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How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All
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OUR MOTHERS’ GARDENS
I started writing Vanguard by collecting stories of the women in my own family. These begin, as far back as I can trace, with Nancy Belle Graves, who was born enslaved in 1808 in Danville, Kentucky. I wondered what it had been like for Nancy’s daughters and granddaughters when, in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment opened a door to women’s votes. That year, three generations of women in my family—from my grandmother to her mother to her mother’s mother—faced the same question: Could they vote and, if so, what would they do with their ballots? And though I knew lots of family tales, I’d never heard any about how we fit into the story of American women’s rise to power. I knew that Black women had won the vote unevenly in a struggle that took more than a century. They’d fought for their rights, hoping to change the lives of all Black Americans. They confronted an ugly mix of racism and sexism that stunted their aspirations. Still, I knew that I came from women who had always found a way to gather their strength and then promote the well-being of their community, the nation, and the world.
My great-great-grandmother, Susan Davis, was Nancy’s oldest daughter, and when she said that she wanted to vote, it was a radical idea. Born enslaved in 1840, twenty years before the Civil War, Susan was a young woman when slavery was abolished in 1865. Her husband, Sam, had fought for the Union and against slavery as a private with the 114th US Colored Infantry. Sam’s valor gave him a claim to political rights. Susan celebrated when, with adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment, he won the ballot in 1870. But disappointment soon followed when local laws such as poll taxes along with intimidation and violence kept her Sam from the ballot box.1
MARTHA S. JONES
Susan learned a critical lesson in those years: without the vote, Black Americans had to build other routes to political power. Racism kept Black Kentuckians to the sidelines on Election Day, but Susan got busy. She banded together with friends and neighbors to form a Black women’s club that linked them to thousands of women across the country, in a movement that would use political power to ensure the dignity of all humanity. When the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted in 1920, Susan knew it was a new chance for her and women like her. I can’t say precisely what she did in that moment, though I like to think that she steered her buggy from her home on the edge of Danville to the voting precinct office. White commentators in Kentucky certainly worried that she would do just that. Black women, they feared, might outnumber white women at the polls and tip the balance in favor of the Republican Party. Likely Susan didn’t worry about that one bit. The potential for an upset would have been just what she had in mind.2
Susan’s daughter, Fannie, was settled in St. Louis, Missouri, by 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment became law. Susan had given Fannie every advantage she could manage. Above all else, that meant an education. As a teen, Fannie had left her mother’s home in Danville and spent a preparatory year at western Pennsylvania’s Allegheny College. Then she enrolled in the Classics course at Berea College, a place that taught Kentucky’s poor, Black and white. Fannie received her bachelor’s degree in 1888 and married her Berea schoolmate, Frank Williams, three years later. They began teaching careers and raised four children in Covington, Kentucky, before settling in Missouri’s largest city. Frank rose to prominence as head of St. Louis’s fabled Sumner High School.3
When it came to politics, Fannie borrowed a page from her mother’s book. While barred from voting, she built power where she could. She proved to be a talented organizer and fundraiser and spearheaded construction of the first African American YWCA in St. Louis—named for the enslaved eighteenth-century poet Phillis Wheatley. Its rooms gave Black women a toehold in Fannie’s city, a base from which they built skills and influence. In 1919, Missouri became the eleventh state to approve the Nineteenth Amendment, but it would take the approval of fifteen more states to make it law.4
In the meantime, there was work to do. Fannie spent the months before the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted preparing the city’s Black women for the literacy and understanding tests that officials would use to keep them from joining voters’ rolls. When Election Day 1920 came around, Fannie knew what was at stake. Perhaps she even cast a ballot. If so, she would have taken special care in dressing for the occasion, putting on a tailored dress, modest pumps, the right piece of jewelry, and a smart hat. The day of the first vote felt as special as any wedding, graduation, or public ceremony.5
Even when they could cast ballots, the work of winning voting rights was not complete for Black women. The Nineteenth Amendment cracked open a door, and some entered into the heart of American politics. Small numbers of those in northern and western cities exercised new political rights. But the daughters of Nancy Graves held no illusions. Even if some of them may have maneuvered past poll officials and cast ballots, the door remained closed to too many African American women. The same poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding clauses, and violence that hampered their husbands, fathers, and sons now beset Black women’s lives.6
