A Fundamental Component: Black Women and Right to Vote

By Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello

Sarah J. S. Garnet, representing the Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn, and Irene L. Moorman, the president of the Negro Women’s Business League, met with the wealthy and fervent white suffragist Alva Vanderbilt Belmont in January 1910 at the office of Belmont’s Political Equality Association. They arranged a February 6 meeting to be held at Mount Olivet Baptist Church on West Fifty-Third Street. Belmont, like Ella Hawley Crossett and the civil rights activist Fanny Garrison Villard, wanted to expand the base of support for woman suffrage and sought ways to include black women in a “colored” branch of her association.[1] At the invitation of Garnet and Moorman, two hundred women and men gathered to hear Belmont “endorse the idea of racial equality and the expansion of suffrage to all American citizens.”[2] She promised to fund a meeting place for the black women’s branch of her Political Equality Association when it enrolled one hundred members.


This post is excerpted from the authors' new book, Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State (Cornell University Press).

Black women had already established a strong coalition of suffrage activism; they did not need white women to organize them. As a consequence, they responded only halfheartedly to Belmont’s call.[3] According to the report of the meeting in the influential black newspaper the New York Age, the pro-suffrage speeches by the white women “did not evoke much applause,” and some of the women who joined the African American branch of the Political Equality Association planned to support the branch financially but not to participate regularly in its activities. Crossett, then in her final year as the president of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, invited African American suffragists to send a delegation to Albany on March 9, 1910, to appear before a state legislative committee at the hearing on the woman suffrage bill.[4] She also invited them to affiliate with the state suffrage organization, which some individual women did.

True to their commitment to “uplift” the race, black women wove agitation for the vote into their activism for civil rights, moral reform, and community improvement. Because black women typically had more power within their own communities than did white women in theirs, black women saw the need for suffrage differently than white women did. Issues that occupied the energies of white women, such as the need for “equality within their families, political rights, and access to paid work,” did not mean as much to black women.[5] Some black women did not feel the necessity to press for the vote as much as they felt the need to agitate to “emancipate their race from the oppressive conditions under which they lived.”[6] However, core groups of black women certainly agitated for the vote throughout the movement, with or without a connection to white women’s suffrage organizations. They saw the vote as a way to solve the problems the black race — and especially women — faced, including segregation, lynching, and other forms of systematic racism.[7] ...

Black women had organized for woman suffrage decades before, although most often within organizations devoted to broader social activist agendas. Belmont tried to take advantage of both the strong suffrage sentiment black women already harbored and their firmly-established networks to enfold them into the New York State suffrage coalition. Though the history of black women’s suffrage has been rendered nearly invisible by the paucity of archival materials, it is still possible to reconstruct a compelling portrait of the commitment and sacrifice of these dedicated reformers.[8] They did not rely on white women to tell them they needed the right to vote; they began organizing for the franchise in New York State as early as the 1880s and, in spite of the racism they faced, they would actively seek their enfranchisement throughout the entire struggle. African American women rarely separated the quest for the vote from the other activism in which they engaged. Many black women came to fear that white women would “devise something akin to an exclusionary ‘grandmother’s clause’” to keep black women from voting once they won the vote.[9] Some scholars argue that, in fact, “racist attitudes provided additional impetus” for black women’s struggle.[10] Much of their activism and work for woman suffrage and women’s rights occurred as a fundamental component of their activities in clubs such as the Negro Women’s Business League or in the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs or its affiliates, such as Phyllis Wheatley Clubs, the Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs, or the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.[11] Most women who supported enfranchisement did so as part of their goal to improve the status of black women in addition to that of black men and children.

The early twentieth century was “characterized by racial segregation, defamation of the character of Black women, and lynching of black Americans, both men and women,” making it a dangerous period to have been a person of color in the United States.[12] The very years when “racial prejudice became acceptable, even fashionable, in America” marked greater respectability and broad acceptance of the woman suffrage movement. Not radical in their thinking, these women reformers believed that the vote would give them the power to change what was wrong with the social and political systems in the United States.[13] Their first task was to obtain racial equality; obtaining women’s rights would come next.[14] Black women also formed a fundamental component of the woman suffrage movement, adding their voices to the coalition working for women’s right to vote...


