Marching against the status quo was not easy for white women, but it was even more difficult for African American women because of the racist sentiment of the day, as well as white suffragists who did not favor suffrage for black women. According to Catherine H. Palczewski, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Northern Iowa, after the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a “racist component“ of the suffrage campaign ensued. Suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony did not support black male suffrage unless women also had the right to vote.
As pointed out by Mary Walton, “Everyone was welcome to participate, including men, with one exception. In a city that was Southern in both location and outlook, where the Christmas Eve rape of a government clerk by a black man had fanned racist sentiments, [Alice] Paul, a white woman, was convinced that other white women would not march with black women. In response to several inquiries, she had quietly discouraged blacks from participating. She confided her fears to a sympathetic editor: ‘As far as I can see, we must have a white procession, or a Negro procession, or no procession at all.’ ”
So, despite the fact that the right to vote was no less important to black women than it was to black men and white women, African American women were told to march at the back of the parade with a black procession. Despite all of this, the 22 founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority marched. It was the only African American women’s organization to participate. The group was founded on Jan. 13, 1913, at Howard University, and its contribution to the Washington’s Women’s Suffrage Parade was the founders’ first public act.
Mary Church Terrell was an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority who marched with the women under their banner. The daughter of former slaves, Terrell was one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women.While fighting against lynching and Jim Crow laws, Terrell advocated women’s suffrage. She spoke with authority because she represented “the only group in this country that has two such huge obstacles to surmount …both sex and race.”
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, another member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, marched. A journalist, outspoken suffragist and anti-lynching crusader, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, the first African American women’s suffrage organization. Her members joined her in marching for women’s suffrage at the 1913 parade in Washington. When the Illinois procession instructed Wells-Barnett of the edict that she march with an all-black delegation, she “refused to take part unless ‘I can march under the Illinois banner.’” And so she did, walking between two white supporters in the Illinois delegation.
One hundred years ago, dressed in white astride a white horse befitting an archangel, Inez Milholland Boissevan led the march for women’s suffrage. One hundred years later, on March 3, 2013, it was the highly accomplished women of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in all their red-and-white glory that led the Suffrage Centennial Celebration. In so doing, they showed the world what it means to be an American woman and all that African American women have contributed to making the nation what it is today.