Take Note: Dr. Shirley Moody-Turner & Denise Burgher On Black Women's Role In Political Organizing

Dec 11, 2020

Shirley Moody-Turner is an associate professor of English and African American studies and co-director of the Center for Black Digital Research at Penn State. Denise Burgher is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Delaware and project coordinator for The Colored Conventions project. They talked with us about about the contributions of black women to the suffrage movement and the role of black women in political organizing.


Cheraine Stanford: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Cheraine Stanford. 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th amendment that secured the right to vote for women in the United States. But that right to vote did not include all women. Black women and other women of color would continue to fight for the right to vote for decades. To talk more about the contributions of black women to the suffrage movement and the role of black women in organizing, I'm joined by Shirley Moody-Turner, Penn State associate professor of English and African American studies and co-director of the Center for Black Digital Research, and Denise Burgher, a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Delaware and project coordinator for The Colored Conventions project. The projects work to unearth, collect, and digitize the history of black organizing. Shirley and Denise, thank you so much for joining us today.

Shirley Moody-Turner: Thank you so much for having us. It's great to be there.

Denise Burgher: It really is. Thanks, Cheraine.

Cheraine Stanford: This year, the country has been celebrating the hundredth anniversary of women securing the right to vote in America, which came after a very long and really difficult fight. Shirley, I'll start with you. Can you tell us why the passage of the 19th amendment wasn't enough to secure the right to vote for all women in every state?

Shirley Moody-Turner: Yes. The 19th amendment is an important milestone. I like to say that it was a triumph in democratic principles to pass the amendment, but not really a triumph in political equality. The 19th amendment barred discrimination on the basis of sex, but it had been marred for so long by the racism and the sexism and the intersections of racism and sexism within the movement, that by the time the 19th amendment was passed, there were still huge portions of the population, black women, black men, Native Americans, and others, who were still barred from participation, barred from the vote by other means. You have laws related to voter suppression. You have poll taxes. You have intimidation. The 1920 election was one of the most violent elections. You had a lot of ways in which the racism that was endemic in the movement, in the suffrage movement, manifests in some ways in that 1920 amendment. There was still a long battle to go to actually expand voting rights after the passage of the 19th amendment.

Cheraine Stanford: Yeah. I want to talk a little bit about that intersection of where racism came into play. There were deliberate choices made by the white women in the suffrage movement to separate themselves from black women, and it ended up excluding them. Can you talk about when there was a point of division and why that was?

Shirley Moody-Turner: I think that the passage of the 15th amendment that barred discrimination on the basis of race was really one of, and I don't think there was just one decisive moment, but I think it was one of the decisive moments, because white women felt at that point as if their rights had been sidelined or pushed to the back and that black men were going to be given the right to vote before they were given the right to vote. That precipitates a really ugly unveiling. You start to see lots of arguments and lots of language around these ignorant black men are going to be put in power and in positions of authority or given the right to vote before white women. It starts calling on this longstanding mythology of black men having any political power as seen as a threat, using this old myth of needing to protect white women's purity. You see those kinds of things coming to the forefront. That becomes a pretty divisive moment. But not the only one, but I think one of the significant divisive moments that really splinters efforts for universal suffrage.

Cheraine Stanford: Right, because there was this joining of women of all backgrounds to push for this, particularly early on. Can you tell us a little more about the role that black women did play in securing the right to vote for women in the US?

