As the nation’s capital readied for Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration in March of 1913, activist Alice Paul made plans for a large suffrage parade of floats, marchers and theatrical representations. As I note in my new book, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote, states often serve as incubators for social change in this country. By the time of the 1912 election, 1.3 million women in this country were already eligible to vote for president — and Paul wanted to remind Wilson that his ascendance to the White House owed something to their votes.
Police officials at first suggested that she stage her march along Sixteenth Street, with its respectable middle class homes. But Paul, who believed that visual messaging was the key to social change, used political connections to win approval for Pennsylvania Avenue, these days called America’s Main Street. This was the iconic street where inaugural parades took place, where the city’s two great centers of political power — the U.S. Capitol and the White House — were connected by a broad avenue designed by Pierre L’Enfant, a Frenchman who had come to Washington to fight in the Revolutionary War and rose to become George Washington’s choice for city planner.
So much publicity surrounded preparations for the parade that women from many states and other countries made travel plans to attend. Students from Howard University, many from the newly-formed Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, applied to march. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a journalist who had awakened the nation to the injustice of lynching young black men, also let it be know that she planned to participate. President of the Chicago-based black Alpha Suffrage Club, Wells-Barnett asked to march with the Illinois delegation. When word got into the newspapers, southern suffragists threatened to boycott.
Paul, who was radicalized by suffragettes in Britain, feared the optics of an integrated parade. But she feared more letting a suffrage conflict over race get into the newspapers. So Paul accepted the Howard University application but surrounded the Delta Signa Theta Sorority sisters with a larger contingent of college students. Paul asked Wells not to march, but the defiant activist waited on the sidewalk until the Cook County delegation came in view, and then squeezed in between two friends who assisted in the feint — a proud African-American woman unwilling to accept political crumbs.
Perhaps that is why some African-American feminists today do not indulge in nostalgia for the suffrage movement. Blogger Luvvie Ajayi once tweeted that she does not wear white to honor the suffragists, seeing in the color “the epitome of white feminism.”
To me the larger story is not that they were discriminated against, but that black suffragists persevered. They did march in the parades. They did sign petitions. Eventually, they did vote. And most of all, they never stopped trying. As we commemorate Black History Month, let us applaud the ones who stood and refused to be sent down.