As we celebrate the 100 years of women voting, there’s an incontrovertible truth we must accept: The 19th Amendment did not secure the vote for every woman in this country. In fact, women of color were actively denied the right to vote by the same white women and organizations at the center of our popular suffrage narrative.
While we have begun to rectify this white-washing in our history by turning the spotlight toward Black suffragists like Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell, doing the same on a local level remains a challenge—especially in a Southern city like Houston.
History is Written by the Powerful
Most of our records connected with the women’s suffrage movement come from white suffrage organizations—organizations that were almost always inherently segregated, says Jessica Brannon-Wranosky, professor of history at Texas A&M University-Commerce, who has been studying women’s suffrage in Texas for almost 20 years. It’s also a well-known fact that early white suffragists undercut black women in order to get the vote.
“Those middle-class and wealthy, prominent women were often daughters of the Confederacy,” adds Houston genealogist Rae Bryant, co-founder of the Houston Suffragists Project. “That’s how many of the cities were controlled, and Houston was not an exception.”
While we know that national organizations like the NAACP had local chapters in cities, including Houston, we have yet to find the same kind of local records that we do for white suffrage groups, she says. Some of that might have been due to a desire to protect people's identities (a list of Black activists could've easily become a hit list in the wrong hands), or it could be that records haven’t survived over the years. Plus, newspapers—one of the most commonly used sources for this kind of history research—weren’t exactly covering the happenings of the Black community in those days.
Still the broad strokes from those national organizations can tell us a lot about what was happening locally, says Brannon-Wranosky. And as more historians turn their focus exclusively to uncovering this history, we’re beginning to be able to fill in those blanks.
A Different Kind of Suffrage Fight
The Black community viewed suffrage differently than the white community, says Bryant. White women knew it was the battle against white men in power, but black women viewed their fight as part of a community-wide goal for the entire Black community. Because of this, major organizations including the NAACP had women amongst their earliest members.
There may be no better example of this locally than what happened when women won the right to vote in Texas primaries in 1918. Technically speaking, women were now allowed to vote in the Democratic primary (the state’s Republican Party didn’t have enough voters to hold a primary back then), but that primary was informally known as for whites only, says Brannon-Wranosky. By limiting women’s votes exclusively to primary elections, it “automatically disenfranchised African American women.”
At least that’s what legislators thought would happen. When Black women in the Bayou City showed up to register and were turned away, the Houston NAACP, which had launched that same year, threatened to sue. “This is a very important moment because local officials allowed them to register,” says Brannon-Wranosky. “You see the NAACP standing up and saying, ‘We support women voting. We want to see women have access to the vote.’”
Black Suffragists in the Bayou City
Just like their white counterparts, Black suffragists were also organizing their efforts through women’s clubs, fraternal organizations, and churches. There were likely membership clubs affiliated with the Texas Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, now called the Texas Association of Women’s Clubs, as well as a Houston chapter of the National Women’s Temperance Christian Association, Colored Division, says Brannon-Wranosky, but “people haven't looked in that newspaper that way yet.”
But these clubs weren’t just rallying women to the cause. Women in these groups were also teaching community members about the principles of suffrage and the mechanics of voting—something The Houston Chronicle would note on November 2, 1920, writing, “election officers declare that the negro women all know who to vote for and how to vote and that few of them are appealing for assistance in scratching their ballots.”
Not only were Black women being encouraged to vote, they were also taking a strong lead in the suffrage fight and local leadership. Three Black women ran on the Republican Party’s Black and Tan slate (which supported African American political participation) in 1920, according to a Houston Informer article found by the Houston Suffragists Project, which has uncovered the names of many Black suffragists in Harris County.
According to the Heritage Society's exhibit, one of those candidates, Olivia E. Turner, was on the Black and Tan Finance Committee and was a member of the Houston chapter of the NAACP, alongside her husband. “She is mentioned in a white newspaper when she dies,” notes Bryant. “For her to be mentioned in the Chronicle means she kind of broke out.” Meanwhile, says Brannon-Wranosky, Houston’s first Black female notary, Estelle Bernice Jackson-Hurd, sometimes referred to as simply E. Bernice, was working with the Texas Republican Women's Voters League and its Houston chapter to recruit voters so the Republican Party could hold its own primary.
While there are still many unknowns when it comes to Houston Black suffragists, historians are getting closer to determining Houston’s role in the overarching story of women’s suffrage. “I expect a lot more history to come out in the next few years because it’s in the public mind,” says Brannon-Wranosky. “People are starting to look and starting to wonder, so the story’s not over.”
Rebecca Noel contributed to this story.