Denise Burgher: Absolutely. At this moment, I want to raise the name of Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, who is one of the signal African-American women's scholars who did an incredible amount of work on re-centering the narrative around black women and suffrage, and made, as a result, signal contributions to our understanding of this topic. African American women were involved in not just securing the right to vote, but what can be considered this longer civil rights movement from its inception. Though there are well-known women, for example, Sojourner Truth, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell. These are all names that many of us know and know well, among many others. African American women worked tirelessly to secure citizenship rights, of which, the right to vote was one of them, alongside African American men from the very inception of this process. You had black women predating, for example, the black women's club movement, which is where you see a lot of the more overt, explicit work around suffrage. You had African American women who worked during the Colored Conventions Movement, both as delegates, for example, including Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. You had African American women who worked in ways that are considered more discreet. For example, in organizing literary clubs, in organizing literary societies and organizing and managing intellectual activist spaces in their homes, whether it's through the boarding houses that they ran and/or the support that they offered to the people who are more involved explicitly and clearly, for example, their husbands or their sons or their brothers or their uncles, in these movements for citizenship, movements for securing the vote. In addition to running their homes, running businesses that monetarily supported independent black churches, these women actually were on the ground. They were actually carrying picket signs. They were actually getting arrested. Though, the dominant history, I should say, doesn't reflect black women's participation in faces and names, the work of black women historians actually, including Dr. Moody-Turner, has done much to uncover this wealth of participation, this wealth of work that has been done and is still being unearthed. African-American women were involved at every level at every stage in securing the rights of citizenship, which include suffrage rights.

Cheraine Stanford: Can you talk a little bit more broadly about how and why black women were organizing as early as the 1800s around what particular issues and why their role was important?

Shirley Moody-Turner: There's one example, actually, of Maria Stewart, who was an activist and an orator, and who wrote and spoke about the needs for black women's equality. I think one of the things is that black women were really, they were involved in abolitionist movements and anti-slavery movements, but they also saw those movements. They understood that there were unique concerns that black women faced. They wanted to be part of those movements, but also to push the conversation. I love in 1832, Maria Stewart, she's speaking at the Boston's Franklin Hall, and she's talking about civil rights and women's rights, and she's railing out against the racism. She says, in 1832, she says, "Sue for your rights and privileges. Know the reasons that you cannot attain them." Very, very early on, they're thinking in these terms about, how do we challenge this multifaceted ways in which racism and oppression and sexism are operating in our society? Part of it was that they offered a kind of, I think, really important, offered a philosophical way, a critique, of what was happening. I study Anna Julia Cooper. I write about Anna Julia Cooper. She provides one of the most full-length articulations of this philosophical intervention, or intellectual intervention, but it had been being articulated all along the way. I think that what black women bring to the table in this, amongst so many other things, but I think one of the most important things, is, they really are arguing for a broad and inclusive approach to equality, citizenship, and rights. They're trying to say, "We're not just going to fight for a space in a society that is unjust. We're going to try to rewrite those terms." I think that all along the way, that position is articulated and is fought for and organized around.

Denise Burgher: I couldn't agree more. For example, one of the public statements that Mary Ann Shadd Cary made was for an amendment to remove the word male from the constitution. In 1871, she tried to vote, unsuccessfully, with a group of other women, but she tried to vote. They understood and organized around trying to change the actual structures of oppression so that the ways that people, again, are experiencing and understanding citizenship would be fundamentally shifted and actually, not be aspirational, but be actual in reality.

Cheraine Stanford: If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Cheraine Stanford. Our guests are Shirley Moody-Turner and Denise Burgher, part of the team at Penn State's Center for Black Digital Research, talking with us about the role of black women in political organizing. You've mentioned some names that, they might be familiar to you, but I'm not sure that they're super familiar to our audience or to the broader public. I wanted to ask you both about a couple of names. Shirley, I'll start with you because I know that you are a big Anna Julia Cooper fan. I want you to share with us who she was and how her writings helped articulate the importance of black women organizing.

Shirley Moody-Turner: Anna Julia Cooper was a very well-known prominent 19th and early 20th century intellectual activist and educator. In many ways, people consider her to be one of the founding or foundational figures for black feminist thought. Again, because she did write one of the most important, I think, texts in black feminist theory. But also, at the time, she wrote a text called "A Voice from the South" and published in 1892. At the time, the text was widely reviewed and widely read, and she put forth in that text an argument about this dual, or triple, even, forms of oppression, where she talked about black women and their needs, their experiences, their standpoints, their perspectives, and really, what they could bring to and contribute to the larger political and philosophical conversations. She gave speeches and lectures all around the US and abroad. She was a principal at the famous Dunbar High School in Washington, DC, and then remained there as an educator at Dunbar and throughout DC for the majority of her life. She both held black men accountable for saying that they needed to center the experiences of black women in their movement and that it was really that black women, and the treatment of black women, and the protection of black women, and the opportunities for black women, were the true measure for how successful their movement was going to be. Then, on the other hand, she also held white women accountable, and she has a pretty...It's becoming well known now in this moment of celebrating the Centennial, but she has an essay called "Woman vs. the Indian," in which she took the, I think then Vice President of the National American Women's Suffrage Association, Anna Howard Shaw, to task for saying, how are you going to situate women's rights against other groups, against Indian rights or African American rights, or what have you? This is not the way to move forward. Cooper re-iterated in that piece this call for universal suffrage and saying that it had to be broad and inclusive, that any other form of suffrage that aligned with the white supremacists or patriarchal power structures, really wasn't undoing those structures at all, but just being complicit in them. Cooper makes that argument and she also makes an important call for national organizing. She makes a call that black women also need to be at the forefront of these national efforts, connecting both the local and state work, but also to assert themselves and their voice in the larger national conversation, and in the late 1890s, that's exactly what happens.