Sarah Garnet [a teacher and principal in the New York City school system] founded the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn in the late 1880s, and she eventually affiliated her organization with the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.[15] In the early years of the league members met in the back of her seamstress shop. Garnet argued that women had the “same human intellectual and spiritual capabilities as men,” and that it opposed the tenets of democracy to deny women the right to vote.[16] Initially many black women had reservations about supporting woman suffrage, fearing that “involvement in public, political activities would compromise their femininity.” But over time, women became convinced that the vote would protect them as workers, allow them to improve education for their children and themselves, and challenge black men’s disenfranchisement. Increasing numbers of women found suffrage arguments convincing.[17] Eventually, the growing membership required that meetings be held in a larger space at the Young Men’s Christian Association on Carlton Avenue.[18] Usually attendees enjoyed a musical performance, a report recounting the group’s accomplishments since the previous meeting, and suffrage speeches by members or special guests.

Because the Equal Suffrage League remained active for at least thirty years, it drew a number of eminent activists into its fold. Sarah Garnet’s social justice work ranged from her efforts to abolish race-based discrimination against black teachers to a commitment to equal rights for African American women relative to pay and suffrage. Her younger sister, Dr. Susan Maria Smith McKinney Steward, [the first African American woman medical doctor licensed in New York State] helped to found the Equal Suffrage League and remained active in the suffrage and temperance movements.[19] ... Addie Waites Hunton, better known for her anti-lynching work and her support of the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Association of Colored Women, and the Empire Federation of Women’s Clubs, regularly participated in league activities.[20] Alice Wiley Seay, the president of the Northeastern Federation of Women’s Clubs, also maintained her membership in the league.

Another prominent member of the Equal Suffrage League, Verina Harris Morton-Jones, practiced as a physician in addition to her suffrage activism and volunteer social work. A member of the board of the NAACP, Morton-Jones also helped to found organizations such as the National Urban League, the Association for the Protection of Colored Women, and the Cosmopolitan Society of America, which sought to end discrimination in New York City public facilities.[21] In 1908, Morton-Jones founded the Lincoln Settlement House in Brooklyn, providing both social services and moral uplift.[22] Like Garnet, Morton-Jones joined the National Association of Colored Women, eventually serving as the director of its Mother’s Club in Brooklyn. She also held membership in the Empire State Federation and the Northeastern Federation of Women’s Clubs.[23]

Under Morton-Jones, who assumed the presidency of the Equal Suffrage League by 1906, the organization continued its suffrage activism. Morton-Jones presided over the meeting when the league honored Susan B. Anthony following her death that year.[24] She invited Congressman William H. Calder, a native of Brooklyn, to speak at a meeting of the Equal Suffrage League at the Carlton Avenue Branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association on March 28, 1908. As Morton-Jones presided, Garnet, then serving as suffrage superintendent of the National Association of Colored Women, presented an Equal Suffrage League petition “asking for the enactment of such legislation by Congress as will enforce the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution” to Calder, who “assured the assemblage” that he would do “all he could for justice to all citizens.”[25] ...

Equal Suffrage League members continued to expand their activities to educate and recruit members. By February 1910, the league vice-president, Mary E. Eato, a teaching colleague of Sarah Garnet, presided over most of the Equal Suffrage League meetings and events.[26] The club hosted a celebration in honor of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass on February 16. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Attorney D. Macon Webster gave an “excellent” speech on suffrage for women before he gave his speech on Douglass, a man he had known personally. Some members read papers or poems. Alice Davis accompanied attendees singing woman suffrage songs. They also voted to accept the invitation of the Interurban Association, a New York City umbrella organization coordinating the efforts of twenty-three local clubs, to cooperate in its suffrage work. The league then elected Lydia C. Smith and Maria C. Lawton as delegates to attend state legislative proceedings in Albany on March 9.[27] During the March meeting, members sang suffrage songs before they heard an address given by Ida Craft, the president of the Kings County Organization of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association.[28] The league also celebrated the ninety-ninth anniversary of the birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, at a public meeting in June 1910.[29] W. E. B. Du Bois spoke on the advancement of the race at another meeting of the Equal Suffrage League in April 1911.[30] These examples of suffrage activities highlight black women’s commitment to woman suffrage.

