Experts: Women of color crucial part in CT suffrage movement

Photo of Katrina Koerting

WESTON — A Connecticut Historical Society project wants to reframe the timeline most people think of when it comes to the women’s suffrage movement, and highlight often forgotten players — women of color.

“It’s not that the research isn’t there and the documentation isn’t there,” said Brittney Yancy, an assistant professor at Goodwin College. “It’s that scholars haven’t dived into it.”

An exhibit this week examined the work and the women who secured the right to vote in Connecticut, focusing on women of color, who tend to be absent from the general narrative about the suffragist movement but were crucial parts.

It was led by Yancy and Karen Li Miller, a research historian with the Connecticut Historical Society, and hosted by the Weston Historical Society, the Weston Library and the League of Women Voters of Weston.

Many of the women featured lived and organized in New Haven and Hartford, but Yancy said this might be because of the source material available. She said they’re continually learning more about the women and movement at the time, and encourage anyone with information about other organizations or women to reach out to the Connecticut Historical Society.

Even Mary Townsend Seymour, arguably the state’s most written about Black suffragist, is still yielding new information as researchers explore the topic further. She founded and led the Hartford chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1917 out of her apartment. She also established the first Black women’s labor union, and in 1920 was the first Black woman to run for the Connecticut General Assembly.

Two years later she became the first African American to run for Connecticut’s secretary of the tate, though she’s unsuccessful in both races.

“We were very excited to uncover that,” Yancy said of the 1922 race. “We know there’s more to know about her.”

Yancy said the goal of the project is to not only “put women back into the historic record” but to also re-examine the timeline associated with the suffragist movement, beginning with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and ending with the 19th Amendment in 1920.

But she said women of color were organizing long before then and were often the inspiration for the white suffragists, especially Native Americans. It also takes longer for some women to gain the right to vote due to other barriers preventing them outside of gender, such as race and citizenship.

After the Civil War, and especially the passage of the 15th Amendment, a second generation of suffragists emerged that was more diverse and more formally organized with the advent of official clubs and federations, she said.

“They’re coming with various voices, various strategies,” Yancy said.

They also brought more issues than trying to secure the right to vote. Puerto Rican women fought for citizenship, something their male counterparts secured in 1917 largely due to recruiting for World War I. Black women advocated for a slew of social issues, including better education, housing and job security, as well as stopping lynching and viewed the right to vote as a way to accomplish that, she said.

At the time, Connecticut was also dealing with a great migration as people move north to escape the Jim Crow south, settling in cities such as Hartford and New Haven. Several of Connecticut’s key organizers working to get women the right to vote were among them. The state was unprepared for the rapid growth, so a lot of the work fell on the shoulders of the established Black community to ensure their needs were met and fight the discrimination these newcomers faced, Miller said.

White women felt the other issues would detract from the suffragist movement and so that, coupled with white supremacy within the national movement, excluded Black women from joining the white suffragist organizations, Yancy said.

“They might consider themselves activists, but not suffragists,” she said.

Instead, these different groups organized on their own, generally within their own race. The largest was the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, which was formed in 1896 and is the umbrella many other state and regional groups fall under, Yancy said.

Connecticut’s first chapter of the Northeast Federation of the NACWC was in Norwich, but others are recorded in Ansonia, New Haven, Hartford, Waterbury and New London. Yancy said they believe one was also in Stamford.

“The women’s club movement becomes a critical hub,” Yancy said, adding these groups were also addressing the issues in their communities.

Sarah Lee Brown Fleming is considered the “Connecticut Club Woman.” She was married to the state’s first Black dentist. The couple lived in New Haven where she established the Women’s Civic League in 1929 and the Connecticut State Union-Nutmeg Federation of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. She was also a member of the League of Women’s Voters. Yancy said they’re trying to look at the club’s records to see if this chapter was different than others at the time.

Within Connecticut, churches played a critical role in organizing as well.

While most of the women were extremely involved in their churches, Martha Maddox is considered the “church lady,” Miller said. Maddox organized the beginners Sunday School at Union Baptist Church where she taught more than 600 children over 35 years.

“This is a whole way of reaching another generation,” Miller said.

Some of the other key players in Connecticut were the Edwards sisters in Hartford, who were active in politics and fought for women’s right to vote, as well as for African American’s participation in politics. This includes helping elect Black candidates and registering Black voters.

Martha Minerva Franklin, who was born in New Milford, decided to use her profession to help recruit Black female voters. She trained other nurses to do the same and said their profession put them in a unique situation to really connect and interact with their communities.

Women voters were also recruited with special days at the registrars and at rallies.

Generally, the organizers in these clubs were considered upper class. But Minnie Bradley brought another dimension to the movement, creating the National Association of Wage Earners in 1924 and advocating for better living conditions, fair wages and respect for domestic and personal service workers, Yancy said.

“Bradley represents a working class agenda,” she said.

Not all women supported the suffragist movement though. Often, they believed men and women were equal but had different roles. They felt they could influence the men in their lives to vote for certain things and didn’t need the vote themselves, Miller said.

Among them was Laura Belle Reed McCoy, a Mohawk native who started the country’s first African American Girl Scout Troop in New Haven and served on the city’s Board of Alderman in the 1940s — one of the first minority women to serve on a city council in the country.

“McCoy really complicates what it means to be a suffragist,” Yancy said.

Still, many voted once the right was won.

“They felt that once that opportunity was available that they had a civic duty to fill it,” Miller said.