Telling their story

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan M. Pitts

In the years lead­ing up to 1920, when women were granted the right to vote, mem­bers of prom­i­nent suf­frage or­ga­ni­za­tions in Mary­land packed car car­a­vans en route to ral­lies, rode cross-state in cov­ered wag­ons to raise aware­ness and trav­eled to Wash­ing­ton to help lead marches to the White House. In Bal­ti­more, a smaller group of suf­frag­ists had to take up the bat­tle in their own liv­ing rooms. It has long been known that the vast ma­jor­ity of those who fought for the women’s vote in the United States were af­flu­ent, ed­u­cated white women, largely be­cause they tended to have the time and means to fo­cus on the con­tro­ver­sial cause. It is less well-known that, for the most part, they ex­cluded women of color.

Here as else­where in the coun­try, African Amer­i­can women who backed the women’s vote had to hold meet­ings in their homes, strate­gize within black so­cial clubs and mo­bi­lize within their church groups, rarely in­ter­act­ing with the larger or­ga­ni­za­tions that most as­so­ci­ate with the cause.

As the story of women’s suf­frage is be­ing told dur­ing the cen­ten­nial of the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the 19th Amend­ment, which gave women the fran­chise, his­to­ri­ans are re­ex­plor­ing the role African Amer­i­cans played in Mary­land and beyond.

It’s a story that has been con­fined to fam­ily his­to­ries, clip­pings from black newspapers and the min­utes of women’s clubs. But it’s start­ing to emerge into pub­lic view.

Just be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, a com­mem­o­ra­tive high­way marker was ded­i­cated in front of the homes of two African Amer­i­can suf­frag­ists, Au­gusta T. Chissell and Mar­garet Gregory Hawkins, who lived next door to each other in the 1500 block of Druid Hill Av­enue. Schol­ars are com­pil­ing bi­ogra­phies of Chissell, Hawkins and their friends and as­so­ciates in the move­ment.

His­toric notes and doc­u­ments are

be­ing or­ga­nized and dig­i­tized, even­tu­ally to be made part of a col­lec­tion at the Mor­gan State Univer­sity li­brary. More mark­ers might be erected in Bal­ti­more in 2020, adding to new com­mem­o­ra­tive trails across the state and the coun­try.

“So much of the story has been lost, but his­to­ri­ans are work­ing hard at telling the true, more di­verse story of women’s suf­frage,” says Diana Bai­ley, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Mary­land Women’s Her­itage Cen­ter in An­napo­lis, which helped plan the Chissell and Hawkins tribute.

Kacy Rohn was an in­tern with the Mary­land His­tor­i­cal Trust in 2017 when she was tasked with trav­el­ing the state to lo­cate sites the or­ga­ni­za­tion might com­mem­o­rate as the cen­ten­nial ap­proached.

The 19th Amend­ment to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, was rat­i­fied by the 36th and de­cid­ing state, Ten­nessee, on Aug. 18, 1920, and went into ef­fect na­tion­wide. (Mary­land rat­i­fied the amend­ment in 1941.)

Rohn says she was shocked at how lit­tle pub­lic aware­ness re­mained of the work of such suf­frag­ists as El­iz­a­beth King El­liott and Edith

Houghton Hooker, ed­u­cated white so­cial work­ers who founded the Equal Suf­frage League of Bal­ti­more and the Just Govern­ment League, two of the more prom­i­nent statewide groups that worked with na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions.

She was even more taken aback to learn that these and other groups sup­ported the con­tin­ued dis­en­fran­chise­ment of black women vot­ers in Mary­land. Af­ter the Na­tional Amer­i­can Wo­man Suf­frage As­so­ci­a­tion was formed in 1890, the suf­frage move­ment be­gan to sys­tem­at­i­cally ex­clude black women in a bid to win more sup­port from South­ern white women and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers.

Bal­ti­more’s Equal Suf­frage League and the Mary­land Suf­frage As­so­ci­a­tion sought to deny suf­frage to black women for sim­i­lar rea­sons, ac­cord­ing to Diane Weaver, a Mary­land his­to­rian and suf­frage re­searcher based in Wash­ing­ton County.