Other prominent league members included Maritcha Rémond Lyons and Victoria Earle Matthews. Lyons, who grew up in a home that served as a station on the Underground Railroad, supported organizations such as the New York African Society for Mutual Relief and held membership in St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church.[31] Deeply involved in social reform, Lyons supported the Howard Colored Orphanage Asylum in Brooklyn as well as woman suffrage.[32] Matthews, in spite of marriage and motherhood, found time to be active as a journalist and as a clubwoman.[33] Her writing, often in dialect in her early body of work, prompted the predominately white Women’s National Press Association to invite her to join its ranks.[34] In addition to her leadership in the Woman’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn, Matthews cofounded the National Federation of Afro-American Women, serving as its first chairperson, and the National Association of Colored Women, where she acted as chair of the Executive Board and a national organizer.

Because of her activism at the national level, Matthews rose to become one of the most prominent and well-regarded black activists in the country.[35]When her sixteen-year-old son died, the tragedy impelled her to become more deeply involved in helping less fortunate people in New York City.[36] She founded the White Rose Mission to counter the dominance of the so-called employment agencies that forced naive young women into debt and “depravity.”[37] Although many women, including Maritcha Lyons, supported Matthews’s White Rose Mission, the activist and educator Frances Reynolds Keyser served the mission as Matthews’s foremost assistant. Keyser’s devotion to the mission freed Matthews to travel and speak extensively. As a result, Matthews played an important role in the “national African American women’s club movement and interracial social reform efforts.”[38] The networks of reform that she and other women built strengthened black women’s suffrage activism and attracted new members.

Having worked with Sarah Garnet and Verina Morton-Jones, Irene L. Moorman, a businesswoman, eventually took over as a prominent leader for suffrage. Moorman represented the Metropolitan Business Women’s Club in the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.[39] At about the same time, she became more deeply involved in activism and reform, joining the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn in December 1907, when she spoke at a meeting held in tribute to the radical abolitionist John Brown.[40] Notable activist women such as Margaret Murray Washington, Fannie Barrier Williams, and Mary Church Terrell visited Moorman in her Brooklyn office, signifying her increasingly respected role as a social activist.[41] By 1908, they elected her as treasurer. She rubbed elbows with Lyons as well as Keyser and spoke at fundraisers for Verina Morton-Jones’s Lincoln Settlement House.[42] In October 1910, she represented the Negro Men’s and Women’s Branch of the Political Equality Association at the forty-second annual New York State Woman Suffrage Association convention in Niagara Falls. There, Moorman and representatives of the Harlem Club and the Wage Earners’ League spoke about the ways that settlement house workers promoted suffrage and political equality in the city.[43]

Other clubs supporting woman suffrage existed in the Greater New York area. For example, Maria C. Lawton, one of the presidents of the Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs, also served as president of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Equality League of Kings County, founded in July 1910. In addition to the goal of securing the ballot, members expected to promote the advancement of the race and to give women a voice in government decision making. To help meet their objectives, members intended to reach out to young laborers in department stores to enlist their aid in the campaign.[44] New Rochelle hosted a Colored Women Suffrage League by 1915, offering events such as musicals to the public.[45] These organizational and membership efforts helped to increase the visibility of black women’s suffrage involvement. African American women and men often debated woman suffrage in their churches, lyceums, and elsewhere. Typically, a prominent leader like Frances Reynolds Keyser would read a paper about her views on woman suffrage, followed by presentations by other suffrage proponents.[46] The Brooklyn Literary Union, an “anchor for intellectual discussion and social reform,” hosted lectures on a variety of topics, including woman suffrage.[47] Maritcha Lyons had once served the organization as vice-president, and the membership included several women who worked for woman suffrage.[48] Occasionally women and men would give their views on the opposing side of the issue, as happened in Brooklyn in April 1909. Anti-suffragists Sarah Brown, Miss A. A. Sampson, John D. Jones, and Mrs. Stuart articulated their views in opposition to women’s enfranchisement at a meeting of the Equal Suffrage League at St. Mark’s Lyceum.[49] The league sponsored mock conventions at the lyceum on two consecutive Thursdays that same month. Those who took part in the general discussion included Keyser, Lyons, Moorman, Wiley, Garnet, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.[50] Several weeks later, people again discussed woman suffrage at the lyceum of the Metropolitan United African Methodist Episcopal Church.[51] The topic of suffrage drew large audiences of African American women and men in the city, as it did across the state.