Susan Davis passed away in 1925. The women of Danville’s Domestic Economy Club carried her vision forward for decades to come, raising student scholarship funds with poetry readings, concerts, and lectures. In St. Louis, Susan’s daughter, Fannie, picked up her mother’s mantle and poured her commitment to women’s power into the College Club of St. Louis. She led nationally as a member of the YWCA’s inaugural Council on Colored Work. When she boarded a train east to Baltimore in 1936, Fannie represented her state at the annual National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convention, where delegates resolved: “We insist upon the right to vote and denounce the methods used in some states to deprive Negro citizens of their suffrage.” Fannie—the schoolteacher turned activist—believed that getting Black women to the polls was a goal that all Americans should work toward.7
In 1926, Fannie’s daughter, Susie, settled into her own life’s work. She and her husband, David Jones, arrived in Greensboro, North Carolina, that year to do some building of their own. Four children in tow, they set down their bags in David’s hometown, charged with establishing a new liberal arts school for Black women, Bennett College. Since the end of the Civil War, David’s family had called Greensboro home. There, his father, Dallas, discovered that politics fit his ambitions. He, along with his uncle William Holley, became county Republican Party leaders in the 1880s and 1890s. Dallas promoted his party—responsible for slavery’s abolition and the guarantee of Black citizenship after the Civil War—as having done more for African Americans than had Democrats. His brash style earned him enemies who aimed to purge Black men from state politics. It was dangerous business. Still, Dallas managed to hold on to power in central North Carolina as part of a coalition of Black and white Republicans.8
GREENSBORO [NC] HISTORICAL MUSEUM
Sometime around 1890, the hammer dropped on Dallas’s political career. In advance of an election, anonymous men circulated a printed notice that urged election officials to refuse Dallas and nearly four hundred other Black men from Greensboro at the polls. Each of the city’s Black voters was identified by name: “The following is a correct list of the COLORED VOTERS registered at Greensboro.… If any of them are on your book let us know AT ONCE, through a letter from your Registrar, that we may challenge them here and we may urge you to do so at your place: but don’t challenge until the day of the election.”9 The surviving records don’t say whether Dallas or any other Black man voted that year, but that episode marked the end of his political career.
This was the family history of voting rights that greeted Susie and David Jones when they arrived in 1926. David would be Bennett’s president, and Susie acted as his partner at each turn. Together they undertook to build a college devoted to Black women’s higher education. Every task Susie took on—cutting the ribbon on a new building, registering a new Bennett Belle for classes, depositing a check in the endowment fund—reflected her conviction that Black women were headed toward lives of leadership. She carried this view into the early civil rights years, raising the funds for a young Black activist and lawyer, Pauli Murray, who was documenting how Jim Crow laws blanketed the US South. Susie, a member of the Methodist Church’s Women’s Division of Christian Service, Board of Missions and Church Extension, underwrote and then published Murray’s States’ Laws on Race and Color. Theirs was a quiet alliance across generations. When, in 1960, Bennett College students organized a local Operation Doorknock, registering Black voters in Greensboro, Susie’s support for their efforts came easily. When those same students sat-in at the city’s Woolworth’s lunch counter, Susie endorsed how young women used nonviolent resistance to win human rights.10
These women’s stories—of Susan Davis, Fannie Williams, and Susie Jones—mark a starting place for the history that Vanguard tells. Their shared foremother, Nancy Graves, persisted even as she had endured enslavement, sexual violence, war, segregation, and the denial of her political rights. Nancy had kept the homes, cradled the children, and laundered the dirty linens of white Americans, people who thought that she and her daughters were worth little more than meager shelter or paltry wages. Still, by 1920, Nancy’s daughters were women of learning, status, and enough savvy to navigate the maze that led to the ballot box. They were not typical, in that their education, homes in Upper South cities, and membership in middle-class circles shaped their journeys to the vote. Still, their stories teach lessons about African American women’s politics. To them, power always mattered. They supported women’s suffrage, in their states and in a federal constitutional amendment. They prepared themselves and the women around them to overcome hurdles that might otherwise have kept them from voting. Still, the vote was never their only strategy or goal. The women of my family, like so many Black women, constructed their political power with one eye on the polls and the other on organizing, lobbying, and institution building. They dreamed big about women’s rights and aimed high, committed to using their power to win the dignity of all people.
