Expanding the Narrative: African American Woman Suffrage

By Natalie Bell

Do you have great-grandmothers or -aunts in your family heritage from the early 20th Century, who were involved in political campaigns, such as the Temperance or Woman’s Suffrage movements?

If you have female ancestors from this period (1930s and up) who were involved in church work, or perhaps a local chapter of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, it’s likely that their paths would have crossed, at some point, with the women’s suffrage movement.

Leaders of a statewide history project in Tennessee seek help from the public to uncover local stories of African American woman suffrage.

The trail begins with the well-known stories of Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells, University of Memphis Professor Dr. Earnestine Jenkins explains, adding that, “There’s so much more history in Tennessee, and so much we don’t know on the local level.” Jenkins is Humanities Scholar for the project, “Protecting the Legacy,” which is the second phase of a five-year initiative entitled “March to the 19th.”

A Nashville-based women’s history nonprofit, Chick History, is organizing and leading the initiative, in partnership with Humanities Tennessee, to commemorate the upcoming centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 2020.

“All history begins with local history,” said Rebecca Price, president and chief executive officer of Chick History. “A critical issue facing women’s history is that a majority of objects and materials are still in private and family collections. Without a catalogue of this history, a complete narrative is missing from the historical record.”

Projecting the Legacy leaders are asking those interested in participating to look through family history for information about African American women that dates after 1930. Where to look:

  • Letters, journals and photographs of African American women, particularly leaders in the church, school, or community;
  • Newsletters and meeting notices published by Historic Black Churches and Women’s Clubs;
  • Family stories passed down about women’s voting experiences in the 1920s

A coalition of history partners behind the project includes: The Tennessee State Library and Archives; the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis; Center for Historic Preservation, Middle Tennessee State University; Dr. Lea Williams, Tennessee State University; and the Nashville Public Library.