Susan Goodier is Lecturer in History at Oneonta, State University of New York (SUNY). She is the author of No Votes for Women. Karen Pastorello is Professor of History at Tompkins Cortland Community College (SUNY). She is the author of The Progressives and A Power Among Them.


[1] Newspapers widely reported this meeting. See for example, “Mrs. Belmont Crosses Line,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 7, 1910, 2; “Suffrage for All,” Washington Bee, February 12, 1910, 1; “What Women are Doing,” Oakland [California] Tribune, February 22, 1910, 8; “Suffrage for Negresses,” New York Times, January 19, 1910, 5. Contemporaries often referred to the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn as the Colored Women’s (or Woman’s) Equal Suffrage League. Fanny Garrison Villard was the only daughter of renowned abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

[2] Sylvia D. Hoffert, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women’s Rights (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 80.

[3] “Negroes Join Mrs. Belmont,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 4, 1910, 22.

[4] “Ask Negro Women to be Suffragists,” New York Age, February 10, 1910, 1.

[5] Jane E. Dabel, A Respectable Woman: The Public Roles of African American Women in 19th-Century New York (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 156.

[6] Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Daughters of Sorrow: Attitudes toward Black Women, 1880–1920 (Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1990), 129.

[7] Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, Man Cannot Speak for Her: A Critical Study of Early Feminist Rhetoric (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), 145–46.

[8] Tetrault argues convincingly that the authors of the History of Woman Suffrage tended to cut material related to black women’s involvement in suffrage and women’s rights activism out of the official history of the movement. Lisa Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848–1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2014), 134–35.

[9] Michele Mitchell, Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 136; Guy-Sheftall, Daughters of Sorrow, 114.

[10] Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: Bantam Books, 1984), 129.

[11] The Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs is sometimes called the New York State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. See, for example, “Meetings,” Crisis 10, no. 4 (August 1915): 165. The Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs continues its activism in the present day.

[12] Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, “Discontented Black Feminists: Prelude and Postscript to the Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment,” in Black Studies Reader, ed. Cynthia Hudley, Jacqueline Bobo, and Claudine Michel (New York: Routledge, 2004), 66.

[13] Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 185; Terborg-Penn, “Discontented Black Feminists,” 66-68.

[14] Dorothy Sterling, ed. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984), 410–11.

[15] Judith Wellman, Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York (New York: New York University, 2014), 128.

[16] Karen Garner, “Equal Suffrage League,” in Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations, ed. Nina Mjagkij (New York: Garland, 2001), 224; Peterson, Black Gotham, 355–56.

[17] Garner, “Equal Suffrage League,” 224.

[18] Brooklyn and Queens YMCA Carlton Avenue Branch, the first branch in Brooklyn for African Americans, opened in 1902 and closed in 1955. “Brooklyn and Queens YMCA Carlton Avenue Branch: An Inventory of Its Records,” Kautz Family YMCA Archives, Elmer L. Anderson Library, University of Minnesota, http://special.lib.umn.edu/findaid/html/ymca/ygny0025.phtml (accessed April 2, 2015).

[19] Garnet, the first black woman to secure a position as a principal in the New York City public school system, worked in education for a total of fifty-six years. Brown, Homespun Heroines, 111-12.

