Oregon’s Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage League and the 1912 Campaign
African American women and men have a special story when it comes to the fight for woman suffrage. From the abolition of slavery to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, African American women had an upward battle in the fight for equal opportunities for their race as well as for their sex. Stemming from the abolitionist movement of the earlier part of the nineteenth century, suffrage and race were tied together from the start. Many of the early and founding members of the votes for women movement were politically involved in the abolitionist movement. Early on African American women and some white women worked together to gain the right to vote. Later however as the Progressive Era approached, white women and their organizations often excluded African American women from their efforts. During the Progressive Era and leading up to the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, African American women started to form local and later national organizations of their own, to advocate not only for universal suffrage but for solutions to other problems associated with the tense race relations of the time. The Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage Association of Portland, Oregon was one of these important local organizations that helped pave the way for African American women to achieve the right to vote.
In the early formative years of the woman suffrage movement, African Americans played just as much of a part in the campaigning as the white women. African American women had the most to gain from receiving the vote. They also had the hardest fight to acquire this right. For years they had faced opposition. First, according to Elizabeth McLagan in A Peculiar Paradise, it was “slavery and later poverty that restricted many Black women’s efforts to gain women’s right to vote.” Class was an issue for many suffragists of any race. Women who had received an education and held prominent positions in the campaign for votes were more likely to belong to a wealthier class. This was true for African American leaders as well. Because many African Americans belonged to the working class, early on they were often underrepresented. Former slave Sojourner Truth, one of the prominent founding African American woman suffrage leaders, was an exception and actively campaigned for woman suffrage. Although illiterate, Truth was a great orator and spoke with such conviction that many times an ambivalent crowd became proponents of women suffrage.
Oregon’s involvement in woman suffrage dates back to the 1870s. In 1872 women across the nation attempted to vote in the presidential election. Mary Beatty, a woman identified in the newspapers as “colored,” along with Abigail Scott Duniway, a prominent suffrage leader in Oregon, attempted to vote. Beatty seemed to be a much respected member of Oregon’s votes for women movement. In 1873 she attended the first annual convention of the Oregon State Woman Suffrage Association and was, according to Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, “among the platform guests who addressed the body as women suffrage advocates.” Mary Beatty, an African American woman, took an important stand in gaining equal rights for her race and her sex in Oregon.
Unfortunately, racism still continued to run rampant throughout the country and Oregon was no exception. Although Oregon never endorsed slavery that did not mean it actively welcomed those of other races and as McLagan notes “anti-black sentiment in Oregon was apparent from the beginning.” Many of the deeds to houses in Oregon specifically denied African Americans the right to live there. In 1844 Oregon “declared its prejudice against black people by passing the first of the exclusion laws.” Essentially these laws forbade African Americans from legally coming to or residing in Oregon. Racism in Oregon was still a huge issue when African American women were trying to achieve the vote. For awhile in the early years of the suffrage movement, white men and women worked towards this goal accepted and invited African Americans to work with them. However, as the twentieth century approached, the woman suffrage movement had grown and racist sentiments, both personal and political, had also developed.
As the Progressive Era approached, African American women and men branched off from the national woman suffrage organizations to work separately for the right to vote. As Marjorie Spruill Wheeler notes in One Woman, One Vote, even the white-run organizations that had previously accepted African American members began to drift “away from insistence upon universal suffrage.” Because the founding woman suffrage organizations pursued their own political agendas, leaving African American women out, African American women formed their own organizations. As Rosalyn Terberg-Penn states, these organizations pushed “for the enfranchisement of all Black women as a means to protect Black communities.” While these clubs very actively supported universal woman suffrage, they also took on issues such as unfair race relations, violence against African Americans, and lynching. Spruill Wheeler emphasizes that “petitioning…along with sending letters and telegrams to specific congressional leaders” continued to be major and effective strategies used by these clubs. For those states that had already passed a measure allowing women to vote, the clubs advocated for politicians who supported African Americans.
In Oregon, African Americans formed a group called the Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage League in 1912 among members of the five African American churches in the Portland area. The league’s main focus was to spread “equal suffrage ideas among the race.” Like many of the African American clubs around the nation, the Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage League held meetings and tried to raise awareness of suffrage in their communities. Oregon African American women, like those around the nation, had a difficult time recruiting members in the early stage of the club’s existence. According to the Oregonian after two months the organization had only “14 members out of the 2500 colored women of voting age in the city.” While leaders blamed poor publicity for the low attendance they also cited some African American men’s opposition. But after recognizing that African American women could help enfranchise African American men, many gave their support.
By organizing in their own local associations, African American women campaigned for suffrage for all. They made sure that they were not left out in the measure to allow women to vote and advocated for equality for their race. Major Portland newspapers reported on the league’s activities as the 1912 campaign continued. Membership in the league doubled throughout the 1912 campaign and the Oregonian and Oregon Journal reported this. As reported in the Oregonian, Portland’s African American newspaper, the Advocate, also endorsed the movement.
The importance of the work was also reflected in the recorded collaboration between Oregon’s white and African American suffragist leaders. Leaders of the Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage League included Katherine Gray as president, Mrs. Lancaster, vice president, Edith Gray treasurer and first secretary and later president, Hattie Redmond. They invited many other well-known leaders of white organizations to speak such as Esther Pohl Lovejoy, who created Everybody’s Equal Suffrage League, Sara Bard Ehrgott and Viola Coe.The Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage League also became a part of the State Central Campaign Committee.
This cooperation between white suffragist leaders and African American suffragists was vital to the success of the 1912 campaign. As Kimberly Jensen notes, “when leaders worked to include constituents across lines of race and ethnicity, they garnered particular success.” In the case of Oregon’s 1912 victory in achieving votes for women, this is particularly true.
As one of the pioneering Western states to adopt woman suffrage before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Oregon’s contribution is undisputed. While African Americans across the nation fought to be included in the local measures for woman suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment, Oregon’s African American women had fought and won the same voting privileges won by white women suffragists. From the beginning of the suffrage movement in Oregon, Oregon’s African American women campaigned for universal suffrage. Without their community’s help and collaboration, Oregon’s success in achieving equal suffrage in 1912 might not have happened. Oregon African American women truly impacted the woman suffrage movement on a national level with their dedication, strategy and success. They fought long held prejudices in their state, won the right to vote and assisted with the national campaign for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. While true equality would still be decades in the future, the success in winning the right to vote was a huge step on the way to progress in overall equality.
Jensen, Kimberly. “Neither Head nor Tail to the Campaign.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 108, no. 3 (2007): 350-382.
Jensen, Kimberly. “Woman Suffrage in Oregon; Oregon Encyclopedia.” 2009.
McLagan, Elizabeth. A Peculiar Paradise: a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940.
Portland: Georgian Press , 1980.
Spruill Wheeler, Marjorie. “Introduction.” In One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement. Edited by Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, 9-19. Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995.
Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. “African American Women and the Woman Suffrage Movement.” In One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement. Edited by Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, 135-156. Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995.
About The Author
Sophia Wellons participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Winter 2011 Oregon Woman Suffrage course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University. Sophia is a Psychology major and Business minor with interests in the helping professions, other languages and cultures, and travel.