While the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed women the right to vote in 1920, it’s imperative to remember what that really means as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of white women’s first opportunity to vote.
For black women, it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, that voting became a reality. Though, in a time when we face a gerrymandered political map and fluctuating rules regarding voter I.D. requirements, one could argue their fight continues to this day.
The suffrage movement was born of Quakerism; since the 1650s, Quakers have held equality as a core tenet. However, when women were banned from Quaker abolitionist meetings in the mid-1800s they set out to fight for their right to vote … in the north.
“Southern women, black and white, lagged behind northern women” when it came to suffrage, and those who did speak up were considered “radical,” according to North Carolina Women Making History, a book by Margaret Supplee Smith and Emily Herring Wilson.
One argument against women’s suffrage was that the “man of the house” spoke for their entire family in the voting booth. However, as Smith and Wilson explained, both black and white women’s clubs asserted, “… it was women’s domestic role that qualified them to tackle problems of social and public welfare that men overlooked.”
An example of that is in education. In 1900, there were only two high schools for black students in all of North Carolina, and those schools were focused on teaching students how to be agricultural workers or maids.
Enter Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, a North Carolina native educated in Massachusetts who returned to her home state determined to better educate black children. In 1902, she established the Palmer Memorial Institute (PMI) in Sedalia with 20 students. The school was, at first, largely funded by white people from the north who, according to the same history book, urged her to “be more modest in her expectations of her race.”
But she wasn’t having that. Despite many setbacks and “periods of despair and rage in Brown,” PMI’s dozen buildings sat on roughly 350 acres in the 1930s, and by the following decade the school was offering the traditional liberal arts education one could expect from a prep school.
Brown also helped organize the National Council of Negro Women. According to Smith and Wilson: “Most white suffragists had backed away from efforts to educate black citizens to vote, but [Brown], in her role as state president of the Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, encouraged black women (to vote). Despite a smear campaign, Brown directed a statewide offensive …”
Still, in the 1950s, black voters faced illegal literacy tests. Chief Justice Henry Frye, North Carolina’s first black Supreme Court Justice and Chief Justice, discusses this hurdle in the 2019 PBS documentary North Carolina Supreme Court at 200.
“I went by to register to vote, and the person started asking me questions about naming founders of the U.S. Constitution and things of that nature that were not things that you needed to know in order to register to vote,” he says. “And they called it a literacy test. He said, ‘Well, the answers were in the book’ and proceeded to continue to ask me a lot of questions that I knew were not appropriate. The bottom line is that I quit trying to answer his questions and he said, ‘Well, I’m sorry you don’t pass so I’m not going to register you.’”
Then, in the 1960s, when Elreta Melton Alexander-Ralston lost her bid for the N.C. Supreme Court to a fire extinguisher salesman with no college education or legal background, state voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring judges to be licensed attorneys in North Carolina.
Alexander-Ralston was the first black woman accepted to Columbia Law School in 1943 after facing limited access to law schools here. In 1947, she became the first black woman to practice law in North Carolina. Within a couple decades she was the first black judge elected in the state, then the first District Court Judge.
Last year, Cheri Beasley made history when she was appointed as North Carolina’s first black female chief justice to serve on the Supreme Court.
To get a sense of how far our state has come in the last 100 years, I encourage you to visit the free Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum near Greensboro. On April 18, the museum will host the traveling exhibit An Absolute Moral Certainty: The Woman Suffrage Movement in North Carolina. (It will not stop in Charlotte.) There you can see the original copy of the 19th Amendment, as sent to the N.C. General Assembly in 1919 for ratification.
Our state didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1971, the same year the Palmer Memorial Institute closed after graduating more than 2,000 students.