On a spring day in 1903, Sylvanie Williams, a leader in New Orleans’ Black women’s suffrage movement, gifted Susan B. Anthony, the leader of the mostly white national suffrage movement, a bouquet of flowers. Williams had invited Anthony to give a speech on women’s suffrage to the Phyllis Wheatley Club of New Orleans, a social and political organization for Black women that Williams had founded. Before Anthony addressed the club, Williams shared some thoughts of her own.
“Flowers, in their beauty and sweetness, may represent the womanhood of the world. Some flowers are fragile and delicate, some strong and hardy. Some are carefully guarded and cherished, others are roughly treated and trodden underfoot,” Williams said. “These last are the colored women. The colored woman has a crown of thorns continually pressed upon her brow. Yet she is advancing, and sometimes you find her further on than you would have expected.”
One line from Williams’ remarks became the name of The Historic New Orleans Collection’s exhibition, “‘Yet She Is Advancing’: New Orleans Women and the Right to Vote, 1878-1970,” which opened on April 28 and runs through Nov. 5. The exhibition complements the other exhibition currently on display at THNOC, “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith,” and features photographs, objects, and interactive displays. Some of the items came from local collections housed at the Amistad Research Center and the Xavier University Archives and Special Collections.
“Yet She is Advancing” expands on a virtual 2020 exhibition of the same name that debuted in honor of the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The exhibit documents the struggles and achievement of Black and white women in the fight for the ballot.
Libby Neidenbach, an interpretive training coordinator at THNOC and the curator of “Yet She Is Advancing,” noted that even though the 19th Amendment legally gave women the right to vote, disenfranchisement through Jim Crow laws prevented many Black women and men from voting. Though enough states ratified the amendment by 1920 to add it to the U.S. Constitution, Louisiana didn’t officially ratify the 19th Amendment until 1970. And Black women challenged voting discrimination from the late 19th century to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and continue to do so today.
“I always wanted to tell the most accurate and inclusive story that I could, so that’s why it had to go past 1920,” Neidenbach said. “From the beginning, that was always part of the plan.”
The exhibition divides the near-century of voting activism into three eras: 1878-1920, the end of Reconstruction up until the passage of the 19th Amendment; 1920-1950, when organizations like the NAACP fought against segregationist restrictions on voting rights; and 1950-1970, when demonstrations and activism of the modern day Civil Rights Movement brought social and legal change.
In the 1950-1970 period, Black women in New Orleans including activists Ketrina Ndang and Sybil Haydel Morial — wife of the first Black mayor of New Orleans, Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial — helped mobilize efforts to get African Americans registered to vote. Voter registration, especially in cities in the Deep South, was often designed to prevent Black people from voting — it involved a citizenship test, proof of literacy, and a math test.
In an oral history project through THNOC, Ndang recalled helping people prepare for the portion of registration where prospective voters had to determine their exact age in years, months, weeks, and days. She said that if people lacked the confidence to go register, she’d advise them to go on their birthday. “You can’t get that wrong, right? ‘I’m 41, no days, no months,’” Ndang said.
Barred from joining the League of Women Voters because of her race, Morial and seven friends started the Louisiana League of Good Government to help African Americans navigate the voter registration process. The organization led voter registration workshops at Black churches and a federally-funded home for senior citizens. The workshops educated attendees and strategized in advance of the confusing and discriminatory voter registration process. “The intent was to keep as many Blacks off the rolls, so we educated ourselves,” said Morial in an interview for the 2019 oral history project, The Pontchartrain Park Pioneers Oral History Collection.
“It was an intimidating experience to have to face all that to get the right to vote, but we did it,” Morial said in an interview for the oral history project. “We were loyal to our areas and we did that for several years.”
In many ways, the battles of Black women civil rights activists were a direct continuation of the battles of Black suffragists at the turn of the century. The story of Williams and Anthony that gave THNOC’s exhibition its name epitomizes this.
Williams and Anthony only met in the spring of 1903 because local white suffragists threatened to boycott the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) annual convention if Black women attended. Even though Williams was invited to represent the National Association of Colored Women at an executive meeting following the convention, a representative of the local white suffrage council said, “We could not possibly let her sit in our presence.” Another said, “If we permitted the slightest approach to social equality, our lives would be in danger.”
The NAWSA convention of 1903 in New Orleans marked the first time the organization had met in the Deep South, but it came at the “end of a decade where NAWSA was trying to persuade white Southerners to support suffrage,” Neidenbach said. While the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 began the suffrage movement in the North, the Southern suffrage movement did not take off until after Reconstruction, a fact that Neidenbach said “has everything to do with race.”
The pre-Civil War suffrage movement was intertwined with abolitionist efforts, and following Reconstruction, white Southern suffragists excluded Black women and sought to capitalize on white fears of Black male voting power.
Recognizing that passing a constitutional amendment depended on the support of white Southern lawmakers, national suffrage groups “leaned into white racial fears and basically made this argument that you want white Southern women to be voters because they are going to be a bastion against Black voters,” Neidenbach said. NAWSA took what Neidenbach described as a “wishy-washy” stance when it came to supporting Black women’s right to vote.
“I describe [their answer] as ‘the states’ rights approach’ where they say, ‘All we want is for sex to be eliminated as a barrier for voting. If there are other qualifications that states want to set up, that’s on them,’” she said.
So, when local white suffragists in New Orleans threatened to boycott the annual convention if Black women attended, Williams formally announced she would not accept the invitation to the executive meeting of suffragists. However, Williams emphasized in the press that she was eligible to attend the convention. She opted not to create controversy and invited the white NAWSA leaders to the Phyllis Wheatley Club instead.
In curating the exhibit, Neidenbach didn’t want to “gloss over anything” when it came to showcasing the racism within the suffrage movement. Kate Gordon, for instance, was a founding member of the preeminent white suffrage organization in New Orleans, the Equal Rights Association (ERA Club). She brought the NAWSA convention to the Deep South, and helped property-owning women vote on issues of taxation through a legal exception to women’s exclusion from the ballot more than 20 years before the 19th Amendment passed. But Gordon was also a “severe white supremacist,” Neidenbach said.
After decades of advocating for women’s suffrage, Gordon ultimately opposed the 19th Amendment because it would give Black women the right to vote. She ended up siding with Louisiana’s anti-suffrage group instead, and the amendment did not pass in the state. “I have fought for this all my life and now I don’t even want it,” Gordon said of the 19th Amendment. Still, the national amendment passed in 1920, and Sylvanie Williams, whom Gordon had continually excluded within the city’s suffrage movement, registered to vote that year.
“If you take Kate Gordon out of the story, then you’re not telling the full story,” Neidenbach said. “So it was really important for me to highlight it all — the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
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