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Meet the Brave but Overlooked Women of Color Who Fought for the Vote

2020-07-24 15:55:20
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In 1896, the Supreme Court delivered its ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which declared segregation permissible under the Constitution, as long as the segregated facilities and accommodations were “equal.” But in reality, separate was rarely equal. That same year, Mary co-founded and became the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, a coalition of more than a hundred local Black women’s clubs. The organization’s motto was “lifting as we climb.”

Around this time, Mary began to champion the cause of suffrage. She joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and was one of very few Black members. Her years at Oberlin and abroad had made her comfortable in predominantly white groups, and she took NAWSA to task for excluding women of color. An inclusive movement, she reasoned, would grow in both power and perspective.

“Seeking no favors because of our color, nor patronage because of our needs,” she said, “we knock at the bar of justice, asking an equal chance.”

In 1904, Mary was invited to speak at the International Congress of Women in Berlin. The cost to attend was considerable, but her husband encouraged her to go anyway. There she delivered a speech three times — in German, French and English. It was called “The Progress of Colored Women.”

She reminded her audience that her parents had been enslaved, that her very being was a testament to how far one could travel on the road to freedom. “If anyone had had the courage to predict 50 years ago that a woman with African blood in her veins would journey from the United States to Berlin, Germany, to address an International Congress of Women in the year 1904,” she told the audience, “he would either have been laughed to scorn or he would have been immediately confined in an asylum for the hopelessly insane.”

Mary knew that freedom for all was never about one battle. No single great win — the abolition of slavery, the passage of the 19th Amendment — would right the wrongs in a country founded on such injustices as slavery and the denial of women’s rights. But perhaps what made her life most extraordinary is how much joy she got from each small victory, how much stamina she displayed in her decades-long career as an activist. In 1953, the year before Mary died, The Washington Post wrote: “It may fairly be said of her that when she fought bigotry it was never with hatred; she met lethargy and prejudice with spirit and understanding. And she won the hearts as well as the minds of men.”

When Mabel Ping-Hua Lee moved to New York City from China as a child, around 1905, there were few Chinese immigrants on the East Coast. In 1910, the census reported that there were 5,266 people of Chinese descent living in the city, many of them in the neighborhood of Chinatown in Lower Manhattan. It was a new community, and the streets were alive with delicious smells, bright colors and voices from halfway around the world.

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