This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
The fight for the right of women to vote had met various challenges at the beginning of the 20th century.
America wasn’t at all receptive to the women casting a ballot. And, the country indeed couldn’t conceive of Black women participating in the political process.
On March 3, 1919, a large gathering jammed the streets of Washington, D.C., for the Women’s Suffrage Parade, held in support of a constitutional amendment that guaranteed women the right to vote.
The 22 bold founders of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority — a Black collegiate organization — were among them.
The sorority endured threats, racial epithets and violence.
The Deltas were spat on, pushed and repeatedly struck by men. White women, there to demand and to celebrate their right to vote, joined in the beating of the Black sorority.
None of that stopped the Deltas from participating. Delta member Ida B. Wells-Barnett would go on to found the first African American women’s suffrage organization and she and others crusaded against lynching.
Since its founding, more than 200,000 women have joined Delta Sigma Theta. The organization is a sisterhood of predominantly Black, college-educated women, according to its website.
The sorority currently has 1,000 collegiate and alumnae chapters located in the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Republic of Korea.
Today, most remember the founders of Delta Sigma Theta as true heroines of the suffrage movement.
“The founders of Delta Sigma Theta were activists before that term was popular,” said Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd, an engineer, prominent STEM education advocate and a past president of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. “When the suffrage parade announcement happened, they came forward. They knew that the march was somewhere they needed to be. Even though, as Black women, they didn’t have rights, they knew the vision for the future and felt this was too important.”
Repeatedly, agitators told the founders that they couldn’t attend or participate in the parade.
“But that teaches us that just because somebody says no, it doesn’t mean that they’re right all of the time,” Boyd said.
The Deltas continued to pursue attending the parade. Eventually, they received a permit to leave their Howard University campus, as women couldn’t leave the school then without permission and an escort.
Once off campus, the challenges grew more intense. White southern suffragists threatened a boycott because of the Deltas. The sorority eventually was asked to march in the parade at the back and a segregated unit.
But Wells-Barnett and her fellow Deltas refused to march in the back — they were the only African American women’s organization at the parade.
“They were called names, and they were told, ‘Go back home, you don’t belong here,’ which sounds familiar today,” Boyd said. “But they knew that this was the right thing to do. They knew that they was also sending a message to future generations to fight for your freedom and what it’s like to fight for your rights.”
It came as little surprise that even the white women of the suffrage movement fought against the Deltas’ participation, Boyd said.
“I guess the best way to say it is that everyone wasn’t like they portrayed themselves to be,” she said. “They were putting forth the idea that women must be able to have the freedom and the right to vote. But they didn’t see Black women as women.”
Ultimately, the chaos that ensued because of the Delta’s participation would gain the suffragettes’ sympathy from many quarters as many people grew disturbed by the violence of the anti-suffrage opposition, according to WETA-TV’s website.
Congressional hearings took place wherein the cause of the violence was investigated, with over 150 witnesses testifying about the events of that day.
The superintendent of police of the District of Columbia lost his job because of his conduct before and during the march, WETA reported.
“I think, especially with history repeating itself, it’s important for young women to do what our founders did,” Boyd said. “Do your research and know who is on your side and who is against you and why. We are grateful that our founders didn’t give up. They had their banner with them to make sure that people knew who they were, they didn’t hide.
“Our young women have to be persistent, tenacious, and have perseverance and determination, which all comes from doing your research,” Boyd said. “Don’t allow anyone to stand in your way or tell you where you belong or where you can go. Some will continue to say we don’t belong, but we know that we do. This is our home.
“Remember our founders had the foresight to know more than 100 years ago that the fight, even if the results didn’t happen for them, they started,” she said. “They knew that someone had to start and that there would be those who follow and those who are conscientious about doing the right thing and speaking out. Eventually, they knew, the tide would turn.”