1913 was such a pivotal year for Black women…. Here’s my spin on my favorite piece of history.
The year is 1931 and I am dying. However, it is nothing to be surprised about, because that is what old people do. Luckily, I have lived a fulfilling life. I worked hard, took care of my husband and children, and worked endlessly to provide justice for others. As I lay in my bed waiting to take my last breath, I reflect back to my proudest moment, when I and other Negro women participated in the Women’s Suffrage March more than 20 years earlier.
The morning of March 3, 1913 was cold. Colder than I imagined, though it is early March. I awoke feeling melancholy. For weeks, there has been talk around the town about women protesting in the streets to urge politicians to give us the right to vote.
Being a woman in these times is one thing, but to be Negro and woman is another. Racism is something that is often ignored in the face of fighting sexism. White women will force Negro women to do all the ground work while they receive the glory. They want our bodies physically there, but our thoughts and feelings are not validated, because in their eyes, we are not important enough to speak for ourselves.
I admit, I was suspicious when members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association approached me to participate in their protest. I was settling in from my anti-lynching legislation tour, which took me around the states and overseas to London. However, I agreed until I received another visit that forever changed me.
“How are you Mrs. Wells?” a member from NAWSA asked me. She sat awkwardly in my parlor room chair, and kept diverting her eyes from me, choosing instead to look at the painting of my family and me, hung above the mantel piece.
“I’m doing well,” I replied coyly, sipping my tea. My husband was away on business and my children were away at school. The member was a tall and slender woman, which blondish colored hair and bright blue eyes. She sounded as if she was from the Boston area, because every word she spoke was nasally sounding.
She looked young, about 22 or so, and I learned that she had just graduated from college. The dress she had on was a nice green color, and she wore no makeup on her cheeks, unlike most girls her age. I noticed she had no rings on her finger, so I assumed she wasn’t married.
“The reason I am here is to discuss the march with you that is taking place on Saturday” she said. Once again, her eyes diverted from me as she spoke.
“Go ahead child!” I said with authority. One of my deepest annoyances is when people speak to me too low or don’t look at me at all. I expect anyone I come in contact with, whether black or white to award me the same respect I award them.
The young white woman, who I will call Sarah looked slightly frightened at my tone. I have a large voice, and most who know me understand that. However, this was her first time meeting me, so I made a mental note to control my tone, though I knew that I would be annoyed some more in the duration of our conversation.
“Well, as you know, the march is in a couple days,” she started.
“I’m aware. My group and I are grateful for the invitation” I said, and smiled sweetly. We weren’t exactly grateful, but it sounded good. I just wanted her to get on with this conversation because I had so many things to do.
“Well yes, we are glad to have you but there is just one small change we need you to make..” she said, as her voice trailed off.
I sat straight up and slightly leaned forward and encouraged her to go on.
“We have many women from all over coming down to support us, but many of them are southern women who are married to certain politicians and law makers. While we appreciate you and the other Negro women for marching with us, we are going to have to ask you all to march in the back” she said.
As soon as the words escaped her mouth, my mind went blank. In my activist work, I had met many types of white women who wanted to help end lynching. Many of these women were the children of abolitionists, and understood why Negroes needed rights. However, once this women’s rights stuff started, it was as if the true colors of many came out. To be frank, many did not want black women to be a part of anything. It’s like the only women who were allowed any type of rights were white women. It was frustrating fighting both racism and sexism within a movement that was meant to liberate all women.
I peered over my bifocals at Sarah, disgusted. “I’m sorry, but what did you say?” I asked.
“Well it’s just that these women may feel upset that they may be marching next to women like you, and we really don’t want them pulling out this protest, because we need their support” she explained.
I stared at her, my mind going blank once again. Black women were forced to be at the back of everything since I’ve been alive. We have worked hard for this country, cared for children that weren’t ours, neglected the ones that actually were ours, and yet we are still treated like second class citizens.
I sighed deeply and silently counted to ten before I spoke again.
“If we cannot march in the front with everyone else, then we do not wish to participate at all” I stated with venom in my voice.
Sarah looked mortified and said, “Oh no, we cannot have that! Don’t you understand?”
“No, you all seem to be the ones who don’t understand. We are not cattle. We are women and we deserve to be visibly apart of that march just like any other woman” I said.
“While of course I agree with you, I am just doing what I was asked to do. Please do consider,” Sarah said.
“I think it’s time you leave” I replied.
Sarah and I stared each other down for thirty seconds before she got her coat and left my home.
I laid in bed that night, consumed in my thoughts, drained by the ever-going acts of racism. I was frustrated to think that just for once, Negro women would actually be considered important. The more I thought, the more I began to form a plan of action.
Two days later, I awoke bright and early. My husband sat up in bed and watched me brisk around our bedroom, getting dressed. I was filled with a large amount of vigorous energy, ready to stand up for what I believed in. I had decided to go to the march despite what NAWSA felt.
“Are you sure about this honey?” my husband asked. I kissed him on the forhead, gave his hand a squeeze and said, “As ready as I’ll ever be” and marched out the door.
It was cold that morning, but you could tell that early signs of spring were approaching. Thousands of people were gathered in downtown Washington, all bustling about. I saw the NAWSA women and looked at them stone-faced. They were still under the impression that I dropped out of the march. Most members avoided eye contact with me, Sarah especially.
The march began. Women held banners and signs and yelled “GIVE WOMEN THE VOTE! GIVE WOMEN THE VOTE!” over and over. It was a captivating sight. When the Illinois Delegation passed I signaled for my members to push forward, and we landed right in step with that group, chanting “GIVE WOMEN THE VOTE!” as if nothing happened. I made eye contact with no one, because my heart was beating extremely fast, I can even admit I was filled with nervous energy.
The white women around looked shocked, possibly because they have never seen a group of Negro women so bold. But I didn’t care. If women were to one day get the vote, I wanted to make sure ALL women were included in that.
I smiled at the memory.
7 years later, women finally won the right to vote. It wasn’t easy, and I knew that the fight for women’s rights still had a long way to go, but for once I knew I had done my race a service…
I died a happy woman that night, hoping that my legacy would carry on.