During the centennial celebration of the women's suffrage movement, we will hear a lot about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton - as we should.
But we won't hear nearly as much about the Black women who helped drive the movement toward a successful conclusion despite facing discrimination inside a movement fighting to end another kind of discrimination.
Black women are accustomed to doing work outside the spotlight and watching other people receive the accolades they deserved.
Rosa Parks gets credit for her work in the Civil Rights movement. Harriet Tubman is a famous abolitionist. But most Black women were forced into supporting roles.
I saw this in my hometown. There was a street near the school where I attended fourth grade. It was called Ada Lois Sipuel Avenue. Later, long after I had left Lincoln Elementary School, I found out that the woman the street was named after was actually the valedictorian of the school in 1941 when it was the separate school for black students in Chickasha, Okla.
After graduating from a segregated college in Oklahoma called Langston, she wanted to become an attorney. She applied to the University of Oklahoma. They turned her down even though her qualifications were outstanding. You see, in 1946 in Oklahoma it was illegal to instruct a class with white and black students. The professor would have faced a $50 per day fine - in 1946 dollars, that was a big fine. The students faced a $20 per day fine if they allowed it to happen.
She sued the university. She lost. She appealed and lost all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled she had to be provided the same opportunities for a legal education as other Oklahoma citizens. Facing defeat, the state immediately threw together the Langston School of Law so she could have a "separate but equal" education there. She sued again and this time, Oklahoma's Attorney General decided not to try to argue that a days-old law school with no students was an equal opportunity to the OU School of Law. Apparently, he didn't like making a fool of himself.
She was admitted and forced to sit in the back of the classrooms. But in 1952, she achieved her law degree and she also received a Master's degree in history from the university. She practiced law for a while and worked as a professor at Langston for several years. Then, in 1992, she was named to the Board of Regents for the University of Oklahoma - the very body she had to sue almost 50 years prior to attend law school. The circle had been completed.
The street bearing her name in her hometown is an honor but her lawsuit was a prelude to Brown v. Board of Education that ended "separate but equal" education for students everywhere two years after she graduated from the OU School of Law. Believe it or not, her case was also a warm-up for her attorney, Thurgood Marshall who argued her case and Brown v. Board before becoming a member of the Supreme Court himself later in life. For all she did, it certainly seems like a road on the east side of a small town in Oklahoma isn't enough of an honor.
The same is true for the Black women who helped lead the suffrage movement. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin is a good case study. Maybe I'm drawn to her because she was an editor and used her platform in The Woman's Era to affect change. The Woman's Era was a newspaper by and for African-American women. It started in Boston and went nationwide in 1894.
She used her column to - among other things - call on the federal government to end lynching in the south. She even said until it did, the government had the blood of innocent Black men on its hands as a partner in the crime of lynching. She was a fearless fighter on the side of the angels.
Why weren't Black women allowed to have a bigger voice in the movement?
Ruffin said it herself.
"We are justified in believing that the success of this movement for equality of the sexes means more progress toward equality of the races."
She knew that every step toward equality was a rising tide that would lift all ships sailing toward true equality of races, sexes and religions.
Most people have never heard of Ruffin even though she provided a national platform for Anthony and Stanton. She was a co-worker in the cause but never shared the credit for the task they completed. Outside of Massachusetts, Black women - even Ruffin - weren't welcome on the stage. In most areas, the suffrage movement was very much segregated. The dirty little secret of suffrage was that - especially in the south for obvious reasons - Black women's voices would have muddied the water for the movement among men and women who didn't want more minority voters. In the north and west, Black women had more of a voice, but not in the south. In fact, Jim Crow laws kept southern Black women from enjoying the benefits of the suffrage movement for another 50 years.
But the Civil Rights movement pushed us forward. We still have work to do today. Congressman John Lewis wrote a column I think Ruffin would have been proud to publish in her pages. He talked about going to the Black Lives Matter plaza in Washington D.C. the day before he was admitted to the hospital where he would eventually die. He said he had to see it for himself. He viewed that plaza as evidence that the movement he risked his life for, that brought Black men and women closer to equality with white neighbors, that was the same movement Ruffin supported, was still alive.
"I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on," Lewis said.
Just like others 50 years before us, we will look back to today's world 50 years from now and wonder why it took us so long to get here. The Civil War, Suffrage, the Civil Rights movement and now Black Lives Matter. Progress is being made but the arc of the moral universe always bends toward justice much more slowly than it should.
Kent Bush is the editor of the Rapid City Journal. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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