VANGUARD GATHERS UP Black women’s stories in the spirit of Alice Walker’s 1983 essay collection, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. There, Walker uncovered, waded through, and immersed herself in the lives of the women who came before her. Many of them were unknown and too few of them had been celebrated. But Walker believed that in recovering their art, their activism, their joy, and their troubles she could help us know the worlds that Black women alone had created. She went in search of how they survived and thrived in a world not always of their making. Walker discovered what she termed Black women’s distinct “womanist” worldview, one that took seriously their strivings for self-possession and for power and honored their capacity for making the whole world over in an embrace of all that is human.11
This book turns to the archives of Black women’s political pasts to rediscover the worlds they made there. It recounts how, in their search for power, Black women built their own many-faceted and two-centuries-long women’s movement. Their voices come through in the pages of tracts, newspapers, books, court transcripts, and memoirs. Yes, they struggled against racism and sexism from nearly every direction. Yet they never allowed doubters or opponents to define them. They looked out from their own positions and then devised a shared mission: winning women’s power that would serve all humanity. Their grand, visionary ambition rebuked those who confined the nation’s political culture to small, parochial, and exclusionary terms. Vanguard illuminates our own time, charting out how Black women—their values and their votes—came to sit today at the center of twenty-first-century American politics.12
Vanguard begins with a first generation of women who broke barriers in the 1820s, stepping up to the podium and the pulpit to insist upon having a voice in churches, antislavery societies, and mutual aid associations. By the 1860s, in the wake of slavery’s abolition and with a guarantee of citizenship, Black women spoke the language of equality, dignity, and humanity and insisted on political rights. They won some battles. Black women witnessed the adoption of two constitutional amendments—the Fifteenth in 1870 and the Nineteenth in 1920—that promised them the vote. But lawmakers did not keep these promises, leaving many women to make their way in the face of rampant voter suppression: poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation. The long road to the 1965 Voting Rights Act was paved with Black women’s organizing and courage. The result brought Black Americans, men and women, fully into the nation’s political culture for the first time. That victory set the stage for how Black women today have assumed leadership: casting ballots, driving voter turnout, holding public office, and laboring in the trenches of precincts and parties.13
The women of Vanguard built a movement for political rights that was never separate or for women only. Its foundation lay instead in the institutions they shared with men. Their politics unsettled these spaces with debates over what sorts of power women could exercise, and women placed real value on electing a bishop, sitting as a convention delegate, controlling finances, interpreting the Bible, running for a board, or commanding the podium. These same contests provided a training ground. Women honed their ideas while practicing leadership, the art of persuasion, and the necessity of compromise. They shouldered responsibility for the collective. They stood up to men and also won them as allies. Some women did go on to take part in suffrage associations and women’s clubs. But Black women never limited their work to a single issue. Winning the vote was one goal, but it was a companion to securing civil rights, prison reform, juvenile justice, and international human rights.14
Living at a crossroads, Black women developed their own perspective on politics and power. Their view was always intersectional. They could not support any movement that separated out matters of racism from sexism, at least not for long. Associations that asked Black women to set aside or subordinate one interest for another were never a good fit. They insisted, for example, that antislavery and women’s rights were parts of one movement, and that civil rights included demands for women’s liberty. Black women advocated for their interests as people doubly burdened by racism and sexism, and they reasoned that when society lifted them up as equals, everyone would rise. These insights led to a political philosophy rooted in a broad quest for freedom and dignity that extended to all of humanity.15
The trouble of racism is one facet of this story, but for the women of Vanguard, their encounters with slights, exclusion, derision, and even violence were not the whole of their politics. Racism was a given, a constant. Some women risked being rebuffed in the interest of working in coalition with white women. Other women had no choice but to sustain the wounds of prejudice when their work or travel forced degrading confrontations. But oftentimes, Black women, with plenty of work to do in their own communities with one another, stepped around or turned their backs on racism. If white Americans too often cast a jaundiced eye upon Black women, it was not a look that they needed to return. Remaining at a careful distance from racism was essential to personal dignity and a self-defined approach to women’s power.
