For Black Suffragists, the Lens Was a Mighty Sword - Press "Enter" to skip to content

For Black Suffragists, the Lens Was a Mighty Sword

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On the last day of his life, Frederick Douglass attended a meeting of the National Women’s Council. The prodigious orator and abolitionist came home to Cedar Hill, his hilltop house in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C.; spoke with his wife at the time, Helen Pitts Douglass, about the events and future plans; clasped his hands to his chest and died that evening. It seemed impossible that such an indomitable man was gone.

On that final day, his meeting had been an act of reconciliation. Douglass, the only African-American to participate in the Seneca Falls convention in New York in 1848, had been staunch in his support of women’s full enfranchisement at a time when this was a divisive issue in antislavery societies in the United States and Britain. His later support of the passage of the 15th Amendment, which conferred the right to vote on Black men, came as a blow to the movement for women’s rights at a key moment. The end of the Civil War had created urgency to secure Black suffrage through the 15th Amendment, however ineffectual it became through the vise created by racist Jim Crow era policies.

Even with the rift over the 15th Amendment, Douglass was unwavering in his support of women’s right to vote though his sense of timing and strategy shifted. “Her right to be and to do is as full, complete and perfect as the right of any man on earth,” he said in 1888 at the International Council of Women, in Washington. “I say of her, as I say of the colored people, ‘Give her fair play, and hands off.’”

Douglass was acutely aware that the advocacy of rights, equality and “fair play” for Black women in the suffrage movement, whose right to vote was contested even after the passage of the 19th Amendment, was inextricably connected to the power of photography. Considered the most photographed American man in the 19th century, he knew and argued that representational democracy is secured not only by laws and norms, but by the narratives fashioned by representation in culture as well.

In March, I walked to a statue of Douglass and considered his final days along with another landmark moment in his life — a speech he gave during the Civil War about the transformative power of pictures, namely photographs, to create a new vision for the nation. At the dawn of the photographic age, Douglass embodied his own principles by presenting, in the form of his own image, counternarratives of dignity and self-possession to help challenge a sea of racist stereotypes.

At a time when the work of leading Black suffragists was often unwelcome, Black women crafted and mobilized images that became critical documents for insisting on racial equity and agency. An underexplored feature of the history of women’s suffrage is that the journey over decades coincided squarely with the use of images as a form of data to support narratives about who counts and who belongs in society. In the mid-19th century, the use, circulation and creation of images determined intimacies, aspirations and social boundaries. By the turn of the 20th century, photographs were decidedly civic currency.

Sojourner Truth is a well-known example of how women have used the power of photography as a political weapon. Yet, a broad, understudied history of photographic agency by generations of Black suffragists uncovers invaluable documents about their thwarted and central roles in the collective history of women’s rights.

Consider an image of the Black suffragist Nannie Helen Burroughs, a leader of the Women’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention, who exemplified the crucial role of Black women’s organizing work in the Black church around the turn of the 20th century, as historians Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn have shown in their landmark scholarship.

The careful construction of a group portrait taken in 1909 testifies to her as undaunted. Burroughs is central, framed by a black doorway on the porch of the school she founded in the nation’s capital for the education of women of all races, the National Training School for Women and Girls, later renamed to honor her. Flanking the figures are the exposed materials of the building’s foundation, a signal of a new beginning and her effective labor. The funding for the institution was unique for the era as it came entirely from the Black community and largely from small donations by Black women.

Other Black suffragists, including Ida B. Wells-Barnett, also worked to marshal the power of images as an instrument of agency. Out of the large number of images she deployed in publications and correspondence, many are startling in their clarity born of her study of the conventions of various photographs to dramatize, as the scholar Leigh Raiford argues, “Black womanhood, the sanctity of the Black family, and the credibility of American civilization as a whole.” This includes a portrait from 1893 taken in Chicago, showing every detail of her black lace bodice and strands of her hair. The image does not merely convey the skill of the photography studio, it captures Wells-Barnett’s own intention to accent her singularity.

Another portrait of Wells-Barnett, ripped in half, hints at the way in which these images were mishandled, but also the racial violence that haunted the very arena that animated her visionary crusade against lynching such that her careful compositions work as statements of humanity denied and reclaimed.

The commanding portrait of Sarah Parker Remond, part of the early generation of Black suffragists, testifies to how photographs operate to challenge being denied access to public spaces. In this portrait, circa 1865, taken slightly from below, and empty save a column base, her immaculately fashioned figure appears fully gathered. Remond, who is thought to be the only Black woman to sign the first women’s suffrage petition in Britain in 1866 and whose prominence grew when she contested her forcible ejection after she refused segregated seating to attend an opera in Boston in 1853, sits with her hands on her lap, both a subject inviting the gaze and entitled to space.

We see what Deborah Willis, a pioneering photo historian, considers the declarative and corrective function of portraits, too, in the archived images of Mary Church Terrell. Terrell was the first President of the landmark National Association of Colored Women, and led a successful fight to end segregation in restaurants in Washington, D.C. In a three-quarter length portrait, Terrell appears seated in a wooden chair in a well-fitted white lace dress. Leaning to one side, she gazes at the viewers of the photograph as if taking their measure. Her portrait telegraphed what following decades would confirm — a model of self-possession and dignified repose, she was effectively poised to occupy the role of leader and an esteemed elder in the rights-based movement. In a portrait taken at the end of her life, printed on the program for the National Association of Colored Women in 1962, she appears with a bust of Douglass behind her.

With precious little scholarship about many women of color in the suffrage movement, these images become invaluable conduits to the past.

This is part of the untold legacy of the racial bias in the journey toward women’s suffrage: The uses of photography by Black women in the battle for the right to vote offered this country an indispensable lens on itself. Douglass knew that the civic and moral imagination in the United States was dependent on images. The history of Black suffragists shows us that looking is our collective work.


Sarah Elizabeth Lewis is an associate professor of art and architecture history and African and African-American studies at Harvard University and the founder of The Vision and Justice Project.


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