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Abstract

Susan B. Anthony once famously stated, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” The racism of many early suffragettes has been well documented and discussed; Black suffragettes and other suffragettes of color were, at best, relegated to the margins of the movement and, at worst, scorned and turned away by white suffragettes. Moreover, part of white suffragettes’ strategy for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was based on racist appeals to white men; white suffragettes claimed that passage of the Nineteenth Amendment would help keep white voters in the majority and, ultimately, would help uphold white supremacy. Against this backdrop, Black women—and much of the Black community more generally—still supported and fought for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Recent legal and historical scholars have been dedicated to studying the often-overlooked and instrumental role that Black women played in the Suffrage Movement and Black enfranchisement. This Article seeks to look at the coverage by Black—largely male—journalists at the Chicago Defender in the ten years preceding and proceeding the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. In doing so, this Article hopes to better understand the ways that some Black community members understood and viewed the Nineteenth Amendment and how that perception changed. Although in hindsight we understand that the Nineteenth Amendment was not the liberating feat for Black women that it was for white women, what does Black journalistic coverage in the period immediately before and after its passage tell us about the perception of the Nineteenth Amendment and Black women’s enfranchisement at the time?

The methodology of this research differs from those used in other historical research regarding Black women’s suffrage. Many historians have focused on understanding Black women’s suffrage through studying individual women’s stories: In her groundbreaking and well-received book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, legal historian Martha Jones says that “by recounting the lives of some of the many Black women who engaged in political fights, the picture of a whole comes into view.” These histories rely on a large variety of historical documents left behind by, and about, individual suffragists and events to gain an understanding of “the picture of a whole.” This Article takes a different approach: it looks deeply at only one set of primary documents—articles printed in the Chicago Defender— to better understand the changes and patterns in community perception revealed through journalistic coverage. This is not counter to the important work of these other historians, who have helped recover the overlooked stories of suffragists of color. Instead, this Article seeks to further our understanding of these stories through a different medium.

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