The stories in Vanguard have often been overlooked. But not wholly so. Historians over the last half century have dug deep into African American women’s pasts to recover their ideas, their organizations, and their distinct brand of politics. These efforts correct a record made more than a century ago by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Ida Husted Harper, who dubbed themselves the historians of the early women’s movement. Between 1881 and 1922, they published the six-volume, fifty-seven-hundred-page History of Woman Suffrage. But they told only one part of the story and in that relegated Black women to the margins. Later historians relied upon these same volumes, producing new studies that, regretfully, repeated old omissions.16
Vanguard corrects that record by retelling two hundred years of Black women’s political history. It does not tell every story; no history can do quite that. But by recounting the lives of some of the many Black women who engaged in political fights, the picture of a whole comes into view. In some eras, Black women pursued power as singular, cutting-edge figures. At other times, they joined coalitions that included white women and Black men. Most often, Black women built political power in their own circles. There are as many stories as there are women, but those recounted in this book represent Black women’s varied political lives and their many routes to the vote and beyond.
Black women left their own record, and Vanguard tells their stories from the traces they bequeathed to us. Their essays, speeches, letters, and testimonies provide a fresh vantage point. In these stories, the familiar may also be strange. Black women did not attend the 1848 women’s convention at Seneca Falls, but at the same moment in church conferences, they demanded rights equal to those of men. Black women did not join the new women’s suffrage associations founded after the Civil War. Instead, they came together in churchwomen’s societies to demand the vote and office holding in religious communities. Black women campaigned for the Nineteenth Amendment, but they did not celebrate long once it was ratified. They understood it was only a slim guarantee, and thus redoubled their efforts in a campaign that took them down a long road to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It was another women’s movement, one that reflected Black women’s distinct point of view.17
Terming Black women the “Vanguard” has a double meaning. Despite the burdens of racism, they blazed trails across the whole of two centuries. In public speaking, journalism, banking, and education, Black women led American women, showing the way forward. Some “first” Black women leapt out front because nothing less would get them where they aimed to go. Black women emerged from brutal encounters with enslavement, sexual violence, economic exploitation, and cultural denigration as visionaries prepared to remedy their own circumstances and, by doing so, cure the world.
As the vanguard, Black women also pointed the nation toward its best ideals. They were the first to reject arbitrary distinctions, including racism and sexism, as rooted in outdated and disproved fictions. They were the nation’s original feminists and antiracists, and they built a movement on these core principles. They raised the bar high for all Americans and showed allies, among men and women, Black and white, how to work in coalition. Too often, they experienced disappointment. But undeterred, the women of Vanguard continued to reach for political power that was redemptive, transformative, and a means toward realizing the equality and the dignity of all persons.
