One hundred years ago in August, the 19th amendment guaranteed women the right to vote. But not all women benefitted equally. Voting was—and still is—more difficult for people of color due to voter suppression and disenfranchisement. While many of the most well-known suffragettes are white, Black women were also fighting for equal voting rights. Michigander Charlotte "Lottie" Wilson was one of them.
Jillian Reese from the Michigan History Center joined Stateside to tell Wilson’s story.
Wilson was born in Niles, Michigan in 1854 to a middle-class family that believed strongly in community service and the value of formal education. She became the first Black student at the Art Institute of Chicago, and went on to make her living as a teacher, sculptor, and painter, despite the art world being a largely white and male space at the time.
Wilson’s trailblazing wasn’t limited to her career, Reese says. It extended into her civic involvment as well. She was heavily involved in civic life in both Niles and Detroit, and she was a member of the National Association of Colored Women. The association, which fought for women’s right to vote, formed in response to the exclusion of Black women from the wider suffragette movement.
In 1899, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association held their convention in Grand Rapids. Leaders of the suffragette movement discouraged Black women from attending in order to appease Southern white women, says Reese, but the National Association of Colored Women sent delegates like Lottie Wilson anyway.
“For the leaders of the suffrage movement, particularly women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anna Howard Shaw, they saw the tabling of Black women or ostracizing [of] Black women as a way to achieve their goals politically,” Reese explained. “At the same time, they also supported ideas of white supremacy. They also wrote about the fact that it was an abomination that Black men got the right to vote before white women.”
While both the NAWSA and the NACW were primarily suffragette movements, the convention focused on a wide range of issues important to women. Attendees at the convention brought forth resolutions on topics like divorce, equal pay, and domestic violence.
Wilson brought forth a resolution about racial inequality. In those days, people primarily travelled by train. Women were able to purchase tickets to “ladies’ cars,” which were non-smoking and generally nicer. Black women were often unable to purchase tickets to these cars, and even if they did, they would be forced to leave once the train entered a state with segregationist policies.
Wilson’s resolution simply proposed that Black women be allowed to have ladies’ cars of their own. Susan B. Anthony, who chaired the meeting, dismissed the resolution without a vote, deeming it outside of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association’s influence and not a women’s issue.
Reese says this was typical of these meetings, where Black women’s concerns were often dismissed out of hand by white suffragettes. Those kinds of experiences helped shape Wilson’s politics and influenced her career in both art and activism.
“I think Lottie really understood this double axis of oppression that Black women face, that they face racism for being Black, and sexism for being a woman,” Reese said.
Wilson’s politics eventually found their way into her art. One of Wilson’s most famous paintings is of a meeting between Sojourner Truth and Abraham Lincoln. Her of Sojourner Truth was a nod to the struggle that she faced as a Black suffragette, says Reese. Truth’s famous speech “Aren’t I A Woman?” talks about how Black women were mistreated on account of both their gender and their race. While it is not clear whether such a meeting actually took place, the painting is the first piece of art by a Black artist accepted into the White House’s collection.
This segment was produced in partnership with the Michigan History Center.
This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.