This essay reframes both the woman suffrage narrative and narratives of African American voting rights struggles by focusing on the experiences of southern African American women between the 1870s and the 1920s. It argues that the Fifteenth Amendment remained central to their suffrage strategy long after the failure of the “New Departure” to win court sanction caused white suffragists to abandon it. As white supremacists in the South worked at the turn of the century to disfranchise black men, leading African American suffragists such as Mary Church Terrell, Gertrude Bustill Mossell, and Adella Hunt Logan called for the enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as well as the enfranchisement of black women. After the federal woman suffrage amendment was ratified in 1920, many southern African American women encountered the same barriers to voting—obstructionist tactics, threats, and violence—that black men had faced a generation earlier. In short, for aspiring African American voters in the South, the failure of the Nineteenth Amendment to secure voting rights for black women constituted a sad sequel to the failure of the Fifteenth Amendment to secure voting rights for black men.
This interpretation offers three significant interventions. It pairs the Reconstruction-era Amendments with the Nineteenth Amendment, recognizing their shared focus on voting rights. It connects the voting rights struggles of southern African Americans across genders and generations. Finally, it finds that, for some women, the canonical “century of struggle” for voting rights continued long after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.