New digital collection tells the untold stories of Black women’s vital role in the suffrage movement
As the country prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment on August 26th—a monumental milestone along America’s ongoing journey toward gender equality—it is imperative to take this opportunity to correct the starkly inaccurate and incomplete version of the story that many of us have been taught about the women’s suffrage movement. There are two vital omissions that tend to be left out of this chapter in history: the unrecognized influence and leadership of Black women in the suffrage movement (and the systemic racism they encountered along the way) and the fact that even after the 19th Amendment’s ratification, many women of color continued to be denied their right to vote.
To mark this centennial and provide a more accurate accounting of the history of suffrage, Pivotal Ventures—a company founded by Melinda Gates to advance social progress—has launched Truth Be Told, a digital collection of historical portraits and artifacts that tells a more inclusive story of the women’s suffrage movement with a spotlight on the less familiar stories of Black women’s activism throughout this period. Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett are all names that remind us that Black women were a part of the fight for the right to vote—even though most were denied the right until almost 50 years after the 19th Amendment with the passage of the Voting Rights Act—yet there are other relatively unknown names and inspiring stories that Truth Be Told brings to light.
The creation of this collection is an extension of Melinda Gates’s commitment to advance gender equality, ensuring that the history of women is told through accurate stories. “The 19th Amendment was an important but incomplete victory in the struggle for women’s voting rights,” said Gates. “As we commemorate its centennial, we also have a responsibility to grapple with its complicated history and elevate the stories of courageous Black activists who challenged both sexism and racism in their long fight for the vote.”
It has long been evident that society’s historical narratives and books systematically omit women and their contributions to history, especially women of color. In fact, less than 3% of the words in history textbooks are specifically about women and only 5% of all images of historic figures are women of color. The history of women’s suffrage is no exception, as Black women leaders of the movement were quite literally written out of the narrative. A spokesperson from Pivotal Ventures explained that their focus is to correct the biased narrative and “make sure that how women show up in the news and how women show up in history books and how women show up period is not only equal and fair, but it’s accurate and factual.”
To curate this collection, Pivotal Ventures partnered with Allison K. Lange, historian and associate professor of history at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, as well as several libraries and archives, including Shaneé Yvette Murrain, Community Manager at Digital Public Library of America. The collection features portraits and artifacts from a range of partners including the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), the New York Historical Society, the Arthur & Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, the Schomburg Center, the Library of Congress, and Gates Archive and Collections.
I had the opportunity to speak to Lange and Murrain about their experience putting together Truth Be Told, the story they are hoping to tell, how a collection like this plays a role in highlighting the importance of diversity and inclusion in history, and how it helps connect us to the moment we are in right now as we continue to work toward achieving true gender and racial equality in this country.
Marianne Schnall: What story are you looking to tell with the Truth Be Told collection, and how is this story different from what we traditionally learn about the suffrage movement in the conventional accounting of history?
Allison Lange: One of the things we’re really trying to do is tell the story of the suffrage movement, but a very much updated one to reflect a lot of the wonderful materials that people like Shaneé with the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America) made ever more accessible. We’re telling this story to really demonstrate the ways that Black women in particular were not only participants in this movement but also really vital leaders in this movement. So that is one of the main goals of this collection. And that’s really different from the story that we have normally encountered in textbooks and perhaps in older documentaries and things. This is really meant to tell not just an updated story for 2020, but actually a far more accurate story, a far more true story that really captures the range of women’s rights activism in the 19th century.
Shaneé Murrain: This type of storytelling is putting artifacts in the hands of people to interact with the story, interact with the materials that are about and created by these women. These women played significant leadership roles leading up to and during the U.S. women’s suffrage movement and beyond, yet their stories and contributions are not widely known. With the Truth Be Told project, we’re sharing these artifacts as they demonstrate the critical roles of Black women played at the forefront of the campaign and women’s rights so that they’re not too often forgotten, and they have been collected. This is an effort to share that more widely with the public.