Cheraine Stanford: You just mentioned the 1890s. Can you talk about why that time was an important shift for black women moving to the forefront and leading in this national conversation?

Shirley Moody-Turner: In the late 1890s, black women really step into the forefront of black organizing and social reform efforts. They had always been participating and organizing and leading, even in white women's suffrage movements, also in black movements, colored convention movements. But this was a moment where they realized that they needed to step into the forefront of their own organizations. There's several different things that precipitate this, but one, 1896 is the same year that Plessy vs. Ferguson, which upholds racial segregation, is passed. I think that is a moment that creates a lot of tension and urgency for black women. One of the things, most immediate things, that inspires them to make this move now was a letter that a journalist had written about Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching activist, editor, writer, in which he denigrates her person. It extends that to black women more generally. Black women were saying this is a moment where we need to organize in defense of ourselves. We need to challenge encounter the ways in which we're being represented in the media. That was one of the things that spurred them on. But I think it had been just generations of working in various ways, local, state, other organizations, and realizing this was a moment where they really could come together, articulate their collective concerns, organize around those concerns, find ways to address the needs of their communities, assert a national voice into the larger public conversations. The 1890s is really a watershed moment for this. For some reason, it does not get the attention that it deserves for the work that they are spearheading. I think as Denise has mentioned, this is part of the work. There's always been historians, bibliographers, biographers, who have kept their work in the historical record. We want to continue that by making those stories and the work they did even more prominent in our larger public and historical memory.

Cheraine Stanford: Denise, I'm wondering if you can tell us about another name, Mary Church Terrell. Can you talk about why she was such an important figure?

Denise Burgher: Absolutely. Mary Church Terrell was amazing. In addition to, not unlike Anna Julie Cooper, leading a very long and productive life, she was a lifelong activist. Mary Church Terrell's involvement in public activism was triggered by the lynching of a good friend of hers in the South, Thomas Moss, and his two business partners who were lynched because they ran a grocery store called The People's Grocery, which successfully competed with a white-owned grocery store in the same neighborhood. Mary Church Terrell's activist work took many forms. In addition to writing letters and petitions and participating in addresses to various public bodies, she also organized within the African American community. Terrell was one of the founding members of the NAACP. She was one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women. She was, and is, considered one of the four mothers of the Deltas. She was also a teacher in Washington, DC, where she spent many years of her life. Her work, her actual written body of work, which is quite extensive, includes numerous essays and speeches and articles which she wrote, not just exploring and defining citizenship, but in particular, the ways and the reasons for African Americans to receive full citizenship and particularly black women. Probably one of the more random things she did, also, is that she organized the first Frederick Douglas Day in Washington, DC, shortly after Douglas' death in an effort to ensure that his legacy and his contributions to the nation at large and to African American communities was not lost. She was central, and remained central, across the broader spectrum of organizing in the United States, and specifically within the black women's organizing circles that she actually participated in creating.

Cheraine Stanford: I want to move to thinking about present day. What parallels are you seeing between the role that black women played in political organizing and organizing in general in the past and what's happening today?

