Highlights from “VANGUARD: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All”

Dr. Martha S. Jones’s book, Vanguard introduces us to hidden figures of American democracy. The sacredness of our vote is demonstrated by these women’s sacrificial quest for equality under the law. Black women had (and still have) a unique struggle – sometimes having to network with racially biased White female suffragists on one hand, and chauvinist Black male activists on the other. They were often disappointed by both groups of allies.

The following glimpses from Vanguard should make you want to read the whole thing. It’s reading will give you extra motivation, mindfulness, and stamina to do whatever is necessary to register your voice and your vote in this urgent hour.

[Susan] Paul came equipped with courage that she inherited from the first generation of Boston’s brave Black abolitionists. Her father, the Reverend Thomas Paul, raised his daughter in a Baptist community that included the incendiary antislavery pamphleteer David Walker. Paul’s congregants included Maria Stewart, the writer and speaker whose public career had been cut short when she championed the political ambitions of Black women. . .

“Not content to stay cloistered in classrooms or at her writing desk, Paul organized her pupils into the Juvenile Choir of Boston and traveled with them on the road throughout New England. On stage, the choir performed a repertoire that condemned slavery and colonization with songs such as “Ye Who Are in Bondage Pine” and “Home, This Is Our Home.” It was a test of New England’s commitment to racial equality and Paul exposed its faultlines. . .

“The Black women of Salem, Massachusetts, took the trouble to advise William Lloyd Garrison that he had wrongly accused Black Americans of failing to establish antislavery societies. The women published their constitution in The Liberator, evidence that the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, led by Black women, had been founded in February 1832. They lit a spark. Paul joined antislavery societies – first the New England Anti-Slavery Society and then its women’s auxiliary, the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society – and was immediately out in front of a movement” (pp. 47, 48, 49).

[Nannie Helen] Burrows was just a girl when she migrated with her mother from Orange, Virginia, nearly a hundred miles northeast to the nation’s capital in 1883. Burroughs studied at the city’s fabled M Street High School, where she was a standout student. Her teachers imparted more than book lessons. They broke new ground in Black women’s politics while also training young women like Burrows to be leaders. Burroughs’s teacher Anna Julia Cooper published her treatise on Black women’s political theory, A Voice from the South. The year that Burroughs graduated with honors, 1896, her teacher Mary Church Terrell took the helm of the newly founded National Association of Colored Women. The M Street School was a training ground for a next, rising generation of Black women leaders, and Burroughs was among its brightest stars. . .

“In 1909 she returned to Washington and founded the National Training School for Women and Girls, the first vocational school for Black women and girls to be headed by a Black woman. Burroughs remained at its helm until her death in 1961. . .

“In the summer of 1915, Burroughs joined the ranks of the nation’s leading thinkers when W.E.B. DuBois included her essay in a special “Votes for Women” issue of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis. Burroughs was featured alongside her former teacher Mary Church Terrell; that year’s NACW president Mary Talbert; Carrie Clifford, head of the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs of Ohio; and others. . .

“Burroughs explained that the ballot would bring Black women ‘respect and protection’ and serve as ‘her weapon of moral defense.’ With the vote, Black women would further shape their destinies, including the enactment of law and policy ‘in favor of her own protection’” (pp. 210, 211, 212).

In conclusion: Vote to protect the right to vote. Vote to protect the vanguard who helped procure the right to vote.

By Carl McRoy

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