Rohn was also dis­mayed that the ef­forts of African Amer­i­can suf­frag­ists such as Chissell, Hawkins and their friend and neigh­bor, Es­telle Young, had been lost to his­tory.

“This was an el­e­ment I knew noth­ing about when I started study­ing women’s suf­frage,” says Rohn, now a his­toric preser­va­tion spe­cial­ist with Montgomery County. “It doesn’t ap­pear any­where in main­stream text­books, and it has been ex­cluded by de­sign.”

For a glimpse at the his­tory now emerg­ing, look to the work of Bev­erly Carter, a re­tired Bal­ti­more at­tor­ney who has been piec­ing it to­gether.

Carter is a mem­ber of, and of­fi­cial ar­chiv­ist for, the DuBois Cir­cle, a Bal­ti­more lit­er­ary club for black women whose cul­ture-minded mem­ber­ship has been meet­ing once a month, from Oc­to­ber through May, since 1906.

When she took over as ar­chiv­ist in 2015, Carter says, she re­al­ized that her pre­de­ces­sors had re­tained min­utes of those meet­ings and other ma­te­ri­als dat­ing to the group’s found­ing. She has been plow­ing through the ma­te­rial ever since, or­ga­niz­ing it by date, stor­ing it in note­books, and as­sem­bling what amounts to a nar­ra­tive of the mem­ber­ship over the years, in­clud­ing snip­pets that brought to life a group of force­ful women.

All 25 mem­bers of the early DuBois Cir­cle, in­clud­ing Chissell, Hawkins and Young, were also mem­bers of the suf­frage move­ment, Carter says, at least in the sense that club min­utes show the sub­ject was of­ten a topic of dis­cus­sion.

And in 1915, Young — the wife of Howard E. Young, Bal­ti­more’s first African Amer­i­can phar­ma­cist — founded and served as pres­i­dent of the city’s first suf­frage group for black women, known var­i­ously as the Col­ored Women’s Suf­frage Club or the Pro­gres­sive Women’s Suf­frage Club. Chissell and Hawkins were among ap­prox­i­mately 20 mem­bers and served as of­fi­cers.

Some of that ma­te­rial is not ref­er­enced in the DuBois Cir­cle records — there’s a gap in the min­utes from 1910 to 1930 — but Carter has found ref­er­ences and de­scrip­tions in the Afro-Amer­i­can, which fre­quently posted in­for­ma­tion on the meet­ings.

“I’m work­ing hard to fill in the gaps,” she says. “It’s time-con­sum­ing, but it’s fas­ci­nat­ing. And it’s start­ing to come to­gether.”

When Carter com­pletes her work, she’ll do­nate the col­lec­tion to Mor­gan State, where univer­sity ar­chiv­ist Ida Jones has been work­ing to de­velop bi­ogra­phies of these and other women. Rohn and Weaver have con­tributed in sim­i­lar ways to an in­creas­ingly rounded por­trait of the pe­riod and its char­ac­ters.

Be­cause the white suf­frag­ist groups, for the most part, ex­cluded blacks, Chissell and her as­so­ciates sim­ply added suf­frage to the list of causes they were al­ready sup­port­ing through an over­lap­ping net­work of church and so­cial groups — bet­ter schools, san­i­ta­tion and health care for Bal­ti­more’s black pop­u­la­tion and pro­hi­bi­tion for every­one.

“Black women found in the is­sue a means by which to ex­pand their own so­ci­etal im­prove­ment ac­tiv­i­ties by de­vel­op­ing a suf­frage move­ment of their own,” Weaver says.

Chissell comes to life with spe­cial vivid­ness. Born in 1880, the daugh­ter of mi­grants from the South, she was “al­most light-skinned enough to be able to pass as white,” in Jones’ words. She was raised “in a civi­cally minded home,” Jones says, be­came an ac­com­plished pi­anist, mar­ried an in­flu­en­tial African Amer­i­can physi­cian and emerged a rec­og­nized leader in such or­ga­ni­za­tions as the NAACP and the Women’s Co­op­er­a­tive Civic League.

