One hundred years ago this August, North Carolina declined the opportunity to be the deciding state to grant women the constitutional right to vote. The decision had come down to Tennessee and North Carolina, so Tar Heel legislators sent a telegram to their counterparts in Tennessee, urging them not to ratify and pledging that North Carolina would do the same. Fortunately, Tennessee ignored that plea and ratified the amendment, adding it to the U.S. Constitution.
Even though the text granted American women the right to vote, not all of them were able to exercise that right. The issue of race split the suffrage movement following the Civil War, leading to two different groups of activists.
Host Anita Rao talks to Angela Thorpe and Katherine Mellen Charron about this splinter and about how black suffragists forged the path for today’s activists, like Georgia-based politician Stacey Abrams. Thorpe is the Director of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission. Charron is an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University.
Thorpe on Charlotte Hawkins Brown’s approach to the fight for women’s suffrage:
Her call for suffrage was really understanding suffrage as an opportunity for economic and social mobility within [the] black community. She argues that suffrage is not necessarily a black issue or a white issue — it's a women's issue. She's saying: Hey, we're trying to achieve the same thing, right? We want equality for our communities. We want our children to be healthy. We want our communities to be healthy and viable. And so again, can we work together to make this a women's issue, not necessarily a race issue.
Charron on black women’s experiences at the polls after the ratification of the 19th Amendment:
You actually did have African American women show up to register to vote. And you had white male registrars, kind of flummoxed because they didn't know what to do. But they would go away and come back the next day and find out they had to pay a poll tax or there was some new kind of rule that kept them from voting, because the idea was to keep all African Americans disenfranchised.
Charron on the impact of Eva Clayton’s campaign for the black electorate in North Carolina:
Eva Clayton from North Carolina first ran for office in 1968. Now, did she think she was going to win? Not necessarily, but the whole point of the campaign was to increase voter registration among African Americans, but also to go through that educated process, bring people on board so that you understand beyond going to the election, going to the polls on Election Day. You have to be willing to learn how to use the vote to benefit your community … And so I always try to stress this about voting rights. It's not just what happens on election day. It's about how you learn to use the power of the ballot to improve your community.
Thorpe on black women and community organizing:
We have seen that women, especially black women, have had a long history of organizing again in the hopes of creating social and economic opportunities for their communities, from the early 20th century Alpha Suffrage Club, the National Association of Colored Women's clubs to historically black sororities and fraternities. And we continue to see organizations made up of black women band together to do some of this work. And so, again, we have an opportunity to continue a legacy to turn around some laws and some strategies that have been enforced to disenfranchise African Americans today.
Charron on what today’s voter suppression:
It looks like administrative error. Now, you have long lines, you have people whose machinery doesn't work, you lose the data entered into the machinery. And these are just other forms, more sophisticated forms of voter suppression. So, because history teaches us that attacks on voting rights are pretty much relentless for some people, we also have to be relentless in our fighting that as well.