ONE MORE STORY about Fannie Williams, my great-grandmother, remained untold in my family. I discovered it among some old newspaper clippings. Fannie completed her studies at Berea College in 1888, nothing short of a triumph. During commencement, President Edward Henry Fairchild remarked of Fannie: “In all of my experience of teaching for thirty-eight years, I have never had a better student than you. Remember that you are admitted to the circle of all those who have attained the title of Bachelor of Arts, and you will everywhere be welcomed within that circle by all, except a very few who are blinded by an ungodly prejudice.” With that, she was on her way to make good use of the talent and ambition that Berea had encouraged. Fannie soon headed her own classroom, assuming duties as a teacher, with fresh pedagogy and bright polish.18
MARTHA S. JONES
Fannie also had acquired a taste for entertainment, or at least aimed to develop one. In 1889 she set off on a January evening to the local theater in Pulaski, Kentucky, just south of Berea. The schedule included a “free Indian show,” an evening of lectures on the history, culture, and medicines of Native Americans. Admission was gratis; the company earned its dollars by the sale of ointments, pills, and other remedies. Fannie entered the hall without trouble. She surveyed the room and spied a seat that was to her liking. Perhaps she was feeling a sense of equality that her recent triumph at Berea had fueled. Maybe her mood was contrary, leading her to challenge the rules that told her she was less than. Fannie crossed the theater, approached a row designated for white patrons only and quietly took a seat. I can imagine her there as she smoothed her skirt, placed down her purse, folded her hands in her lap, and waited.19
Even before segregation became baked into the laws of Kentucky, theater operators patrolled the color line, on alert for those who might cross it. First, an usher noticed Fannie. He approached and, as Fannie explained, “went to her in a gruff manner and ordered her to move.” Immediately, a contest of wills flared: Fannie, with her sense of dignity and entitlement, on one side, and the usher on the other, adamant that a Black woman, even a respectable one, must be put in her place. Fannie ignored him and remained firmly seated, with her back erect and her eyes fixed straight ahead, until a local marshal arrived. He repeated the usher’s admonition. Fannie retorted: “She asked him politely to tell her why she was not allowed to sit where she was as she did not think she was harming anyone by sitting there.” Her words were both a query and a challenge.20
What happened next might suggest that Fannie had studied law rather than classics at Berea. The marshal repeated his order: she was to move across the aisle to the “colored” section. Why was she being ordered to move? By what authority? By whose power? Papers later reported that Fannie denounced the marshal in “strong terms,” though she never devolved into the use of “indecent or profane language.” A confrontation of words turned physical when the marshal, fed up with Fannie’s challenge to his authority, “caught her roughly by the arm and led her to the door.” In the days that followed, officials charged her with disorderly conduct, a mark that might have threaten her future as a teacher. She sought advice from friends, who counseled that she pay the fine and costs to resolve the dispute. And she did, though all the while maintaining that the blame lay with the men whose gruffness had provoked her flash of temper.21
Even today, my own temper boils when I imagine Fannie, fresh from her triumph at Berea College, being manhandled for taking her preferred seat in a theater. She might have believed that education, including the mastery of Greek and Latin, could exempt her from the color line. She may have hoped that class—her dress, deportment, and taste in popular entertainment—would insulate her from the degradations of Jim Crow. If she did, Fannie was wrong. Did she have a right to be a lady? Did she have a right in 1889 Pulaski, Kentucky, to don a fine dress, stroll the blocks to a public venue, take the seat of her choosing, and then be treated to an evening of learning and leisure? Could she expect an usher to offer her his arm or sweep her seat free of dust? Could she turn to a marshal as a safeguard against other men’s gruffness? No. Racism was a brutal leveler that transformed a young woman’s evening out into a contest over what rights Black women had, if indeed they had any at all.
This encounter fueled Fannie’s work in the years to come. As a Black woman, her dignity and her survival depended upon securing political power. Fannie would endure many indignities across her lifetime, those that threatened her body as well as her soul. She would build for herself and other Black women the sorts of spaces in which they could learn, teach, organize, and be safe. She would link arms with white women when they shared her sense that American women, even after the Nineteenth Amendment, had a distance to go before they realized their full influence upon politics and policy. She shared with Black men a commitment to crushing racism—it was a burden that both sexes bore—even as the ways in which it undercut the fullness of womanhood were distinct. These were lonely and terrifying contests when they sprung up without warning in the aisles of a theater. But Fannie had friends, allies, confidantes, and advisors who shared her concerns and her aims. Yes, she was a suffragist. But such a label, ambitious as it might sound to our twenty-first-century ears, was far too narrow to capture her concerns, her activism, and her vision.
DAUGHTERS OF AFRICA, AWAKE!
