wards and men and women candidates in the city.
Fifteen years later, a year before her death, Wells-Barnett became the first black woman to seek a state senate seat in Illinois. The election was lost, but a legacy was gained: black women would be a force, even a decisive one, in politics.
Paula J. Giddings is Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor Emerita of Africana Studies at Smith College. She is the author of When and Where I Enter: The Impact on Black Women on Race and Sex in America; In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement; and, most recently, the biography of anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, Ida: A Sword Among Lions, which won The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. Giddings is also the editor of Burning All Illusions, an anthology of articles on race published by The Nation magazine from 1867 to 2000. She is a former book editor and journalist who has written extensively on international and national issues and has been published by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jeune Afrique (Paris), The Nation, and Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, among other publications. Before her tenure at Smith College, Giddings taught at Spelman College, where she was a United Negro Fund Distinguished Scholar; Douglass College/Rutgers University, as the Laurie Chair in Women's Studies; and Princeton and Duke universities. She served as the editor of Meridians, feminism, race, transnationalism. She was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017.
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Wells-Barnett, Ida B. “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynching.” Original Rights Magazine (June 1910), pp. 42-53. Reprinted in Thompson, Mildred, Ida B. Wells-Barnett: An Exploratory Study of An American Black Woman (Brooklyn: Carlson Publishers) pp. 261-265.