Every year, Women’s History Month is recognized throughout the month of March, highlighting the accomplishments and innovations of women. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
While the stereotypical image of the suffrage movement consists of white women rallying for the right to vote, several suffrage groups were created and led by African American women right here in Indiana.
Anita Morgan, professor of history at IUPUI, wrote about the suffrage movement extensively in her upcoming book, “We Must Be Fearless.”
“The [most notable African American suffragist in Indiana] is Carrie Barnes,” Morgan said. “She did the bulk of her work right here in the state … and became the president of what is believed to be the first African American suffrage meeting in Indiana.”
The Indianapolis News published an article on June 25, 1912, describing the meeting of Branch #7, organized initially by F.D. Ransom, the namesake of Ransom Place.
“Between thirty and forty colored equal suffrage enthusiasts met last night at the home of Mrs. C.J. Walker,” the paper wrote. “ … Five or six men were present. Miss Barnes, who was elected chairman of the branch, is a school teacher of this city.”
According to Morgan, many African American women who were teachers in Indianapolis Public Schools were active in the suffrage movement. Throughout the state, there were several African American suffrage groups, and several integrated groups. While many of the issues both white and Black suffragists were fighting for were similar — the vote, conditions for workers in factories and fighting child labor laws — there may have been more of a sense of urgency for Black activists.
“African American suffragists were working women in addition to everything else,” Morgan said. “They wanted the vote, but were aware of the fact that the vote took a lot of guts, because there was still harassment of some African American male voters in Indianapolis. ...They were worried about child labor laws, and temperance. The issues are really pretty much the same. It’s just … employment issues and labor regulations might be a little more urgent because it affected them a bit more directly.”
As president of the “colored branch” of the Equal Suffrage League, Barnes organized meetings and, according to The Crisis, a quarterly magazine published by the NAACP, met with other branches of the Equal Suffrage League once a month to go over pressing issues. Among these issues, Barnes felt African American women could have greater benefit from the vote than white women.
“We feel that colored women have need for the ballot that white women have,” Barnes wrote, “and a great many needs that they have not.”
Barnes moved with her husband to Boston in 1916, where she worked extensively with the local chapter of the NAACP there. According to the Indianapolis Star, she died in Boston in 1918 after giving birth to her only child, two years shy of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Her work in Indianapolis was not in vain, however. After women got the right to vote, several states did not change their registration laws for the 1920 presidential election, making it impossible for women to actually vote that year. Indiana, however, made it possible for women to register, and there was a large turnout for women throughout the state.
“At that time, African Americans made up about 10% of the population in Indianapolis,” Morgan said. “The political parties were very competitive in Indiana at the time and were actively vying for [the Black] vote.”
While many newspapers throughout the state recorded the percentage of votes among various populations, including immigrants, Germans, and “colored” voters, there is no information about possible oppression of the vote for marginalized groups, despite it being likely there was voter suppression taking place due to the prevalence of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana at the time.
According to Morgan, one of the reasons it is difficult for Indiana historians to find information on voter suppression in the 1920s is because the Recorder archives are missing the years from 1917-1925, which are key years when the Klan controlled much of Indiana’s state government.
“I think it’s amazing and really brave,” Morgan said of high African American turnout in Indiana elections. “Considering the Klan was holding parades through downtown Indianapolis. I don’t see any kind of active suppression [in research], … I’m sure there were attempts, but if you look at the newspapers you still see a good turnout. … It’s difficult to know without these missing issues. If we had those, it might change a lot of what I’m saying.”
However, the information Morgan found implies that African American voters were aware of what was going on in the state, as the majority voted for Republican presidential candidates in 1920, 1924 and 1928, but split their tickets to vote for state Democratic candidates, as Indiana’s Republican Party was heavily controlled by the Klan, led by convicted murderer D.C. Stephenson.
Carrie Barnes was one of many African American women who dedicated their lives to suffrage and equality. Despite going largely unrecognized, their work made the upcoming 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment possible.
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.