Justice  /  Explainer

What the 19th Amendment Meant for Black Women

It wasn’t a culminating moment, but the start of a new fight to secure voting rights for all Americans.

In August 1920, women across America celebrated the adoption of the 19th Amendment. At the National Woman’s Party headquarters in Washington, Alice Paul, the group’s leader, triumphantly unfurled a banner displaying 36 stars, one for each state that had voted to ratify the women’s suffrage amendment. For Paul and the many suffragists who had picketed the White House or paraded along Pennsylvania Avenue, it was the culmination of decades of work. The next step was getting new women voters registered in anticipation of the fall election.

But the moment looked very different to America’s 5.2 million Black women—2.2 million of whom lived in the South, where Jim Crow laws threatened to keep them off the registration books. For Black women, August 1920 wasn’t the culmination of a movement. It marked the start of a new fight.

In the following months and years, Black women around the country who had pushed for the 19th Amendment persisted. They came together in citizenship and suffrage schools, preparing one another to overcome legal hurdles and reluctant registrars. Fannie Williams worked out of St. Louis’ Phyllis Wheatley YWCA. Mary McLeod Bethune toured Florida as head of that state’s Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. In Richmond, Virginia, Maggie Lena Walker gathered Black women through the Independent Order of St. Luke, a fraternal business organization. They tested the promise of the 19th Amendment, and they exposed its limits.

Notably, Black women did not do this work under the auspices of the country’s major suffrage associations. As the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and the National Woman’s Party had increasingly bent their cause to accommodate anti-Black racism—a position intended to win white Southern supporters—African American women worked independently. They knew that their voting rights would fully arrive only with federal legislation that would override the states’ Jim Crow laws. Hallie Quinn Brown, head of the National Association of Colored Women, was disappointed when Paul declined to join Black women in the next chapter in the story of women’s votes. Black women moved forward alone.

In the winter of early 1921, Brown wrote to Paul about the upcoming unveiling of a monument to “our three pioneers of suffrage.” The likenesses of three white women—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott—were scheduled to be revealed at the U.S. Capitol on February 15, the 101st anniversary of Anthony’s birth. Brown’s words admitted the strain she felt: “I am anxious,” she wrote, that the NACW “be represented on that occasion and shall appreciate all information bearing upon this matter.”