LEGACY OF SUFFRAGE 100 Years Later, These Activists Continue Their Ancestors’ Work
Black Lives Matter protesters violently cleared by federal forces from Lafayette Square this June were the latest Americans to bring their demand for justice to the doorstep of a sitting president. The first White House protesters were the suffragists, who amid a world war and a flu pandemic unfurled banners demanding of Woodrow Wilson, “MR. PRESIDENT, HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?” Shunned, imprisoned, beaten and tortured, the uneasy alliance of white, Black and brown, highly privileged and formerly enslaved women won passage of the 19th Amendment 100 years ago this month using tactics of protest and persuasion that activists still deploy. As Americans mark a century since that struggle, suffragists’ descendants reflect here on the movement’s legacy among Americans of all races, faiths and genders battling for what the suffragists — quoting the president at the time — described as “liberty: the fundamental demand of the human spirit.”
GREAT-GRANDDAUGHTER IDA B. WELLS-BARNETT
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Michelle Duster marvels at how her great-grandmother did it all, juggling research and writing, teaching and speaking. An educator turned journalist, Wells-Barnett’s illustrated accounts of lynchings as an instrument of terror jolted the nation and endangered her life. She was also a founder of the N.A.A.C.P. and a suffragist who demanded voting rights be inseparable from civil rights. Wells-Barnett refused to comply with Alice Paul’s segregation of the 8,000-strong Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington on March 3, 1913, edging into the Illinois contingent as it moved past and marching as the only Black woman in the state delegation. This year Wells-Barnett, who died in 1931, was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
“She lived her life on her own terms,” Ms. Duster said.
Born into slavery, Wells-Barnett “could go to the White House and talk to two different presidents,” Ms. Duster said. “But at the same time, she took in people who were practically homeless.”
IDA B. WELLS-BARNETT
After college, Ms. Duster immersed herself in Wells-Barnett’s life. “I got very interested in the impact of images on people’s worldview,” she said. “I felt like I was experiencing the results of that level of intentional misinformation. That has been the driving force of my whole career — how can I dismantle these false narratives of exactly who African-Americans are?”
Ms. Duster lives in Chicago, where Wells-Barnett settled after a white mob destroyed her Tennessee newspaper office. She teaches writing at Columbia College Chicago and tutors at Wilbur Wright College.
Ms. Duster speaks widely about her great-grandmother’s legacy, a theme explored in her book “Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells.” She is creating an initiative “to educate people about the involvement of Black women in the suffrage movement, and how it ties into today,” she said. Ms. Duster has seen social media posts invoking Wells-Barnett, and an article crediting her with creating a blueprint for opposing police violence. “They’re giving her credit for paving the way, expressing inspiration for how outspoken she was, and willingly and knowingly putting her life in danger,” Ms. Duster said. In addition to exposing lynchings as state-sanctioned murder, “she was encouraging Black people to exercise the power that they did have,” organizing boycotts of white-owned businesses and streetcars and a mass exodus of Black residents from Memphis. “That’s why they wanted to kill her.
Kenneth B. Morris Jr.
GREAT-GREAT-GREAT-GRANDSON FREDERICK DOUGLASS
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Frederick Douglass, though famed as an abolitionist, attended the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and was one of 32 men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments, demanding the vote. In 1866, he joined Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in founding the American Equal Rights Association, demanding suffrage for all people.
“When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people,” he said in a speech in 1888 to the International Council of Women in Washington. “But when I stood up for the rights of woman, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.”
Growing up, Kenneth B. Morris Jr. spent summers at Twin Oaks, Douglass’s Chesapeake Bay retreat in Highland Beach, Md., an airy home with photographs of his famous ancestors “in every room,” he said.
In 2005, Mr. Morris grew riveted by a National Geographic article on global human trafficking titled, “21st Century Slaves,” as his two daughters, then 12 and 9, got ready for bed.
Mr. Morris, a founder of a marketing firm in Corona, Calif., recalled that he “couldn’t look them in the eyes” as he said goodnight to the girls.
“Frederick Douglass’s goal was to end slavery,” he said. “How could I leverage this platform that I had done nothing with?”
Mr. Morris’s great-great-great-grandfather had written that his lifelong commitment to education was rooted in his enslaver’s rationale for laws criminalizing education for Black Americans: “You cannot teach a slave to read or write because it will unfit him to be a slave.” So in 2007, Mr. Morris co-founded the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, “to ‘unfit’ communities to allow slavery to exist and thrive,” he said. “The foundation of all our work is around education,” including how to identify victims of human trafficking. That work has expanded to nearly three dozen counties in California, as well as cities in Utah and Texas.
After the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in May while in police custody in Minneapolis, and the ensuing explosion of protest, Mr. Morris said: “We started speaking to students, trying to get a sense of where they were. They were filled with anger.” Recalling Douglass’s 1881 essay excoriating racism as a “moral disorder” and “disease,” Mr. Morris developed a youth writing program to explore “remedies for the disease of racism.”
