Alpha Suffrage Club

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The Alpha Suffrage Club was the first and most important black female suffrage club in Chicago and one of the most important in Illinois.[1] It was founded in January, 1913[2] by Ida B. Wells with the help of her white colleagues Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks. The Club aimed to give a voice to African American women who had been excluded from national suffrage organizations such as the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA).[3] Its stated purpose was to inform black women of their civic responsibility and to organize them to help elect candidates who would best serve the interests of African Americans in Chicago. As Wells stated in her autobiography, "We (women) could use our vote for the advantage of ourselves and our race."[4] Quoted in the Chicago Defender, a local black newspaper, she was more specific, stating that the object of the Alpha Suffrage Club was to make women "strong enough to help elect some conscientious race man as alderman."[5] Within two years the Club had 200 members. The press and Republican Party leaders had publicly acknowledged its influence in the Election of Oscar DePriest as Ward 2 alderman.

At the first anniversary of the club's founding, Kentucky-born poet Bettiola Heloise Fortson, vice-president of the Club, read her poem "Brothers" which told the story of two men who had been lynched by a mob for their attempt to save their sister from her imprisonment by a farmer in Alabama[6] as a slave.

Illinois law providing limited suffrage to women[edit]

Wells and her colleagues formed the Alpha Suffrage Club in direct response to an Illinois law passed in 1913 that granted limited suffrage to women in the State.[7] Under this law, women were allowed to vote for presidential electors, mayor, aldermen and most other local offices. They were not, however, allowed to vote for members of Congress, Governor or State representatives.[8]

The law had been the result of lobbying by national and local suffrage organizations and clubs. Members of these clubs were white, since black women were excluded from membership. As one historian has noted, “Club women in Chicago established the most and largest gender-segregated suffrage clubs in the nation."[9] The exclusion of black women motivated Wells and Squire to create the Alpha Suffrage Club in Ward 2, which had the highest percentage of African Americans in the city. It held at least one meeting at Bridewell Penitentiary in an attempt to interest prisoners in suffrage and give Club women experience in activism.[10] The club had nearly 200 members in 1916, including well-known female suffrage activists Mary E. Jackson, Viola Hill, Vera Wesley Green, and Sadie L. Adams. Jane Addams was a regular speaker at the club.

Woman suffrage parade of 1913[edit]

The Woman suffrage parade of 1913 took place in Washington D.C. on March 3, 1913, the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. Its intent was to demonstrate support of universal suffrage for women. One of Wells' first actions as the President of the Alpha Suffrage Club was to travel to Washington and march in the parade. The constraints placed on her participation in the event illustrate the discrimination black women faced in the suffrage movement at that time.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association, which organized the event, feared offending southern white suffragists by allowing black and white women to march together. To avoid this possibility, the leader of the NAWSA instructed Wells to march at the end of the procession in a segregated section for African-American women.[11][12] Wells refused to do as march organizers requested.[12] Although Grace Wilbur Trout, the Chair of the Illinois delegation, warned Wells that her involvement in the march could lead to the exclusion of the Illinois group from the parade,[1] she insisted that she would not move to the back, stating that "I shall not march at all unless I can march under the Illinois banner."[13] In defiance, she joined the spectators until the Chicago delegation marched ed by and then joined them in the procession. A picture of this occurrence was in the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Election of Oscar DePriest[edit]

The Alpha Suffrage Club played an active and important role in Chicago politics, particularly in the primaries and 1915 general election for alderman in Ward 2. The Club developed a block system[14] to canvas the ward to register African American Women to vote.[13] In an early primary election the Club supported the independent black candidate William R. Cowen, who was not endorsed by the city Republican Party. Despite the canvassing efforts by African-American women on his behalf, he lost the election.[15] The Alpha Suffrage Club's influence, however, was quickly acknowledged by the press with the Chicago Defender, reporting that “. . .the women’s vote was a revelation to everyone...”[16]  In addition to press coverage, the Republican Party had noticed the Club's influence. It sent two delegates to the club's meeting the day following the election, and encouraged the women to keep campaigning. They also promised that the Republicans would support an African-American candidate in the election of the next year.[17]

After the primary election members of the club continued their work. They focused on communities with large percentages of African-Americans as they canvassed neighborhoods. They also held weekly meetings to discuss civic responsibilities,[5] showed women how to use voting machines and trained women to act as precinct judges.[5] They also distributed lists of voting locations in all wards of the city.[18]

