Prof. Martha Jones lectures on 19th Amendment, disenfranchised Black women voters

Women sit at a table with a sign reading ‘Headquarters Evanston League of Women Voters.’

Photo courtesy of Evanston History Center

The Evanston League of Women Voters recruit at their headquarters on Oct. 24, 1928. The 19th Amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, yet many women faced barriers long after its passing.

Charlotte Ehrlich, Reporter

In a Winona, Mississippi jail cell in the 1960s, a young Black woman sat for three days after an unsuccessful attempt at voter registration. Her name was Fannie Lou Hamer, and the 19th Amendment failed her. 

Johns Hopkins University Prof. Martha Jones, who addressed the Northwestern community Monday, explored how Black women such as Hamer interact with the amendment. 

Analyzing multiple narratives from the 1860s to the present, Jones concluded the amendment was too “thin,” meaning it offered limited protections of Black women’s rights. She said the amendment in turn did not accommodate their ambitions to transcend barriers of their gender and race, which meant Black women wanted greater privileges than afforded to them.

“Whatever our aspirations for the 19th Amendment today, its history demands that we contend with how Black women’s political thickness kept them outside the design and the intent of the amendment,” Jones said.

Jones began her talk by telling the story of Hamer, who rarely spoke of the 19th Amendment and felt it didn’t guarantee her rights compared to white women.  

She said Hamer considered the amendment irrelevant to Black women.

“It was almost as if Congress had written the word ‘white’ into its terms with a figurative invisible ink,” Jones said. “The right of ‘white’ citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” 

Jones also discussed educator Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who refused to ride a streetcar due to her constant exile to the smoking area. She said Harper felt an internal push to consider a Black woman’s critical influence in divisive contexts. 

Jones compared the experiences of Josephine Decuir, a Creole woman who was barred from a steamboat state room reserved for women, to Virginia Minor, a white woman who was denied voting access in Virginia.

Decuir took her case to the Supreme Court, because she knew Black women relegated to steerage were subjected to harassment, denigration and violence.

“Winning the vote emerged as a route to cure what the Supreme Court had failed to remedy,” Jones said. “Josephine’s confrontation with a steamboat captain and Virginia’s with a voting official were bound up together. The fact of one generated the necessity of the other.” 

Jones also told the story of Mississippi Sen. James Vardaman who went to Washington, D.C. to repeal the 15th Amendment — the right to vote regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude — in exchange for a woman’s suffrage amendment.

Though the resolution failed, 25 senators voted to reject the proposed amendment. Black women recognized what this might mean for the challenging future of their own voting rights, Jones said.

“The 19th Amendment did nothing,” Jones said. “Nothing to guarantee to Black women access to the polls, nothing to get rid of the poll taxes, the literacy tests, the grandfather clauses, the violence and intimidation that were rampant.”

Jones then spoke on Mary McLeod Bethune,  a Florida educator who petitioned for Black female voter registration in the fall of 1920. Bethune was threatened by Klu Klux Klan members, who went to her college campus looking to intimidate her and those she recruited to register.

The Klan’s efforts did not succeed, Jones said, but the violence Bethune faced went unchecked.

“Mrs. Bethune abandoned for that moment her efforts to encourage Black women’s votes,” Jones said. “The 19th Amendment offered them no protection.” 

Jones concluded that Black women harness political ambitions that the 19th Amendment cannot support.

History Prof. Brett Gadsden referenced Jones’ various scholarly accomplishments including published books, articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and national prizes.

“Her work is absolutely vital for students of civil and human rights, social movements, gender, politics and law,” Gadsden said. “There is no true telling of American democracy without this Martha Jones.” 

Prof. Jonathon Glassman, director of the Chabraja Center for Historical Studies, said Jones’ lecture was one of many talks at NU delivered throughout the school year by historians producing innovative scholarship.

He looks forward to hearing about diverse topics from unique scholars who inform the NU community with their personal discourse and research.

“Our last talk of the quarter will be (Tuesday) at 12:30 p.m.,” Glassman said. “We have a full schedule for Spring Quarter including topics on medieval history and mass incarceration.” 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charlottehrlich

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