He has also been speaking out to correct another historical wrong: the near-erasure of his great-great-great-grandmother Anna Murray Douglass. A free Black woman, she sold her personal belongings to help finance Douglass’s escape from slavery.
“Had she not been in his life, I don’t know that he would have had the courage to run away,” Mr. Morris said. “I am as much a product of her as I am of him.”
When Was the First Time a Woman in Your Family Voted? We want to hear your stories as we mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
Joyce Stokes Jones
Michele Jones Galvin
GREAT-GREAT- AND GREAT-GREAT-GREAT-GRANDNIECES HARRIET TUBMAN
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When Michele Jones Galvin was in fourth grade in Syracuse, N.Y., her class was assigned to make a collage depicting a famous person in history. She asked her mother, Joyce Stokes Jones, for an idea. Her mother suggested she choose Aunt Harriet Tubman. Consulting multiple encyclopedias, Ms. Jones Galvin found the same scant sentences, so she chose Sidney Poitier instead.
Soon after, Ms. Jones began filling those historical gaps in the Tubman collage. Over 30 years, she read and researched, traveled and interviewed, learning all she could about Tubman, abolitionist, suffragist and friend of Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony.
Born in 1821 into slavery on a Maryland plantation, according to Ms. Jones’s research, Tubman escaped. Then, through the Underground Railroad, she led slaves to freedom. During the Civil War, Tubman led a spy network for the Union. Though she never learned to read or write, she was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, prominent advocates for universal suffrage.
Inspired by her research, Ms. Jones began writing a weekly column in 1968 on Black heritage for The Syracuse Herald-Journal and produced programming on Black history for local television. In 1985, she produced a documentary on Tubman’s life and family.
Four decades after embarking on her research, Ms. Jones teamed up with her daughter to write a book. In 2013, on the centennial of Tubman’s death, they published “Beyond the Underground: Aunt Harriet, Moses of Her People.”
“We know Aunt Harriet to be as John Brown described her: ‘The best and the bravest person on the continent,’” Ms. Jones Galvin said. “Her rescue missions, military prowess and support of women’s suffrage speak for themselves.” Ms. Jones Galvin is active in a half-dozen charitable and advocacy groups, including the League of Women Voters.
In mid-March, she was asked what Tubman would think of race relations today. “Aunt Harriet would be heartbroken,” Ms. Jones Galvin said. “She’d be wondering, ‘What the heck have you guys been doing for 107 years after I’m gone?’”
But a month later, after the death of George Floyd, came “the emergence of this new, momentous movement — the people standing up for Black Lives Matter were intergenerational, interracial, a conglomeration of all the best America has to offer,” she said. “I felt we had finally come to the America Aunt Harriet would be proud of.”
COUSINS NELLIE QUANDER
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The Quanders are one of the Washington region’s largest and most illustrious African-American families. Their presence in North America dates to the late 17th century, and Rohulamin Quander, a family patriarch, says he has found historical suggestions of shared ancestry with a nephew of George Washington’s. Quander descendants include the first Black people to hold leadership roles in education, medicine, commerce and the military, Courtland Milloy reported in 1978 in a column in The Washington Post.
Nellie Quander, an educator and activist for Black women’s rights, taught in Washington public schools while earning her degree at Howard University. She became the president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, an African-American sorority, in 1911, three years after its founding on the campus. In 1913, Quander incorporated the sorority, preserving its founding principles, including high scholastic and ethical standards and service in perpetuity. Alpha Kappa Alpha now has 300,000 members.
Quander supported women’s suffrage, and when the National American Woman Suffrage Association announced plans for the Woman Suffrage Procession, spearheaded by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, in Washington on March 3, 1913, Quander sought entry for Alpha Kappa Alpha. But organizers, acceding to racists in states needed to ratify the 19th Amendment, sought to isolate Black women.
In a letter to Paul, Quander made clear she was having none of it.
On the day of the procession, “Nellie and her group refused to take a place in the back of the D.C. line,” Rohulamin Quander said. “They forcibly integrated themselves into the group of white women from D.C.”
W.E.B. DuBois wrote at the time that “there seems to be no doubt but that the attempt to draw the color line in the woman’s suffrage movement has received a severe and, let us hope, final setback.”
Nellie Quander worked to empower women as a national leader in the Y.W.C.A., where she served for more than 50 years, until her death in 1961.
Much of this history came from Mr. Quander, a Washington lawyer who for more than a half-century has fought as his cousin did to ensure that Black women are not sidelined in the suffrage story. He contributes family history and lends documents to historians, academics and the Library of Congress. His book “Nellie Quander: An Alpha Kappa Alpha Pearl” was published in 2008, the sorority’s centennial year.
“Her family knew Frederick Douglass. Her father was a decorated Civil War veteran. She was an activist until the very end,” Mr. Quander said. “She would be very proud, I think, of the fact that since the 1960s, I have been bringing forth the history of the Quander family.”
Produced by Marisa Schwartz Taylor and Rebecca Lieberman.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.