Schnall: Can you talk a little bit about how you selected pieces for the collection, and also which portraits or artifacts stand out to you the most or were particularly meaningful to you?
Lange: One of the really exciting things about working on a digital project rather than an in-person collection is that we got to use items from so many institutions. With the support of the DPLA, we were able to not only create a collection based on one institution’s items, we were able to use Gates Archive and Collections, but also the DPLA and the New York Historical Society and the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, which is a really unique opportunity, quite frankly. And a lot of individual institutions, just based on one single collection alone, would never have been able to create such a vibrant story.
One of my favorite pieces is the Sojourner Truth portrait, which she distributed in the 1860s. She is one of the first women to really create this strategy of using portraits to challenge both racist and sexist stereotypes, which is a strategy that’s picked up by Susan B. Anthony and many other suffragists after her. So this is not only a really amazing portrait, but she copyrighted these photographs herself, and she sold them herself. She had total control over her photograph. This was extraordinarily unprecedented. And she did really fascinating work that was not only valuable for her, but also really influenced the rest of the suffrage movement. So that one portrait alone is incredibly powerful.
I would be remiss not to also note the Mary Church Terrell portraits. Just on a more fun note, she was very interested in fashion, so she always has these fabulous hats and things in her portraits. And the one that we use here is not an exception to that. You have to make sure to check it out.
Also, the Nannie Burroughs photograph is this wonderful group photograph of her with a lot of other women, and she is holding a banner. One of the things that makes this photograph particularly exciting is that we often don’t have a lot of very accessible photographs of women who look like they’re kind of on their way to perhaps a march, which they very well might have been. It’s a great informal scene. It’s not posed in front of their meeting house or something; it almost looks like it’s a photograph taken in a backyard, which is really interesting. And then also their clothes and their appearance tell us a lot about them; you can get a sense of them. I was mentioning how Terrell really used fashion as one way to present herself as a really dignified, refined woman, and I would say that the same kind of thing is really visible with Nannie Burroughs and her colleagues here. You can get a sense of the kind of respectability politics that are interwoven with these women’s rights movements, particularly among more middle and upper class Black female reformers of that time period.
Murrain: Many of the artifacts featured in the Truth Be Told collection are a part of a larger DPLA partnership called the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection, which is a collaborative project to provide digital access to materials documenting the roles and experiences of Black women in the women’s suffrage movement and, more broadly, women’s rights and civic activism between the 1850s and 1960s. So it’s actually lengthening the timeline and contextualizing how women’s suffrage fed into and continued to inspire Black women’s civic activism.
As an archivist who processes mixed media, I’m always interested in the correspondence. Seeing women’s words and their signatures and the “everyday-ness” of the letters they wrote that were also deeply entrenched with their appeals to voting rights and how they organized and connected with other women across time and across geographic boundaries. It’s just fascinating to read the words in their own pen.
Schnall: How does a collection such as Truth Be Told play a role in highlighting the importance of diversity and inclusion in history, and why is that important?
Murrain: The Truth Be Told collection plays a role of highlighting the importance of diversity and inclusion by recognizing the legacies of racism and white supremacy and how records have been collected and whose stories of heroism are privileged in the telling of history and how that has resulted in the failure to develop and share collections truly representative of the diverse populations that libraries and digital collections serve. Truth Be Told is about equitable storytelling and so is the Black Women’s Suffrage Collection. The women that are featured in both of these collections play significant leadership roles leading up to and during the United States women’s suffrage movement and beyond, and their contributions are not widely known. There is a gap, and America’s public consciousness is rooted in the history of racism and exclusion within the suffrage movement, which resulted in white women emerging as the movement’s primary protagonists, while Black women were effectively wiped from the narrative. So Truth Be Told and the Black Women’s Suffrage Collection are about bringing them back into the narrative and making a more equitable version of history and storytelling.
