New DPLA project powered by Pivotal Ventures will highlight the role of Black women in the suffrage movement

By Shaneé Murrain, November 25, 2019.

When we think about the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S., white suffragists like Susan B. Anthony typically come to mind. But there were Black suffragists too – women who, in addition to fighting for gender equality during this monumental moment in history, were also fighting for racial equality.

Black women played an important role during the suffrage movement, but their activism began long before then and continues in the present day. This collection will help surface this history for patrons across the country and seal it into the national consciousness where it belongs. As a digital learning leader, DPLA understands the importance of using technology to preserve our past, so that students, educators, researchers and others can use it to inform the present. There is a lot that Black women activists like Mary Church Terrell, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, and Fannie Lou Hamer can teach us, even as we move into the digital age.

Mary Church Terrell, a leader in the women’s suffrage movement who founded the National Association of Colored Women and several other national racial justice organizations, wrote about this two-pronged fight in her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, which was published in 1940 – two decades after the ratification of the 19th amendment, which granted (white) women the right to vote. 

“Colored women are the only group in this country who have two heavy handicaps to overcome, that of race as well as that of sex,” she wrote.

Although the role and experiences of Terrell and other Black Suffragettes in the movement is often excluded from the national narrative, it is no less extraordinary. With the support of Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company founded by Melinda Gates, we will be able to work with partners to build and host a new collaborative collection built by the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

A photo of Mary Church Terrell from Tennessee State Library & Archives. This photo and other cultural artifacts can be found at dp.la.

To be launched in conjunction with the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment in 2020, the new collection will focus on Black women’s activism from 1850s to 1960s, including, but not limited to, their role in the women’s suffrage movement, civil rights movement and women’s right’s movement. Cultural artifacts included in the collection will have a clear and compelling relevance to contemporary issues like voting rights and intersectionality, as well as contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter and MeToo.

In addition, the new collection will expand upon DPLA’s existing collections about Black women’s activism. These collections include primary source sets on Ida B. Wells and Anti-Lynching Activism; Fannie Lou Hamer and the Civil Rights Movement in Rural Mississippi and The Equal Rights Amendment. Ultimately, the goal of the new collection will be to elevate Black women’s activism in our national narrative in places where it has been erased. Terrell wrote about this type of erasure in her autobiography.

“Nobody wants to know a colored woman’s opinion about her own status of that of her group,” she wrote. “When she dares express it, no matter how mild or tactful it may be, it is called ‘propaganda,’ or is labeled ‘controversial.” If you or your library is interested in learning more, or participating with DPLA on this curation project, contact me at shanee@dp.la.