“Politics is the only dirt we don’t get into at present”: The African American Women’s Suffrage Struggle and Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Scrapbook

 

African American suffragists like Alice Dunbar-Nelson fought for more than votes for women.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Photo of Alice Dunbar-Nelson from her scrapbook cover

White suffragists often appealed to “fairness” in seeking the right to vote. But that wasn’t enough for many African American suffragists. When Alice Dunbar-Nelson campaigned for votes for women in 1915, she explained to Black men that Black women’s voting would strengthen the Black community.

Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson was a writer, teacher, poet, playwright, accomplished public speaker, and an anti-lynching activist of enormous energy and vision. But her suffrage work is missing from white-centered women’s rights histories. The scrapbook she kept documenting her speaking tour for a Pennsylvania suffrage campaign in 1915, however, reveals her role in winning women the right to vote. Newspapers wrote down parts of her speeches, and although she did not save full copies of her talks, without the scrapbook record she created, these articles would have been lost, as most have been saved nowhere else.

 

She took a break from her position as a English teacher at all-Black Howard High

Flyer for African American women’s suffrage rally. Dunbar-Nelson’s friend Mary Church Terrell was also on the speaking circuit.

School in Wilmington, Delaware to participate in the suffrage campaign in fall 1915, working with the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s Speaker Bureau. But she wasn’t just any Bureau speaker bringing the (white) suffrage message into Black neighborhoods. Her speeches on what Black women’s votes could do for the Black community show she thought of suffrage more broadly. Her talks reached mixed-race, mixed gender, and all Black audiences. Of course only men were allowed to weigh in on whether women could ever cast a ballot, so she had to persuade men to support women’s right to vote.

The map was classic suffrage swag, showing the growth of women’s right to vote. Like many scrapbook makers, Dunbar-Nelson reused an old book or ledger. Hers was a household accounts book, seemingly never used. When scrapbook makers pasted over other books, they demonstrated that they valued one text over the other: in this case, suffrage self-documentation (and the housekeeping of the community) over close attention to individual housekeeping.

Although white suffragists often spoke or wrote as though women were not working for wages, Alice Dunbar-Nelson explained repeatedly that Black women’s work outside the home benefited the Black community as a whole. She argued to a Black audience, “Our women have literally built up [our] race in domestic service, which keeps them out of their home all day long; that means that the majority of our women are out of their homes every day helping the men to accumulate [resources]. If we are good enough to help in all this, it looks as if we are good enough to cast a vote.” When anti-suffragists claimed that politics was too “dirty” for women, Dunbar-Nelson responded, “Politics is the only dirt we don’t get into at present.”

 

Like today’s Black Lives Matter activists who focus on housing inequities as well as

Clipping about Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s talk to a Black women’s suffrage organization.

police violence, Alice Dunbar-Nelson spoke out on how winning the vote would make Black women more effective advocates for better housing. She argued that voters could address the needs of Black families coming north in the Great Migration, who lived in overcrowded ghetto housing. In one talk to a Black women’s group, she “denounced in emphatic terms the fact that colored families in many cities of this country were living in congested sections and that there was not ample room in their homes for the family,” her scrapbook clipping records. Suffrage was not just about the vote itself, but what African American women could change with the vote.

The only item in her scrapbook not directly related to the suffrage campaign concerns her testimony against the film The Birth of a Nation in a court hearing. The popular film showed African Americans as violent beasts that the KKK had to restrain by lynching. She was already an anti-lynching crusader and an early member of the NAACP. Pasting this item into her suffrage scrapbook, Dunbar-Nelson made clear that Black women’s vote and advocacy should be used to combat racism.

 

And so, when women finally won the vote, Dunbar-Nelson was more than ready for it. She organized Black women to cast their votes effectively and not be limited by party loyalty. She first worked arduously for Republicans, which was then the more progressive party. When white Republican politicians failed to support an anti-lynching measure, she switched her party affiliation to Democratic, and worked for Al Smith.

Black women have continued to be leaders in progressive, anti-racist politics, and now even run for Vice President. 

You can read Alice Dunbar Nelson’s complete suffrage scrapbook, “”July 12 – November 3, 1915. Some Records, not all of `An Interesting Campaign'” online at the University of Delaware Special Collections.

 

I’ve written briefly about Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s suffrage scrapbook previously here. My longer article about her scrapbook, “Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s Suffrage Work: The View from Her Scrapbook,” is in Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, special issue: Recovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the Twenty-First Century, Volume 33, No. 2, 2016. It’s better for Legacy if you access it from an academic library, but if you can’t, you can get it here.

African American suffrage advocate and abolitionist minister’s scrapbook in free online talk

“Strengthen and invigorate our souls!”

On Oct. 12, Yale’s Beineke library offers a webinar with Charles Warner, Jr. presenting

Rev. Amos Beman

the scrapbooks that Rev. Amos Gerry Beman, an African American pastor and social activist in Connecticut, made between 1830 and 1858, now fully digitized. 