In 1827, any Black woman who considered stepping into the limelight of politics was on notice. She risked family, friends, and reputation. As the editors of the African American weekly Freedom’s Journal put it: “A woman who would attempt to thunder with her tongue, would not find her eloquence increase her domestic happiness. A man, in a furious passion, is terrible to his enemies; but a woman, in a passion, is disgusting to her friends; she loses all that respect due to her sex, and she has not masculine strength and courage to enforce any other kind of respect.”1
For all the fury that ran through their writing, the men who ran the country’s first Black newspaper knew that their words were too little and too late. In their midst were women who were coming out of slavery and servitude and into their own. Some felt called by God; others were raised to serve the collective good. All of them were prepared to push back against anyone who deemed them merely men’s helpmeets. The daughters of Africa were awake and ready to break new ground.
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
- "Jones has written an elegant and expansive history of Black women who sought to build political power where they could.... Jones is an assiduous scholar and an absorbing writer, turning to the archives to unearth the stories of Black women who worked alongside white suffragists only to be marginalized."—New York Times
- "In her important new book, Jones shows how African American women waged their own fight for the vote, and why their achievements speak mightily to our present moment as voters, regardless of gender or race."—Washington Post
- “If you read no other book on suffrage this centennial of the 19th Amendment, read this one. Let the incomparable historian Martha S. Jones take you to school.”—Ms.
- “Jones’ book is a welcome addition to the spate of books on woman suffrage that have been published this year in honor of the Centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment. Through her rigorous scholarship and out‑of‑the‑box perspective, she sheds new and important light on the crucial role of Black women in winning and ensuring the right to vote…Jones’ scholarship addresses a gaping hole in suffrage literature.”—New York Journal of Books
- “Thanks to Martha Jones’s Vanguard, Black women’s rightful place in this history has been restored."—Foreign Affairs
- “In her forceful and compelling history, Johns Hopkins professor Jones corrects and enriches the conventional narrative of the noble suffrage crusade led overwhelmingly by white women with the determined and strategic efforts by Black women to build their own movement to win the rights that had been denied them.”—National Book Review
- “A necessary, insightful book that shines light on Black women underexplored in history. Jones writes narrative nonfiction at its best.”—Library Journal
- "Highly charged, absorbing reading and most timely in the era of renewed advocacy for civil rights."—Kirkus
- "Martha Jones is the political historian of African American women. And this book is the commanding history of the remarkable struggle of African American women for political power. The more power they accumulated, the more equality they wrought. All Americans would be better off learning this history and grasping just how much we owe equality's vanguard."—Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist
- "In her inspiring new book, Vanguard, renowned historian Martha S. Jones gives us a sweeping narrative for our times, grounded in the multi-generational struggle of black women for a freedom and equality that would not only fulfill their rights but galvanize a broader, redemptive movement for human rights everywhere. Through the carefully interwoven stories of famous and forgotten African American women, together representing two hundred years of history, Jones shows how this core of our society -- so key to winning elections today -- also gave us 'the nation's original feminists and antiracists.' From organizers and institution builders to preachers and writers, journalists and activists, black women found ways to rise up through the twin cracks of race and sex discrimination to elevate democracy as a whole. At a moment when that very democracy is under assault, Vanguard reminds us to look for hope in those most denied it."—Henry Louis Gates Jr.
- "Bold, ambitious, and beautifully crafted, Vanguard represents more than two hundred years of Black women's political history. From Jarena Lee to Stacey Abrams, Martha S. Jones reminds her readers that Black women stand as America's original feminists -- women who continue to remind America that it must make good on its promises."—Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of Never Caught and She Came to Slay
- "You cannot tell the history of modern democracy without the history of Black women, and vibrating through Martha Jones's prose, argument, and evidence is analysis that takes Black women seriously. Vanguard brilliantly lays bare how a full accounting of black women as powerful political actors is both past and prologue. Martha Jones has given us a gift we do not deserve. In that way she is as bold and necessary to our understanding of ourselves as the women in this important work."—Tressie McMillan Cottom, author of Thick: And Other Essays
- On Sale
- Sep 8, 2020
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Basic Books