I had never heard of Rosalyn Terborg-Penn until a friend sent me her New York Times obituary. I’m glad to know about her now.
Dr. Terborg-Penn, a professor of history at Morgan State University in Baltimore for
more than three decades, was the author of seven books, most notably, African
American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 (1998).
It was one of the first book-length examinations of black women in the suffrage
movement, and it challenged the existing narrative that was dominated, and framed,
by white activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Dr. Terborg-Penn’s book was a counterweight to History of Women’s Suffrage, a
six-volume work, begun in 1881, that was edited by Anthony, Stanton and Matilda
Joslyn Gage. That opus more or less erased from the picture the many black women
who Dr. Terborg-Penn said had attended suffrage meetings, organized suffrage clubs
and promoted the cause.
Virtually no corner of American history is immune from whitewashing, and the suffragist movement is demonstrably no exception. Stanton and Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, are perhaps the best-known white suffragists. Anthony, in particular, is somewhat of a household word, and was the figure on the U.S. dollar coin for two short periods in the late 20th century. Mary Church Terrell and Sarah Parker Remond are names I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know. Here’s a little bit about each of them:
Having been an avid suffragist during her years as an Oberlin student, Terrell continued to be active in the happenings within suffragists circles in the National Association Woman Suffrage Association. It was through these meetings that Mary Terrell became associated with Susan B. Anthony. An association which Terrell describes in her biography as “delightful, helpful friendship” which lasted until Anthony’s passing in 1906. What grew out out of Terrell’s association with NAWSA a desire to create a formal organizing group amongst black women in America to tackle issues of lynching, the disenfranchisement of the race and development a new educational reform. Being the one of few African-American women who was allowed to attend NAWSA’s meetings, Terrell spoke directly about the injustices and issues within the African-American community.
In 1856, the American Anti-Slavery Society hired a team of lecturers, including Remond, her brother Charles, already well known in the US and Britain; and Susan B. Anthony, to tour New York State addressing anti-slavery issues. Over the next two years, she, her brother, and others spoke in Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. She and other African Americans were often given poor accommodation owing to their race.
Although she was inexperienced, Remond rapidly became an effective speaker. William Lloyd Garrison praised her “calm, dignified manner, her winning personal appearance and her earnest appeals to the conscience and the heart.” Over time, she became one of the society’s most persuasive and powerful lecturers. She toured England, Scotland and Ireland between 1859 and 1861, fundraising for the anti-slavery cause.
From their Wikipedia entries, it would appear that Terrell was close to Anthony and Remond worked with her, and nonetheless they are mere footnotes in the white history books. Remond came to suffrage as a cause later than Terrell did, and both of them (and Anthony) were active in abolitionist, anti-slavery work as well.
Terborg-Penn seems to have demonstrated a very clear understanding of the racial split in the suffragist movement, and the racism shown by the white activists:
Black women, she said, were shunted aside in the history books because their goals
had diverged from those of the white, mostly upper-middle-class women who had led
the charge. White women wanted parity with white men, while black women, only
just emerging from slavery, wanted to use the ballot box to fight the racial oppression
that was engulfing the South.
The racial split became glaringly obvious in 1913, when the white organizers of a
major suffragist parade in Washington ordered black participants to march in the
Terborg-Penn engaged in activism as well as scholarship, and in both arenas was clear-eyed about white racism:
Her activism, fueled by her father, who believed strongly in civic engagement,
blossomed in college. She led a protest when Queens College would not let Malcolm
X speak on campus. On weekends, with a handful of other black students, she
marched in front of an F. W. Woolworth & Co. store in Manhattan in solidarity with
blacks who had staged a sit-in at an all-white Woolworth lunch counter in
Greensboro, N.C., where they had been refused service.
“We got the same response in New York City as in North Carolina,” Dr. Terborg-Penn
recalled at a conference in 2016. “White America was not ready for this. We needed
to stay in our place.”
We are extraordinarily fortunate that she found a place, instead of staying in her place, and shone a light on these important chapters in American — and Black — history.