Amos Berman followed the decades-long struggle for African American voting rights. I have only begun to dip into this trove, and have already seen one item where African Americans wrote passionately about the need for the right to vote. Although slavery had ended in New York in 1827, Black men, but not whites, were required to own $250 in property to vote. African Americans organized and demanded referenda on the issue. Black men got full voting rights only when the 15th amendment, which banned racial discrimination in access to voting, ended New York State’s discriminatory laws.

Amos Beman clipped articles about African Americans who organized against voting restrictions. One eloquent piece in the weekly Colored American pressed for continued agitation, and called for a meeting in August 1841. Signed by Henry Highland Garnet and others, it roused readers to keep up the struggle in the face of the NY state legislature’s failure to act in the previous session:

Brethren, be not discouraged; such disappointments should only act as a stimulus, to strengthen and invigorate our souls, and rouse us to a determination of persevering in the struggle by stronger and still more unanimous efforts, and by the talismanic influence of Agitation!

It was not just in the South that African Americans had to fight to vote. But Black people recognized the importance of having and using the vote. Scrapbooks like Rev. Amos Beman’s show us what a long and multifaceted battle it was.

One of the four volumes concerns Rev. Beman’s work with the Colored Men’s Convention, part of the decades-long Colored Conventions movement that a network of scholars, led by P. Gabrielle Foreman, have brought to light.  The scrapbooks themselves are fully digitized.

Sign up for the webinar here.

African American Scrapbooks Now

A recent New York Times article on contemporary African American scrapbook makers reports on what happened when Tazhiana Gordon featured her pages on attending Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. She shows her pages on Instagram, where a scrapbooking community shares their work. But when she placed her activism and Blackness at the center of her work, some of her white followers dropped her.

Azzari Jarrett has designed Black Lives Matter scrapbook stickers and stamps.

The many African American scrapbook makers of the 19th and 20th century would have been right there with Tazhiana Gordon in documenting the BLM movement, and paying attention to responses to the police killing of a black man. Even those who saved memorabilia about their own lives – programs from concerts they attended, family achievements – also clipped and pasted newspaper items about lynchings, government collusion in lynchings, and the suppression of the Black vote. Their private lives were not separate from what was happening to the local and national Black community.

African Americans of the past have known how essential it was for them to archive their own activities. We would not know anything about Alice Dunbar Nelson’s work for women’s suffrage if she hadn’t kept a thorough scrapbook of her 1915 campaign work around Pennsylvania.

Pages from Alice Dunbar’s 1915 scrapbook documenting her women’s suffrage work
Inside front cover of one of L.S. Alexander Gumby’s scrapbooks, with his personal bookplate.

Nineteenth and twentieth century African American scrapbook makers might have been more puzzled to see people ornamenting the pages with purchased stickers, and by the online community that shares ideas for page layouts and designs. Their own sharing was within the Black community, to offer one another the histories they’d compiled. I wonder what William Henry Dorsey, son of an escaped slave, with his 400 scrapbooks spanning over 4 decades, or Shirley Graham DuBois and her mother, or Joseph W.H. Cathcart, a janitor, whose 150+ massive scrapbooks attracted reporters from the white press to write about him, as “the Great Scrap Book Maker,” would have thought of today’s Black scrapbook crafters? All (with the exception of L.S. Alexander Gumby, who loved frames and pockets) might have been puzzled by the attention to the visual aesthetics of scrapbook making. But they surely would have applauded their demands for recognition and paid work within a white controlled industry.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson in my Washington Post article – based on her scrapbooks

alice dunbar nelson

Alice Dunbar-Nelson, in the photo taken around 1900, which appeared in the many newspaper articles about her suffrage work in 1915.

My article in today’s Washington Post “Made by History” section, “How a new exhibit corrects our skewed understanding of women’s suffrage: Addressing racism in the suffrage movement” tells about the fabulous exhibit, “Votes for Women,” opening today at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. This exhibit avoids the narrow “Seneca Falls to 1920” framing of women’s struggles for the vote to include the activism of African American churchwomen, clubwomen, and educators, and later civil rights activists, and Native Americans and Puerto Ricans, whose timeline for getting the vote was very different.

My article focused on Alice Dunbar-Nelson, an African American writer, speaker, teacher, and all around activist, whose portrait is in the exhibit. Her story, not in the exhibit, is fascinating. I learned about her 1915 campaign tour for suffrage through her scrapbook – really the only record there is of this work. The news articles she collected about her speeches were in local papers, not digitized or even microfilmed. She was bold enough to think that evidence of her work should be saved, and savvy enough to realize that if she didn’t do it, no one else would. Her scrapbook is thus almost the only trace we have of the very particular arguments for suffrage she addressed to the black community.

If the Washington Post article whets your appetite, you can read more about Alice

1917 black women organizing for vote

Photo of a gathering of black suffrage activist, 1917. Anyone know who is who?

Dunbar-Nelson’s suffrage work in my 2016 article, “Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s Suffrage Work: The View from Her Scrapbook” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, 33: 2; 310-335. If you’re not a subscriber, you’ll need access to J-Stor or ProjectMuse to get to it.

The exhibit catalog has an eye-opening essay by Martha S. Jones – essential reading on African American suffrage involvement: “The Politics of Black Womanhood, 1848-2008.”

I must get to DC!