One of the central goals of the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition Women March is to emphasize the diverse and abounding character of women’s activism over the past 200 years. The Center for Women’s History’s curatorial team wanted to move visitors away from a preconceived notion of “the suffrage movement,” or a movement headed by a single organization, to see a more complex landscape of multiple movements that consolidated, butted heads, and collaborated. One important dimension of this approach was to address specifically how Black activists were marginalized by white suffragists—without marginalizing them further. The story of how we uncovered one particular photograph, featuring the founders of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, demonstrates how we tackled this curatorial dilemma.
Historians know that Black women were actively calling for universal suffrage in the early 20th century from contemporary newspaper coverage, organizational records and government files, and correspondence among activists. However, images of Black women demanding the vote in this period are few and far between. Mainstream newspaper and newsreel outlets were focused on the white population, and therefore took photos only of white activists. Many suffrage groups themselves also sought the vote in order to protect white supremacy, and had their own vested interest in maintaining a portrayal of the movement as white.
This tension was especially palpable in the planning of the 1913 Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., which was embroiled in racial controversy and internal contradictions. Alice Paul and other march organizers discouraged Black women from participating and even hoped for a low Black turnout to appease southern white suffragists. Some organizers were so intent on segregation that they planned to “strategically place” male suffrage league members in between Black and white women marchers in order to create more physical distance. An article from The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), noted how Black women’s desire to participate in the march had been contested by parade organizers:
The woman’s suffrage party had a hard time settling the status of Negroes in the Washington parade. At first Negro callers were received coolly at headquarters. Then, they were told to register, but found that the registry clerks were usually out. Finally, an order went out to segregate them in the parade, but telegrams and protests poured in and eventually the colored women marched according to their State and occupation without let or hindrance.
The same issue also included a report praising the women who persisted against these barriers and marched, saying, “They are to be congratulated that so many had the courage of their convictions and that they made such an admirable showing in the first great national parade.”
The account of what actually occurred during the march, and Black women’s responses, is varied. One well-known story surrounds Ida B. Wells, who—after unsuccessfully lobbying for integration of the official Illinois delegation—“jumped in” to take her place with the delegation halfway through the parade. Other women chose to march in the back, or refused to participate altogether. For example, the first Black sorority at the historically Black college Howard University, Alpha Kappa Alpha (founded in 1908), had expressed interest in participating in the 1913 March. However, Paul apparently did not or could not assure their president, Nellie Quander, that they would not be met “with discrimination on account of race affiliation.” It is not known whether or how many members of Alpha Kappa Alpha ended up marching, but Paul’s ambivalence certainly kept many Black women away.
Including more voices and experiences as these can provide a fuller picture, but because of the mainstream media’s limited interest at the time, photographs of Black women marching in suffrage parades are nonexistent. How could we locate something for Women March? The author of The Crisis article helpfully identified some of the Black women who did chose to march as a “group of twenty-five girls in caps and gowns” from Howard University. These young women were the founding members of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc, which had had been established just two months before the parade. Participating in the 1913 Suffrage March was the Deltas’ first political act. The choice of the young sorority sisters and their mentor, Mary Church Terrell, to defiantly march despite the racism and hostility of organizers, solidified the Deltas as a serious political and social justice group rather than a college social club.
We knew a portrait of these marchers existed, but would we be able to find the original and secure permission to display it? Luckily for our exhibition, one of our Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellows in Women’s History and Public History, Pamela Walker, happens to also be a Delta member. Through this personal connection, we were thrilled to secure permission to display a group portrait of the founders from the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
The photograph allowed us to foreground the actions of these young Black women who “marched anyway.” While many Black women suffragists, like Terrell, held close ties to Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, and other white movement leaders, they also had evidence of white suffragists’ hypocrisy through their personal experiences. We needed to be clear that Paul did not do Black women any favors by “letting” them join a segregated procession. Rather, it was a disappointing blow that Paul chose the comfort of segregationists over the dignity of Black women.
We coupled the portrait with a life-size image of Nannie Burroughs and colleagues at a Baptist convention to help showcase how the vote was part of a larger world of activism of Black “clubwomen.” We also included it with a petition from the Equal Suffrage League (the suffrage arm of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs) asking for enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments as well as the vote for women, and a sign from the October 1917 NYC suffrage parade in which a number of Black women marched. Lastly, while footage of suffrage marches does not show Black women, the exhibition includes footage of the 1917 NAACP Silent March to demonstrate that Black women did “march” during this period, and that they felt that woman suffrage would be a means for fighting racial violence.
The Deltas’ founding principles of scholarship, sisterhood, and service have lived on in word and deed for more than a century. In 2013, the Deltas staged a reenactment of the 1913 March to celebrate how social justice functions at the heart of the Delta’s origin story, with a legacy of bold activism driving the sorority’s civil rights and political activism throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune and Dorothy Irene Height paved the way for Black women in politics working through organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women and the YWCA, and to expand American democracy and bring about tangible changes to the lives of Black people, specifically Black women. Dorothy Height, in particular, was a critical organizer during the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and though rarely acknowledged, she is one of few women who regularly strategized with the “Big Six” Movement leaders (including Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph and others). The women in crimson and cream have also demonstrated their ability to transform society by running for office and in their positions at the federal level. Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman in Congress, while Barbara Jordan was the first Black person from the South to serve in Congress since Reconstruction. Loretta Lynch’s confirmation in 2015 as the first Black woman U.S. Attorney General was another great milestone, not just for women of the organization but Black women in general.
From their founding at Howard in January 1913 to their decision to participate in the suffrage parade just two months later, this small but mighty coterie of Black women expanded their influence and served as a model for how to march through unwelcoming spaces and uncharted territory with dignity. The parade illuminates the complexities, compromises, and failures of early 20th century interracial organizing between white and Black women that continue to haunt social justice work today. This historic event can be an instructive example—albeit, an anti-model of how to be an ally—in the present moment.
Read more from our suffrage centennial series:
- Commemorating an Incomplete Victory: The 19th Amendment at 100
- Why Suffrage? A Broader Look At Women’s Collective Action in the 19th Century
- The Many “Official” Colors of the Suffrage Movement
- White Supremacy and the Suffrage Movement
- Obstacles to Suffrage after 1920
- “Get Ready to Vote:” Black Women after the Voting Rights Act
- Fighting Back: Women of Color and the Ongoing Struggle for Citizenship Beyond the Vote
- Many Fronts, One Struggle: Native American Women’s Activism Since the 19th Amendment
- The Suffrage Centennial: Righting, and Rewriting, Historical Wrongs
Written by Sarah Gordon, Curatorial Scholar in Women’s History, Center for Women’s History and Pamela Walker, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History.