Alpha Suffrage Club

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The Alpha Suffrage Club is believed to be the first black women's suffrage association in the United States.[1]


It began in Chicago, Illinois on January 30, 1913[2] under the initiative of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and with the help of her white colleagues, Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks.[3][4][5] The club aimed to reinforce African-American involvement in the struggle for women's suffrage, as African-American women being unable to be involved in the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA).[6]

The Alpha Suffrage Club was established to partially give a voice to women who could not represent themselves individually, and worked specifically towards giving a voice to black women, as well as to “politicize” black women into the government system. Its first meeting was held at Bridewell Penitentiary in an attempt to reach and lead prisoners by example.[7] 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.[8]

At the first anniversary of the club's founding, Kentucky-born poet Bettiola Heloise Fortson 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 as a sex slave to a farmer in Alabama.[9] Within the next three years the club burgeoned into the thousands. The women sought to put an end to lynchings of black Americans.[10]

Historical context[edit]

In the late 19th Century, African-Americans experienced continued racial abuse, social inequality, and lynchings of the Jim Crow south.[5] Black women's role was extremely subservient to men for they were denied access to vote, access to a quality education, and access to any social mobility. Black women were mainly confined to domestic responsibilities such as the rearing of children, housekeeping, feeding the family, and other household duties. The wives of black farm men were also charged with working the fields and refining their harvest.

Moreover, due to their very low social status, black women were not usually guaranteed the legal protection of the law. African American women were often abused and raped by their male counterparts and this was often done with impunity on the part of their attackers. In the late 1800s many women were murdered through the practice of lynching. On a false accusation alone, a black female of the south could be hung by her neck amongst a mob of white neighbors. They could be lynched based on lies or sheer ignorance while they were denied a trial or any judicious outlet to prove innocence. This would fuel Ida B Wells and her crusade against lynching for they did not have protection from the state or courts. Thus African American women were denied basic human rights despite the law having "freed" them from bondage.

Black women were also treated unequally to white women and after the ratification of the 15th amendment, black women were still denied the right to vote.[11] They also did not have government programs or support to protect them. In short, African American Women faced hardship and scrutiny anywhere they went in the late 1800s and dearly needed to be protected.

Ida B. Wells, circa 1893

Difficulties faced[edit]

Despite the expansion and support obtained by the club within one year, African-American women still had to endure grave difficulties. First off, there were African-American men who didn't want the women to be in the political sphere. In 1914, during the primary elections for alderman of the city, women made posters and encouraged other African-Americans to vote; men who followed the women around and criticized them.[citation needed]

Woman suffrage parade of 1913[edit]

Furthermore, the unwillingness of white female suffrage activists to incorporate African-American activist women to their struggle displayed a clear existence of discrimination. The National American Woman Suffrage Association organization were the march organizers of the Woman suffrage parade of 1913 in Washington, D.C, asked Wells-Barnett to march at the end of the procession in a segregated section for African-American women because they hoped to not offend southern white suffragists.[5][12] On March 3, 1913 the day of the march, Ida B. Wells-Barnett stood firm in her struggle and she refused to do as march organizers requested.[12] Although the president of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association warned Wells-Barnett that her involvement in the march could lead to the exclusion of the Illinois group from the parade, she managed to sneak in and march next to two sympathetic members; a picture of this occurrence was in the Chicago Daily Tribune shortly thereafter.[5]


Election of Oscar De Priest[edit]

Following six years after the Club's creation and the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States constitution, the efforts of the Alpha Suffrage Club shifted towards the campaign to elect the first African-American alderman to Chicago's City Council. Initial canvassing efforts by African-American women on behalf of the independent black candidate William R. Cowen in 1914 failed.[13] But their mobilization efforts were noticed by the Republican Party, who sent two delegates to the club's regular meetings. The women were encouraged to keep campaigning, with the promise that an African-American candidate would be nominated by the party in a coming election. In 1915, their efforts were rewarded with Ward 2 electing Oscar De Priest, the first African-American alderman.[7]

Alpha Suffrage Record[edit]

Among the club's additional achievements are the implementation of a black system to canvas neighborhoods, organizing once a week meeting sessions as learning centers on the rights and duties of citizens. This was partially due to the creation of a published newsletter the Alpha Suffrage Record, which was used to educate the African-American community and women on local government issues.[14][15] The publishing of this newsletter marks the first time that African Americans had a public political voice.[16]

Notable members[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b 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.
  2. ^ "The Alpha Suffrage Record" (PDF). 1918-03-18. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  3. ^ a b 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.
  4. ^ Schechter, Patricia A.; Hendricks, Wanda A. (March 2002). "Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform 1880-1930". H-SHGAPE, H-Net. Michigan State University Department of History. Retrieved 2018-02-19.
  5. ^ a b c d e f 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.
  6. ^ "The March Of 1913". History Detectives on PBS. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  7. ^ a b 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 (3): 58–76. doi:10.1353/jowh.2010.0419. Retrieved 17 February 2018 – via MUSE.
  8. ^ Crocco, Margaret; Hendry, Petra Munro (1999). Pedagogies of Resistance: Women Educator Activists, 1880-1960. Teachers College Press. p. 32. ISBN 0807762970.
  9. ^ Hollingsworth, Randolph. "Bettiola Heloise Fortson, poet and suffragist from Hopkinsville". H-Kentucky. Retrieved 17 January 2018.
  10. ^ Hendricks, Wanda (1997). "Alpha Suffrage Club". Black Women in America: Social Activism. New York: Facts On File, Inc. Press.
  11. ^ "The Supreme Court's Failure To Protect Blacks' Rights". 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 – via HighBeam Research.
  13. ^ Gustafson, Melanie (2001). Women and the Republican Party, 1854-1924. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. p. 152. ISBN 9780252093234.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn (1998). African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Indiana University Press. p. 99. ISBN 025321176X.
  15. ^ "Ida B. Wells - Women's Suffrage Celebration Coalition of Massachusetts". Women's Suffrage Celebration Coalition of Massachusetts. 2017-02-22. Retrieved 2018-02-19.
  16. ^ 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.

External links[edit]