Shirley Moody-Turner: One of the things that Anna Julie Cooper argued and so many of the women that she worked with and alongside argued was for universal suffrage. For expanding the franchise for voter registration, voter education, for challenging voter suppression. They believed that could change the shape of democracy, and that that was vital to democracy, and that potentially could save our democracy. You think about the approach that Stacey Abrams took in Georgia, and that approach said, how can we expand the franchise? How can we reach out to voters who've either been shut out of the voting process and challenge these voter suppression laws and this purging of voter rolls? How can we challenge that? And how can we make people feel empowered, like their voice and their vote count? That strategy worked. I think that's one way in which there's really exciting generative parallels between what happened historically and some of the efforts and the ways in which black women were thinking about the vote historically, and how that can be seen in the ways in which black women continue to organize in relation to the elections today. We can have a moment to feel positive about what Stacey Abrams was able to do in terms of flipping Georgia to a democratic state. We can have a moment to be positive and reflecting on that. But I think we also have to redouble our efforts already, because we see how contentious and how under assault elections and voting rights are. Right? In this case, we haven't talked a whole lot, or haven't seen a whole lot of conversation in the media about voter suppression tactics, because so much has been focused on trying to maintain the legitimacy of the votes that were cast. I think we continue to be in a very, very tenuous situation in terms of securing voting rights in this country.

Cheraine Stanford: This question is for both of you. I'll start with you, Denise. Why is the right to vote, the right to fair elections, important to this country's democracy?

Denise Burgher: I believe that history has demonstrated that without access to the right to vote, not only do we not have a democracy, but the system of government that we have will be explicitly and overtly repressive and oppressive. If and when the right to vote is denied to its citizens equally across the board, then we are guaranteed a system which does not represent or reflect the needs of all of its members with parody or equity. In fact, what we have instead is a system that is predicated on the repression and the oppression of those who do not have full access to even the ability to choose its elected representatives. As a consequence, women were not allowed access to the vote broadly. African-American people, period, male and female, were not allowed access to the vote. Though race continues to be, in the words of Dubois, the color line, is what has defined not just the century to which she was referring, but has defined the entire existence of the United States of America. The distinction between the construction of black and white and what that means, where whiteness, white supremacy, white nationalism, is dissolved into a white American identity, which then defaults into an American identity, which then places African American people, and then by default, other people of color, outside of citizenship, outside of access to certain ideas or notions or conceptions of actually being members of the body politic. That devolves pretty starkly around access to the vote as we have seen. A poll tax in the 19th century morphs into a tax that prevents someone who was involved in the prison system and has now gotten out, but if they can't pay their fine, they can't vote. Once again, there's a barrier that even though the person has served their time, they are now facing a monetary barrier, which will prevent them from being able to exercise their right to vote. We see the purging of voter lists, particularly in Georgia, there was also a purging that took place in Texas, and this purging falling disproportionately on African Americans for structural reasons. Again, a population that had already been denied access to the vote historically continues to be denied access to the vote. If and when we abandon and/or we recast what having access to the vote means, if and when we refuse to acknowledge historic oppressive tactics and repression that has been taken place, that has taken place explicitly along race and gender lines, then we continue to agree that in that inequality, that oppression, that repression and dispossession are actually uniquely American. Therefore, we compromise our ability to claim a democracy. Much of this, the lion's share of this, devolves around access to the vote. The Voting Rights Act was gutted under the current presidency only to prove the necessity of the existence of the Voting Rights Act.

Shirley Moody-Turner: I think that clearly, I think as Denise was saying, that we live in a political system that was not necessarily created for non-white males, right? I think that the vote is one way that we can change that, right? One way that we can start to change that. We keep thinking and talking, perhaps, about the vote at the national level, but I think it's really important at the local level and the state level as well. It's not just an abstract right, you know? It doesn't just determine who's president, but it really can be a way, one way, that citizens can engage in making changes in the political systems and structures that govern their lives.

Cheraine Stanford: We've been joined by Denise Burgher, a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Delaware and project coordinator for the Colored Conventions Project, and Shirley Moody-Turner, Penn State associate professor of English and African American studies and co-director of The Center for Black Digital Research. The Center works to unearth, research, and digitize the history of black organizing. Hear more Take Note interviews on our website at wpsu.org/takenote. I'm Cheraine Stanford, WPSU.