Black women continued the fight for voting rights long after 19th Amendment

On August 26, 1920, the U.S. Secretary of State certified that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution had been ratified by the required 36 states. It became the law of the land: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The 19th Amendment did not, however, guarantee women the vote. Black, native, Latino, and other women of color continued to be excluded. The amendment instead made laws reserving the ballot for men unconstitutional. Women, especially Black and other Women of Color, were still left to hurdle insidious efforts to keep them from exercising their new rights.

Opponents used poll taxes, literacy tests, age, citizenship, and residency requirements to keep women from the polls.

Black women fought alongside White women to achieve suffrage. However, White women betrayed Black women as they made compromises with Southerners and thus White Supremacy to secure the vote for White women despite the efforts and support of Black women and other women of color.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are among the more well-known woman suffragists. And the Seneca Falls Convention in which women came together to launch the long fight for the ballot is well-recognized for their part in finally achieving the goal of enfranchisement. However, they did not advocate on behalf of all women.

Stanton opposed the passage of the 15th Amendment, saying that Black men were not deserving to have the ballot because they were not as qualified as Whites.

Stanton and Anthony employed what was known as the Southern strategy to get Whites below the Mason-Dixie line to support them by making an accommodation with White Supremacy. Historically, Ida B. Wells, Mary McCleod Bethune, Mary Church Terrell, and Fannie Lou Hamer advanced their efforts to secure voting rights for Black women. 

According to a story in National Geographic, in St Louis, Missouri, Fannie Williams a teacher-turned-organizer, set up a “suffrage school” at the city’s Black YWCA—the Phillis Wheatley Branch, named for the 18th-century enslaved poet.

There, Black women prepared for their chance to register, teaching one another how to pay poll taxes and pass literacy tests administered by begrudging officials. Newspapers reported that nearly every woman in the city, Black or White, registered that season.

In Florida, McCleod Bethune traveled the state of Florida urging Black women to vote. Despite efforts to intimidate them many Black women went to the polls in the 1920s and beyond. This demonstrates how unevenly Jim Crow was applied across the South and that Black people, particularly Black women, had been fighting for their right to vote and in some locales, voting over the decades leading up to the voting rights/Civil Rights Movement.

In the 1960s, Dianne Nash and Fannie Lou Hamer were some of the better-known Black women who have been credited with continuing the fight for the franchise for all.

Though the Freedom Now Movement managed to get the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed, racists and others have continued to attempt to peck away at the Act to deny immigrants, ex-convicts, and others the right to vote. 

In Florida though, the citizens in the state voted to allow ex-felons the right to the franchise by passing, by an overwhelming majority, a ballot measure, Amendment 4. The state legislature –which ideally represents the will of the people– went against that will, by imposing a kind of modern-day poll tax legislating that ex-felons could not vote unless they paid fines and fees and restitution that had been imposed on them as a part of their incarceration.

Rosemary McCoy and Sheila Singleton registered to vote in the state in 2019 after their rights were restored, along with nearly 1.5 million people who had been formerly incarcerated. A whopping 44% of those were Black, including McCoy and Singleton.

After Singleton and McCoy cast their ballots in Duval County in their local election, they realized that the Florida legislature’s decision to pass a law to undermine Amendment 4 would effectively prevent them from voting in the coming election, because they could not afford to pay their fines. 

Declaring that, “the State of Florida has a very long and storied history of denying poor people, racial minorities, and women, the right to vote,” the women sued. 

In May, a lower District court agreed with the plaintiffs and found the new law unconstitutional. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta stayed the judge’s order, which would have finally cleared a path for hundreds of thousands of ex-felons in the state to register to vote. 

The appeals court has scheduled a hearing on the issue for Aug. 18 — the same day as Florida’s primary election. It is not clear if the court’s ruling will be made in time for the national elections. However, it appears likely the ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.