Lange: I want to provide additional history behind Shaneé’s statement about how Black women were written out of the narrative and the fact that this was really purposely done by white suffragists. For example—and this is mentioned a few times in the Truth Be Told story—Susan B. Anthony literally helped edit a series called The History of Women’s Suffrage. It’s a six-volume series, like 1000 pages per volume. It still influences the way we tell the story, and many Black women were written out of it. There are no portraits of Black women in this story. So early historians of this movement didn’t look for Black women, didn’t go out of their way to include them, and we’re actually still grappling with that early history of the movement. So this is our attempt to correct that story and to really tell a more accurate version of their story than these white suffragists did over a century ago.
Schnall: Why is it important to make these artifacts digitally accessible to a larger audience?
Murrain: Making these artifacts related to Black women’s suffrage digitally accessible to a larger audience is vitally important to recognize and celebrate the important contributions of Black women and their resiliency in the face of ongoing racism and exclusion. These records are remarkable for illustrating Black women’s defiance, as Allison said, in dress and being photographed and marching and being in public space and taking up space and being voiced. This was against the conventional gender roles assigned to women in the late 19th century. And the digitization of these collections that are focused on Black women represents another important opportunity for researchers, students, and the public to interact more intimately with these legacies of inspiring women, and also to go through the photographs and all of the different materials to make connections to the present moment and the civic activism of women of color.
Lange: I want to reiterate just how valuable it is to have an institution like the DPLA digitizing all of these less familiar sources to us, because when I started researching the suffrage movement over a decade ago, if I went into a prominent women’s history library and called up “the suffrage collection,” Black women would not be associated with that collection; their materials would not be associated with that collection. So updating catalog entries, even to connect people like Mary Church Terrell to suffrage and not just anti-lynching or civil rights activism—to make these records evermore accessible to us is really vital.
The other component of that is that a lot of these institutions that really are centers for Black archives, many of them unfortunately are under-resourced, and they do not all have the funding to digitize their collections or to offer wonderful fellowships for people to fly in from wherever they’re flying into and spend a month working with their collections. Those are really major hurdles, and having an institution like the DPLA making those items more accessible is incredibly exciting and will certainly change the direction of history.
Schnall: What are your highest hopes for what the Truth Be Told collection will accomplish? Also, how do you connect it to the moment that we are in today, both from an activism context—and the women included in the collection are obviously incredible role models—but also in terms of the influence, power and leadership of Black women?
Murrain: The collections of Black women’s suffrage are almost like a call and response to the present day. I’ll share an example from one of our partners. This is a collection that will be digitized as a part of the Black Women’s Suffrage Collection. It’s the Jessie Guzman papers at Tuskegee University. She was an active organizer in the civil rights movement, and she was an assistant secretary of the Southern Conference Educational Fund. In 1954, she was the first Black woman to seek office in the state of Alabama when she ran for the Macon County board of education. It was the first attempt to run for office by a Black citizen since reconstruction.
These are the kinds of stories that need to be told widely, and they’re also deeply inspirational in that there are firsts in the fifties, and there are Black women who will be counted as firsts for their activism and their participation in the political process in 2020. And these historic stories won’t be hidden anymore, so they can continue to be inspirational and also indicative of how far women of color have come and are continuing to work on the shoulders of giants.
Lange: I think Shaneé’s last line is just perfect, and that’s the direction I would hope people take away from the Truth Be Told site, as well as the 19th Amendment centennial moment in particular—thinking about how the 19th Amendment was a really important milestone for women in United States, but it certainly didn’t signal that women were granted full equality. It didn’t even signal that all women had the right to vote, as we note on the site. We know a lot of women couldn’t vote until the Voting Rights Act. Native American women, Japanese American women, Chinese American women, and Puerto Rican women couldn’t vote until much later—there are so many different groups of women that actually were not enfranchised by the 19th Amendment. It reminds us that we still can continue to work toward equality and think about the ways that women in the past did so and how we can continue to work toward advancing systemic change for women of all backgrounds as we move forward.
To view the Truth Be Told Collection, click here.
Click the links below for more information about these organizations: