“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.

March 29 2020 scrapbook talk in Clifton, NJ

Historic house museums appeal to our desires to imagine ourselves into different lives, lived in different surroundings. It’s always complicated – in extreme cases, when plantation recreations invite us to enjoy the spoils of slaveholders, and ignore the slave quarters, for example.

Scrapbook House, Strong Museum collection

Schoolroom in scrapbook house, Strong Museum collection

Scrapbook house parlor, including black servant, Strong Museum collection

But wandering through someone else’s house is intriguing. Nineteenth century children played with the desire to try out different homes in their house scrapbooks, where they created rooms and scenarios in them from catalog and magazine pictures.

On Sunday, March 29, 1 pm, you can visit a 19th century farmhouse and hear about historic scrapbooks. And if you have old scrapbooks in your family, bring them. I’ll bring some from my collection, too – and of course, lots of great pictures of how our ancestors used their newspaper clipping scrapbooks to save women’s history, black history, and more.

I’m looking forward to the first of my New Jersey Council for the Humanities scrapbook presentations, Sunday, March 29, 1 pm, at Hamilton House, Clifton, NJ 971 Valley Road, Clifton, NJ 07013.

https://www.hamiltonhousemuseum.org/events-1

Hey, New Jersey! Want to Hear about Scrapbooks?

Whenever I give talks about scrapbooks in public libraries and historical societies, people walk in thinking scrapbooks are trivial, and leave astonished at what a rich history they speak for — that so many people in the 19th century made them as “unwritten histories,” and they were our ancestors way of coping with too much information. I’m delighted that the New Jersey Council for the Humanities has included my Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks presentation in their great catalog of Public Scholars events. Nonprofit organizations in NJ can sign up to book the talk here.

I love adding local material and inviting people to look again at scrapbooks in their families and communities. NJ author and editor Jeannette Leonard Gilder kept scrapbooks and wrote about her NJ life in her memoir, The Tom-Boy at Work. Isn’t it time for your historical society to bring out its scrapbooks?

Eligible groups include libraries, historical societies, schools, universities and more. My talks are both women’s suffrage related, so qualify for organizations to go over the usual NJ Council on the Humanities limit of two talks/year. (Jeannette Gilder was actually an anti-suffragist. Yikes!)

From The Tom-Boy at Work

The full catalog of speakers is here.

Speaking on Scrapbooks in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Circle, Oct. 24, Hartford

I first saw a Beecher family-related scrapbook when Minton Brooks asked me to look at one now in the Brooklyn Historical Society, made by his ancestor Henry F. Minton. Henry Minton was Henry Ward Beecher’s parishioner, and had been riveted enough by

Harriet’s daughter Hattie Stowe made a cat scrapbook! (Schlesinger Library)

his minister’s doings in the unfolding Beecher Tilton sex scandal to compile clippings about them in his scrapbook, along with his own interests as a homeopathic doctor. It was the kind of unfolding news story that often inspired newspaper clipping scrapbook making. A scrapbook allowed you to collect all the sidepaths and follow them all across different newspapers.

But the Beechers and

Henry Minton scrapbook

Stowes and their friends themselves had different ideas of what to collect. And old newspapers could be turned into data, abolitionists realized in creating American Slavery as It Is – the book that Harriet Beecher Stowe kept under her pillow when writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I’m looking forward to speaking about the scrapbooks and newspaper clippings in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s life at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT, on Thursday, October 24, 5:30. Join me!

Treasure in scrapbooks

Thiharriet tubman from Miller scrapbook, library of congresss rare, riveting photograph of Harriet Tubman, probably taken around 1911 at her home in Auburn, NY, was in one of the scrapbooks kept by Elizabeth Smith Miller and Anne Fitzhugh Miller. They were ardent suffragists, and the daughter and granddaughter of abolitionist Gerrit Smith.  You can see more of their scrapbooks on the Library of Congress website. I’m looking forward to speaking about all kinds of scrapbooks in Auburn, Monday March 19 at the Seymour Library, 6 pm.

Auburn is not far from Syracuse and Ithaca — come on over.

This will be my last talk for Humanities New York’s Public Scholars Program, which is coming to an end. Audiences have been enthusiastic, and I hope to keep giving talks.

Speaking in Wilmington, DE – University of Delaware April 27

Thrilled to be heading to the University of Delaware to speak on African American scrapbooks.

April 27 talk

I’m heading there for a meeting of the 19th century women writers study group, and squeezing on a talk about African American scrapbooks along the way. (Listen for a mention of a slaveholding Gorsuch — an ancestor of the new Supreme Court judge? I wouldn’t be surprised.)