Carolyn Chissell, 85, her great-niece by mar­riage, be­lieves she’s the only per­son alive who ac­tu­ally met Chissell, who was 94 when she died in 1974.

Chissell’s mem­o­ries from child­hood af­firm the im­pres­sion of her “Aunt Gussie” as a force of na­ture.

“She had been strik­ing and re­gal in her day, and in her later years, she was still very good-look­ing and fash­ion­able. She ex­uded con­fi­dence. Older women would come up to me and say, ‘Are you re­lated to Gussie Chissell? She was re­ally some­thing,’ ” Chissell says.

Chissell and Hawkins, a Howard Univer­sity grad­u­ate and long­time his­tory teacher at Fred­er­ick Dou­glass High School, took turns host­ing meet­ings of the suf­frage group, which would even­tu­ally wield its in­flu­ence in pub­lic gath­er­ings at churches such as Sharp Street Methodist and Union Bap­tist.

Weaver has writ­ten that the club’s first pub­lic meet­ing “drew a large and en­thu­si­as­tic crowd to Grace Pres­by­te­rian Church,” the first of many. In Oc­to­ber 1915, the Afro-Amer­i­can re­ported that “the move­ment for fe­male suf­frage is grow­ing among the col­ored women of this city.”

Two months later, the Mary­land Fed­er­a­tion of Chris­tian Women, an African Amer­i­can group, hosted its par­ent or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Col­ored Women, in Bal­ti­more.

Young “made a vig­or­ous ap­peal for in­ter­est in the fight for votes for women,” ac­cord­ing to a news ac­count, help­ing in­spire the fed­er­a­tion to “en­thu­si­as­ti­cally” en­dorse the ef­fort.

“Early 20th-cen­tury African Amer­i­can suf­frag­ists’ work was par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant,” Rohn says, “at a time when Jim Crow laws were seek­ing to un­der­mine hard-won civil rights.”

The work didn’t stop with the pas­sage of the 19th Amend­ment. Shortly af­ter­ward, Chissell be­gan writ­ing a col­umn that of­fered black women guid­ance on the rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­volved in vot­ing, and she and Young led voter ed­u­ca­tion classes at the Col­ored Young Women’s Chris­tian As­so­ci­a­tion build­ing near her home.

Weaver says the ef­forts paid off: “Af­ter the amend­ment passed, women reg­is­tered in far greater num­bers than men in the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity.”

In 2018, U.S. Rep. Eli­jah Cum­mings helped se­cure Chissell’s in­duc­tion into the Mary­land Women’s Hall of Fame.

“Ms. Chissell played an ex­tremely im­por­tant role in the suf­frage move­ment even though women of color were of­ten ex­cluded from the main­stream or­ga­ni­za­tional work to se­cure women’s rights,” he wrote in a let­ter of nom­i­na­tion. “With limited re­sources and sup­port, she was a vo­cal sup­porter of the suf­frage move­ment and con­tin­ued work­ing hard even af­ter women won the right to vote to ed­u­cate and ac­ti­vate new women vot­ers.”

When the Mary­land State High­way Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Mary­land Women’s Her­itage Cen­ter joined forces to in­stall the com­mem­o­ra­tive marker last fall, it be­came the sev­enth of 11 suf­frage-re­lated mark­ers slated for ded­i­ca­tion in the state by the end of 2020. It was the first to be lo­cated in Bal­ti­more, and the first ded­i­cated to its over­looked black suf­frag­ists.

Bai­ley says her or­ga­ni­za­tion is work­ing with lo­cal vol­un­teers and schol­ars to seek ad­di­tional African Amer­i­can suf­frage sites in the city and hopes to add more this year.

“We’re just scratch­ing the sur­face,” she says.


Carolyn Chissell, 85, stands out­side the home of her great-aunt, suf­frag­ist Au­gusta T. Chissell, shown be­low.


In 1914, the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Col­ored Women’s Clubs en­dorsed women’s suf­frage, and lo­cal clubs and as­so­ci­a­tions moved to draw fur­ther sup­port by hold­ing mass meet­ings.

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