In the course of their organizing, the women’s efforts met significant criticism. Men “jeered at them and told them they ought to be at home taking care of the babies.” Others accused them of “trying to take the place of men and wear the trousers.” [1] Local newspapers stated their concerns of the women’s door to door canvassing and the prospect of women “seeing all of the activities that might be going on.”[5]

The Republican Party designated Oscar De Priest, as their candidate in Ward 2, in the later city election for alderman. As the first black alderman in Chicago he was elected in 1914 to the Chicago City Council, and served from 1915 to 1917. The impact of the Club's organizing was clear, as one third of the votes he received were cast by women. DePriest and the Club had come to know each other well through his attending Club meetings throughout the elections. After his election DePriest acknowledged the work done by the women in Ward 2 who had been important in his success.[1] DePriest later went on to become the first African American to be elected to the U.S. Congress.

Alpha Suffrage Record[edit]

The Alpha Suffrage Club published the newsletter, The Alpha Suffrage Record, which was used to announce the formation the Club, to describe its activities and to extend its reach a larger group of African Americans in the city. It focused on the population of Ward 2 in the city, and gave the Club women a public political voice.[19]

Notable members[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Wheeler, Marjorie (1995). One Woman, One Vote. Troutdale, Oregon: New Sage Press. p. 271. ISBN 0-939165-26-0.
  2. ^ "Alpha Suffrage Record" (PDF). Lliving history of Illinois. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  3. ^ "The March of 1913". PBS History Detectives. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  4. ^ Duster, Alfreda (1970). Crusade for Justice. New York: University of Chicago Press. p. 345. ISBN 0-226-89344-8.
  5. ^ a b c d Giddings, Paula J. Ida: A Sword Among Lions; Ida B Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching. Harper Collins. pp. 534–5.
  6. ^ Hollingsworth, Randolph (April 8, 2017). "Bettiola Heloise Fortson, Poet and suffragist from Hopkinson". H-Kentucky.
  7. ^ Hendricks, Wanda (1998). Gender, Race and Politics in the Midwest. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p. 79. ISBN 0-253-21233-2.
  8. ^ Grossman, Ron (June 23, 2013). "Illinois Women Win the Right To Vote". The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  9. ^ Hendricks, Wanda (1998). Gender, Race and Politics in the Midwest: Black Club Women in Illinois. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-21233-2.
  10. ^ Knupfer, Anne Meis (1995). ""Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood": African-American Women's Clubs in Chicago, 1890 to 1920". Journal of Women's History. 7. no 3. 1995: 58–76 – via Project Muse.
  11. ^ a b c Hendricks, Wanda A.; Pennington, Paulette (1996). "Ida Wells-Barnett Confronts Race and Gender Discrimination". Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO). Northern Illinois University Libraries, Illinois State Library. Retrieved 2018-02-19.
  12. ^ a b Lusted, Marcia Amidon (2009-03-01). "Joining the fight.(African Americans Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Anna Julia Cooper)". Cobblestone. Archived from the original on 2018-02-20 – via HighBeam Research.
  13. ^ a b Wheeler, Marjorie (1995). One Woman, One Vote. Troutdale, Oregon: New Sage Press. p. 270. ISBN 0-226-89344-8.
  14. ^ Duster, Alfreda (1970). Crusade for Justice. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. p. 347. ISBN 0-226-89344-8.
  15. ^ Gustafson, Melanie (2001). Women and the Republican Party, 1854-1924. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. p. 152. ISBN 9780252093234.
  16. ^ Wheeler, Marjorie (1995). One Woman, One Vote. Troutdale, Oregon: New Sage Press. p. 272. ISBN 0-939165-26-0.
  17. ^ McMurry, Linda (1998). To Keep the Waters Troubled. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 310. ISBN 0-19-508812-3.
  18. ^ Knupfer, Anne Meis (1996). Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood. New York: New York University Press. p. 53. ISBN 0-8147-4691-8.
  19. ^ Hendricks, Wanda (1994). "Alpha Suffrage Club". Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. 1. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 25–26. ISBN 0-253-32774-1.
  20. ^ Gale, Neil (2017-09-24). "The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™: Alpha [Woman's] Suffrage Club of Chicago, Illinois". The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  21. ^ Rouff, Ruth A. (2010). Ida B. Wells: A Woman of Courage. Townsend Press. ISBN 1591943515. ...she had the help of two white suffragettes– Virginia Brooks and Belle Squire.
  22. ^ Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn (1998). African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Indiana University Press. p. 99. ISBN 025321176X.

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