“THE VOTE THAT WASN’T THEIRS”
HONORING AFRICAN AMERICAN SUFFRAGISTS

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was a true civil rights and women’s suffrage groundbreaker during her lifetime. On August 31, 1842, Josephine St. Pierre was born in Boston, MA in the tight knit African American community of Beacon Hill. In this community, she was constantly inspired to promote principles of equity and equality and soon found herself advocating for similar interests for her African American community. She was of mixed-race ancestry as her black father was from the island of Martinique and her white mother was born in England. She later married George Lewis Ruffin, Harvard Law’s first African American graduate, and was involved in many charitable activities during and after the Civil War. She even began to set the foundations for local and national political organization for African American women’s suffrage by organizing voting registrations and gaining support from prominent local leaders. She was one the primary founder of the Women’s Era Club which was one of her most celebrated achievements. Founded in 1863, this organization hoped to achieve better opportunities for African Americans and to spread awareness for local and national issues concerning the African American community. From 1890-1897, she edited the newspaper for the organization named the Women’s Era that was published by and for African American women in an effort to circulate ideas and promote women’s suffrage. Often finding herself in spaces with white women through her activism in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA), she avidly fought for a more intersectional perspective to women’s suffrage that included African American women. She later helped found Boston’s NAACP chapter. A champion for women’s rights and suffrage, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, truly advocated for her community and established the groundwork for local and national political involvement.

References:

Woods, Kaitlin. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (U.S. National PARK SERVICE). www.nps.gov/people/josephine-st-pierre-ruffin.htm.

Images: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/bbeb8d5a-06a6-b5c2-e040-e00a18063036

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1900 – 1940. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/bbeb8d5a-06a6-b5c2-e040-e00a18063036 

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper led a life of civil rights and women’s rights advocacy and often spoke publicly about unjust treatments for her African American community. After being asked to move from a white-only streetcar seat in 1850, she was inspired to speak at the 1866 National Women’s Rights convention. She boldly stated in her speech, “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs”. She openly spread awareness about the obstacles of racism, sexism, and classism that many African American women faced on a daily basis. Born in Baltimore in the year of 1825, she was raised by her uncle who emphasized the importance of reading and writing at a young age. At the age of 20, she published her first book of poetry called Forest Leaves. She later joined the abolitionist movement after being outraged over Maryland’s law that allowed freed black individuals to be sold back into slavery. After the Civil War, she worked alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and tried to expand their thinking when it came to women’s suffrage and its effects on black women. She didn’t believe that women’s suffrage would solve all of the issues surrounding black womanhood due to racist legislation and class inequalities. Alongside Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells, she also co-founded the National Association of Colored Women. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a notable poet, speaker, and women’s rights activist who recognized a need for an intersectional approach to women’s suffrage.

References:

“Frances Ellen Watkins Harper -.” Archives of Women’s Political Communication, awpc.cattcenter.iastate.edu/directory/frances-ellen-watkins-harper/.

“Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/frances-ellen-watkins-harper.

Images: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-1ebd-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1923. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-1ebd-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Mary E. Cary Burrell

Mary E. Cary Burrell was a suffragist, businesswoman, and political activist who was born in Richmond, VA in 1866 but later relocated to Essex County NJ. During her life, she worked a variety of occupations including a schoolteacher, community organizer, lobbyist, bank clerk, and editor of The Reformer. She could often be found canvassing and advocating for representation and enfranchisement. Burrell was also heavily involved in her church ministries. She was outspoken about her desire to create inclusive workspaces that would employ women and individuals of color. She actively worked for women’s suffrage and held events to gain support and spread awareness. After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, she organized many voter registration drives and meetings. During these events, she explained the importance of the voting process, civic engagement, and the need for African American representation in local and state government. Through her efforts, she was able to flip her district and help elect the first African American representative into the New Jersey Assembly. She was also involved with many organizations including the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Newark’s NAACP, and other national and political organizations. Her advocacy was instrumental in enfranchising and registering thousands of African American women and creating more diverse and inclusive workspaces.

References:

“NJ Suffragists – Mary E. Cary Burrell (1866-1949).” Discover NJ 350, discovernjhistory.org/njsuffragists-mary-cary-burrell/.

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