Suffrage in Black and White

In February, we introduced SCA interns – and twins – Megan and Katie Woods, who are researching underplayed yet essential moments from Boston’s past at the National Parks of Boston. In her blog, Megan examined the presence of African Americans on the local historical landscape. To bridge Black History Month with Women’s History Month, Katie takes us behind the scenes of her ongoing research project.

Suffrage in Black and White

by Katie Woods

Until recently, the history of suffrage has been one of primarily white, middle-upper class women. Thankfully, the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, has led to a fresh look at the suffrage story. This year’s commemoration gives us the opportunity to confront the prevalence of racism in the movement, as well as recognize the diverse group of women who played integral roles in the fight for political representation.

The National Parks of Boston created my research topic, “Suffrage in Black and White,” so we may better understand Boston’s unique suffrage history. Women’s fight for political representation occurred across multiple generations and spanned the landscape of Boston. Boston’s abolitionist community instilled ideals that became the foundation for the women’s rights movement, with many abolitionists also supporting women’s causes. Boston also served as a powerful center for the anti-suffrage movement, and the city became a contentious battleground in the final decades of the movement. My task has been to not only gather information on the greater narrative of Boston suffrage, but specifically to see how the African American community participated in the city’s suffrage movement.

Thankfully, I did not step into this research blind. During my graduate studies, I developed an interest in the Massachusetts suffrage movement. I had already spent time looking at the few books and journal articles that discussed the city’s suffrage history, and I had a general understanding of the organizations and well-known names in the local movement. However, due to lack of time and resources, I had not been able to dive beyond the surface to find stories of African American men and women who supported the cause. This position has given me the time and resources to dig into archives and libraries for what I consider the “buried treasure”— the voices and names who have been forgotten by history, the people who enrich or further complicate the stories we already know or thought we knew. For me, this journey started with the name of one woman, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin

Born and raised in Boston, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin spent most of her life in the African American community of Beacon Hill, a neighborhood next to the Massachusetts State House. Josephine founded the Woman’s Era Club, the first black women’s club in Boston, and she served as editor of The Woman’s Era publication, a national publication written primarily for and by women of color. Under the auspices of the Woman’s Era Club, Josephine organized the First National Convention of Colored Women in Boston in 1895. As a suffragist, Josephine collaborated with white suffragists Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and others in the movement and served in leadership positions in Massachusetts suffrage organizations. She worked within both white and black communities to encourage women to vote in school committee elections, a right which had been granted to Massachusetts women in 1879.

Josephine has given me a window into the Boston African American community’s perspective of suffrage. With her as my guide, I have travelled down numerous research paths, some successful, some less so. I have found the names of more than thirty members of the Woman’s Era Club and determined with certainty that some of them publicly supported suffrage (the rest are still unknown). In the Woman’s Era, I have found several articles discussing suffrage, including a blurb referring to two elderly African American women, in their eighties and nineties, who wrote to notable suffrage leaders on the topic of suffrage. While I have come across numerous dead-ends to find out their names and more information about this letter, its existence alone gives us insight into the varying levels of interest in women’s suffrage throughout the African American community.

From researching Josephine and other African American women of Boston, I have a greater understanding of black women’s activism at the turn of the 20th century. Josephine, and numerous women like her, invested their time and energy in a range of issues that particularly affected African Americans. They cared about education, economic disparities, racial uplift, and, particularly, racial violence. Whether independently or in club organizations, women brought these issues to the public and worked to better their communities. For many, women’s suffrage was just one issue, one that would help their voices be better heard.

Looking Forward

As a public historian, I see it as my responsibility to translate my research in a variety of ways. This position has given me the tools and opportunities to be able to do so. With the research on Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and the Woman’s Era Club, I am giving talks at local conferences and public libraries to share my research with the public. I have also written an article about Josephine [link to: https://www.nps.gov/people/josephine-st-pierre-ruffin.htm], which is housed on a suffrage page on the National Parks of Boston website. I am applying my general research on Boston suffrage to transcribe-a-thons (see photo above) held a local universities [link to an article: https://web.northeastern.edu/nulab/suffrage-transcribe-a-thon/] and a variety of other projects, including an interactive digital map I am currently working on that will show the expansive landscape of suffrage in Boston. Through my public-facing projects, I hope to provide a variety of accessible ways for people to learn more about Boston’s suffrage history.

Approaching my final months in this position, my research and projects will remain ongoing. I am still searching for more answers about Boston’s African American community in the last decade of the suffrage movement, as well as further insight into the extent of which racism played in Boston’s movement, as it did in the national movement during this time. That’s the beauty of research; there are always new paths to travel, different angles to approach, mysteries to be solved. There are more voices and stories that I hope to continue to uncover and piece together and make available through my presentations and web-based projects.

Photo credts: Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin: NY Public Library; Transcribe-a-thon: NPS/Pollock