This time we’re discussing Alice Dunbar Nelson’s work (okay, the LONG 19th century). I wrote about a fascinating scrapbook Dunbar-Nelson made about her suffrage work in 1915, and will be talking about that for the study group on Saturday, too. (I wrote about it in Writing with Scissors, and again in more detail in Legacy’s special issue on Alice Dunbar Nelson. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/645636) She was a woman of remarkable energy, commitment, and political organizing interests.

Lockport ahead: Speaking at the History Center of Niagara, Thurs May 19

So excited to be giving my first talk on scrapbooks for the Public Scholars in the Humanities program of the New York State Council for the Humanities, which has 31 scholars giving talks around the state. I have been completely wowed by those I met at our workshops last summer — Richard Heyl de Ortiz, who speaks about the foster care system, Sally Roesch Wagner, who speaks on the 19c women’s rights movement, and the cartoonist Robert Sikoryak who graciously shlepped to my university in Jersey City to give a brilliant presentation on the history of cartoons/graphic novels, and two dozen more. Just looking at the list of speakers again is inspiring. If you’re in NY State, your organization can invite one! Or more!

scrapbook page with calling and trade cardsTomorrow I head upstate to speak about scrapbooks at the History Center of Niagara, hard by the Erie Canal, with stops in Glen Falls along the way. I hope people respond to the invitation to bring their scrapbooks (50 years old or more — the scrapbooks, not the people). I’ll bring some of mine, too. And yes, I’ll talk about how people without much power — African Americans, women’s rights advocates — used scrapbooks to speak back to the media.

Thursday, May 19, 7 pm. Niagara County Historical Society215 Niagara Street, Lockport, NY 14094. Looking forward to seeing you!

 

Scissorizing, and speaking at Boston College Thurs. Oct 15, 4:30

bc garvey poster 2015-page-001I had just taught a class on Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall where I showed the students some of the charming cartoons about “scissorizing” — Fanny Fern’s word for the 19th century practice of copying from one newspaper or magazine to another, without pay — when Lori Harrison-Kahan sent me the poster for my talk, “Activists Repurpose Media: 19th Century Scrapbooks” at Boston College Thursday, October 15, 4:30. The poster uses one of the great “scissorizing” cartoons. This gives out 21st century use of the term “the cloud” new meaning. This editor seems to be receiving his “siftings” from on high — and bringing his readers the good grain, not the chaff.

Baldwin’s Monthly NY, vol 8 no 2 Feb 1874, p 3

Baldwin’s Monthly NY, vol 8 no 2 Feb 1874, p 3

Some of the cartoons were more hostile — it makes me wonder about how the cartoonists felt about those snipping editors. After all, cartoonists had to produce original material in an era before easy photographic reproduction. Take a look at “Involution of an Editor,” from the humor magazine Life.

Involution of News Editor - Life, Oct 25, 1883.

Involution of News Editor – Life, Oct 25, 1883.

Ohio State University Oct. 1 Visit and McGuffey’s Scrapbook

I wasn’t planning to look at scrapbooks in Ohio State University’s Special Collections when

Poster for OSU talk

Poster for OSU talk

I go this week to give a talk on scrapbooks on Thursday, October 1, and lead a graduate seminar in the English Department on archives on Friday. But I couldn’t resist looking in the catalog, and found that they have a scrapbook where poetry and vignettes are pasted into an 1866 McGuffey’s Fifth Eclectic Reader! A scrapbook anthology on top of a school anthology!

I remembered that in Julia Colman’s 1873 article “Among the

Preface: McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic Reader

Preface: McGuffey’s Fifth Eclectic Reader

Scrap Books,” a shocked visitor finds a family “using up good printed books!” to make scrapbooks. The mother presiding over the scissorizing explains, “There is nothing in them that we want, and so we propose putting in something, rather than have them stand idle. … Some of them are old school-books, not much worn, but out of date.” I always assumed she meant geography books or science books, not readers. Perhaps this McGufffey’s was simply out of date for the family that owned it, with no more schoolchildren. I may have to see it.

Maine Historical Society scrapbooks

Nancy Noble writes about cataloging over a hundred scrapbooks in the Maine Historical

Scrapbooks in the collection of the Maine Historical Society

Scrapbooks in the collection of the Maine Historical Society

Society’s collection, from a backlog stretching back 50 years. What riches! Who would have thought the post office kept a scrapbook? I’m particularly curious about Scrapbook #7, on scrap and salvage during World War II. Often the only copies of rare newspapers disappeared into such efforts — and even scrapbooks disappeared into the salvage maw. The Maine Historical Society has many organizational and club scrapbooks — a type I didn’t do much with in Writing with Scissors. Is anyone working with that category? The descriptions of these scrapbooks show they are a rich trove for anyone working on Maine history, surely much else. If I ever get up to Portland…wonder woman paper