[20] Craig Steven Wilder, In the Company of Black Men: The African Influence on African American Culture in New York City (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 215.

[21] Cash, African American Women, 9-10, 102.

[22] The Lincoln Settlement House struggled to keep up with the needs of a burgeoning black population, and eventually turned its operation over to the Urban League, forming the Brooklyn Urban League-Lincoln Settlement Association. Cash, African American Women, 102, 104.

[23] Cash, African American Women, 104.

[24] “Honor Susan B. Anthony,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 2, 1906, 13; “Afro-American Notes,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 23, 1908, 10.

[25] “Afro-American Notes,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 30, 1908, 5.

[26] “Afro-American Notes,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 13, 1910, 60; Brown, Homespun Heroines, 114. Eato also helped establish and run the Hope Day Nursery for Colored Children.

[27] “Negroes Honor Lincoln,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 17, 1910, 10.

[28] “Miss Craft Talks Suffrage,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 17, 1910, 2.

[29] “Afro-American Notes,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 12, 1910, 22.

[30] “Advancement of the Negro,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 29, 1911, 22.

[31] Tonya Bolden, Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century American Girl (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005), 14–15, 20–21, 22, 42. St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church was an all-black church founded because parishioners resented the segregation of Trinity, the oldest Episcopal Church in New York. With a long career as an educator, Lyons ultimately became an assistant principal of Brooklyn’s Public School No. 83.

[32] Cash, African American Women, 20.

[33] Brown, Homespun Heroines, 210.

[34] Cash, African American Women, 92.

[35] Brown, Homespun Heroines, 210–11; Jeffrey B. Perry, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883–1918 (New York: Columbia University, 2009), 94.

[36] Her concern was the district lying between 59th and 127th Streets, from Park to First Avenue. African Americans had apparently been driven from Bleecker Street by the “influx of Italians.” Brown, Homespun Heroines, 211.

[37] Guichard Parris and Lester Brooks, Blacks in the City: A History of the National Urban League (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971), 6–7; Steve Kramer, “Uplifting Our ‘Downtrodden Sisterhood’: Victoria Earle Matthews and New York City’s White Rose Mission, 1897–1907,” Journal of African American History 91, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 243.

[38] Ingrid Overacker, The African American Church Community in Rochester, New York, 1900–1940 (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1998), 28.

[39] “Afro-American Notes,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 26, 1907, 6; “Afro-American Notes,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 6, 1907, 7; and “Business Women’s Clubs,” New York Age, December 12, 1907, 2.

[40] “In Memory of John Brown,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 12, 1907, 9.

[41] “Women Visit Mercantile and Realty Company,” New York Age, September 17, 1908, 10.

[42] “Afro-American Notes,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 15, 1908, 41; “Past Week in Brooklyn,” New York Age, December 24, 1908, 5; and “Colored Women Convene,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 8, 1909, 5.

[43] “Minutes of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, 1907–1910,” vol. 7, p. 316, box 3, Woman Suffrage Association of New York State and Woman Suffrage Party of New York City Records, 1869–1919, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Butler Library, Columbia University; “The Political Settlement,” Survey 24, May 14, 1910, 279; “Mrs. Belmont’s Club Opens,” New York Times, January 13, 1910, 4; “What Mrs. Belmont Has Done for Women,” New York Times, March 9, 1910, 1.

[44] “New Equality League,” New York Age, July 13, 1910, 5.

[45] “New Rochelle, N.Y.” New York Age, April 29, 1915, 3.

[46] “St. Mark’s Lyceum Opening,” New York Age, September 24, 1908, 3.

[47] “The Brooklyn Literary Union,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 8, 1886, 4.

[48] Wellman, Brooklyn’s Promised Land, 165–66.

[49] St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church was the largest A.M.E. church in New York. “Easter at St. Mark’s Lyceum,” New York Age, April 15, 1909, 3.

[50] “Afro-American Notes,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 30, 1909, 9.

[51] “Metropolitan U.A.M.E. Church,” New York Age, May 6, 1909, 8.