In honor of Black History Month, the Louisa County Historical Society invited author and professor Dr. Shennette Garrett-Scott to speak at First Baptist Church on Feb. 22.
In her presentation, Garrett-Scott, associate professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi, explored the political culture of black women in Virginia before and after women gained the right to vote a century ago and compared it to the 2020 elections. Faced with many of the same struggles as their ancestors, Garrett-Scott believes the new generation is the modern-day critical voting block.
Even before they could vote, black women have always been a “vital stake” of society, said Garrett-Scott. Working hard to lift up and empower their communities, many black women participated in political rallies and counted ballots at the polls. They worked tirelessly side-by-side with their black male counterparts to make progress.
In the 1870s, white “Southerners reinstituted racial supremacy, purged the Republican Party’s influence and turned back social, economic and political gains” made by black people after the Civil War, she said.
In urban areas like Williamsburg and Norfolk, black people were faced with an entourage of assaults including fraud, intimidation, arson, kidnapping, beatings and lynchings. Many black women risked their lives to participate in political activities.
Banding together, many black women found solace through the support of clubs, societies and church groups dedicated to building coalitions across class and racial lines. These national and local groups focused on key issues impacting black Americans, including the eradication of Jim Crow laws, equalizing schools, creating safe and equal workplaces, and ensuring access to labor unions for all citizens.
During this time, black women participated marginally in open political clubs supporting the white women’s suffrage movement because of the risk of being targeted for violence and oppression. As a result, churches, secret societies, clubs and schools became the primary place for black women to organize around economic, social, political and cultural concerns, explained Garrett-Scott. “Women leaders of these societies saw economic rights as an important way for black women in particular, and black communities in general to exercise their citizenship rights.”
Garrett-Scott spoke of one person who made a huge difference in the decades-long struggle for women’s voting rights, Maggie Walker, who is well-known for her impact on Richmond’s history.
Walker, a prominent leader at the Independent Order of St. Luke, helped other black women become financially independent, find employment, buy homes and get educated. “These organizations championed black self-respect, economic independence, education and social justice, and allowed black women from all walks of life to thrive,” said Garrett-Scott.
As president of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, Walker helped black women become homeowners, encouraged them to pay their poll taxes, organized voting efforts and supported black women candidates running for offices.
In large cities like Washington D.C. and Harlem, St. Luke built meeting halls for black men and women to meet, so they could organize, debate and coordinate community initiatives. Long before the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, organizations like St. Luke helped black Americans get the support they needed to become successful.
Walker and other advocates organized thousands of black women to register to vote. With only white women serving as clerks in the registrar’s office, the application process for voter registration was met with frustration and discrimination. Not only were the lines long, but black women were often questioned about their credentials.
In Virginia, black women were sometimes made to wait up to 12 hours to register to vote, while others were told to come back repeatedly, only to be finally told they didn’t qualify. In some places throughout the U.S., the registrars added an additional tax to black women voters.
“Black women had reason to feel really bitter,” said Garrett-Scott. “Especially because it threatened women’s livelihood and safety.”
In some locations, there was a “grandmother” clause that required black women to bring proof of birth going back three generations or at least 60 years.
“[It was] clearly designed to keep them from voting and to shame them,” Garrett-Scott told the audience. During this time, registrars had the authority to exempt white women from the same requirements. But black women fought back. They held rallies, wrote letters, created petitions, and formed delegations and permanent lobbies that prevented politicians from putting in measurements to further disenfranchise black women.
While they weren’t able to overturn those rulings at the time, Garrett-Scott explained that black women learned many important lessons about the power of the vote. Quoting Mary Church Terrell, she said, “No women in the country need the ballot more than colored women in the South. They need the ballot as a mechanism of defense and protection.”
According to Garrett-Scott, a number of media outlets are predicting this year’s election will hinge on black women, many facing the same struggles as their ancestors.
“Black women make 63 cents to the dollar versus their male counterparts. They die of breast cancer, cervical cancer, diabetes and heart disease at far greater rates than white women. Even financially, black women are in debt more than their counterparts,” explained Garrett-Scott.
“Despite the obstacles placed in their path, it is clear that women will remain engaged in the political process, fully invested in the emotional, physical and financial health of black communities in particular, and the well-being of the nation as a whole.
“The actual vote is only the beginning. It’s really only part of your political power and we can all learn so many lessons from them. Lessons about mobilizing our communities, about educating ourselves on the issues, about lobbying and petitioning politicians and addressing and pressing local concerns.”
Garrett-Scott’s book, Banking on Freedom: Black Women in U.S. Finance Before the New Deal, is the winner of the 2019 Woods Brown Prize for best book in Black women’s history.