Volume 7, No. 3
March 2020
"Recognition Delayed: The Contributions of African American Suffragists and Why their Stories Matter"  

Event held on March 8, 2020, at Daley Li brary, U of I at Chicago 
by Jackie Kirley 

Although my objectivity may be questioned since I helped to organize "Recognition Delayed," I consider the event a success. The event was attended by a diverse, enthusiastic and thoroughly engaged audience. The lecture provided much new information about African American suffragists, and the panel discussion, which had a conversational quality to it, addressed current concerns. In addition to myself, it was organized by Anita Moore and Ruth Holst of AAUW - Chicago and by Sammie Dortch of the Vivian G. Harsh Society. Anita Moore created the PowerPoint of African American suffragists shown at the beginning of the event. Audience members participated in the discussion and offered suggestions for continuing the conversation. If you missed the event, watch for a posting in the near future on the WWHP website and on our Facebook page telling when it will be aired on CAN TV.  
Marcia Walker-McWilliams' lecture offered evidence that African American women advocated for suffrage before the famous Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, widely hailed as the first women's rights convention in the United States, and continued far beyond the passage of the 19th Amendment in1920 that granted women the right to vote. Their advocacy was initially tied to the abolition of slavery and later to getting voting and civil rights for all African Americans, male as well as female.  White suffragists, who focused more narrowly on the rights of women getting the vote, were angered when their African American sisters supported passage of the 15th Amendment giving African American men the vote but not including women. African American suffragists enthusiastically supported the voting rights of African American men as a chance to improve the conditions of their race. They, in turn, were angered later when white women did not join in the fight against lynching and Jim Crow laws. Walker-McWilliams argued that one could consider civil rights activists, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, as suffragists because the lack of civil rights kept African Americans not only from voting but from participating in the body politic. By considering suffragist work as a fight against racism and sexism, Walker-McWilliams laid the groundwork for the panel that followed.  
The panel, moderated by Elizabeth Todd-Breland, Associate Professor in the Dept. of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, brought together women whose organizations continue to pursue voting rights and inclusion of citizens in the body politic. Anne Jamieson, president of the Chicago branch of League of Women Voters described being steeped in the importance of voting from early childhood and continuing that work with the League. Asiaha Butler spoke of her work with the Residents Association of Greater Englewood in bringing a marginalized community into the body politic. Ibie Hart, the Women's Business Development Manager of the Illinois Dept. of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, spoke of misperceptions of African Americans by the larger society, and Delmarie Cobb of Ida's Legacy implored white women who were pro-choice to recognize the implications of what they sometimes advocate. Her example was of an effort to cut funding to hospitals that do not support abortions when the hospitals impacted serve African American communities and the cuts would have severely impacted their ability to serve those same communities.  
Event partners: Ida's Legacy, League of Women Voters, Rainbow Push, and University of Illinois Library were able to staff a table to inform attendees of their work. WWHP also raffled a small statue of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an early African American suffragist, who is considered the mother of African American journalism. She was a dedicated activist, poet, public speaker and author. 

At event's end there was a sense that an important conversation had been started and, as Ruth Holst wrote, "The women in the room clearly want to keep the discussion going." Organizers and participants are committed to exploring further developments and creating opportunities for all of us to get to know one another and learn one another's stories.  


Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 - 1911)
The Mother of African American Journalism, 
Activist and Suffragist

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a dedicated activist, poet, public speaker and author who fought for suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and civil rights. Harper felt that black women should not rely on others to fight for them, but rather actively fight for their own rights. Notably, she was one of the first African American women to be published in the United States. 

Harper was the only child of free African American parents. She was raised by her aunt and uncle after her mother died when Frances was three years old. She attended the Academy for Negro Youth, a school run by her uncle, until the age of 13, and then found domestic work in a Quaker household where she had access to a wide range of literature. After teaching for two years in Ohio and Pennsylvania, she embarked on a career as a traveling speaker on the abolitionist circuit. She helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad and wrote frequently for anti-slavery newspapers, earning her a reputation as the Mother of African American journalism.

She was a prolific writer and published many collections of poetry, including Autumn Leaves (1845). Harper also published several novels, including Iola Leroy (1892), and essay collections. Her short story "The Two Offers" was the first short story published by an African American. Her poetry has been collected in Complete Poems of Frances E.W. Harper (1988), and her prose in A Brighter Coming Day (1990). 

She married Fenton Harper in 1860. He brought to the marriage three children of his own, and together they had a daughter. When her husband died in 1864, Harper supported her family though speaking engagements. During Reconstruction, she was an activist for civil rights, women's rights and educational opportunities for all. She was superintendent of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women's Christian Temperance Union, co-founder and vice president of the National Association of Colored Women, and a member of the American Women's Suffrage Association. Harper was also the director of the American Association of Colored Youth. She was active in both African Methodist Episcopal and Unitarian churches.

Harper died at the age 85 on February 22, 1911, nine years before women gained the right to vote. 


First Woman to Head Chicago Schools

by Helen Ramirez-Odell
Ella Flagg Young (1845 - 1918) started as a classroom teacher in Chicago and soon became a principal. When she was widowed at a young age she devoted her life to advancing education. She retired in 1915 after virtually holding every instructional and administrative position in the Chicago Public Schools. Young was also a champion of women's rights and strongly supported women's suffrage.
Her University of Chicago dissertation "Isolation in the Schools" was published in 1900 and argued against the Board of Education model in which the teacher was expected to function as an assembly line worker merely  passing on information to the students. She wrote that the  office of teacher is  degraded to "the grinding of prescribed  grists, in prescribed quantities, and with prescribed fineness-to the turning of the crank of a revolving mechanism..."  

John Dewey was her dissertation advisor and she helped him develop his ideas about the need for democratic schools where teachers contributed to decision making on all educational matters. Young called for structural change in school organization which greatly appealed to Margaret Haley, head of the Chicago Teachers Federation. 
There was intense confrontation between the Board of Education and teachers organizations when Young became the first woman to be appointed Superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools in 1909. Teachers had high expectations of her and she immediately began "democratic efficiency" by involving  teachers in the decision making process through teachers' councils, increasing teachers' salaries, removing secret performance evaluations, and instituting other reforms. She became the first woman to be elected president of the National Education Association (NEA) in 1910.  
In 1915 Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson filled the Board of Education with anti-union activists including William Rothman, who had stolen money from the police pension fund and wanted to put the teachers' pension fund under the control of the Board of Education, and Jacob Loeb, who sought to destroy the Chicago Teachers Federation. On September 1, 1915, the Board adopted the Loeb Rule, which forbade teachers from joining a labor union or an association affiliated with a labor union. 
Ella Flagg Young saw clearly that teachers needed union organization and was a valiant defender of the teachers. Sixty-eight teachers were discharged because they refused to withdraw from the Chicago Federation of Teachers. The Loeb ruling was overturned in court, but this victory was followed by a major loss when Young resigned  after the Board of Education rejected her reappointment in December 1915. The following year she was scheduled to speak at the NEA convention, but first Jacob Loeb gave a talk attacking teachers' unions. Young put her prepared speech aside and instead responded strongly to his criticisms. When she died in 1918 the flags in Chicago were flown at half-mast.

Fighter for Racial, Social, and Economic Justice:  
Meet Lakesia Collins!
by Amy Laiken and Gwen Vaughn

Lakesia is an average mom who lives everyday experiences and knows the struggles of working families. As the proud mother of three sons who are CPS students and a previous CNA nursing home worker, Lakesia Collins knew how important it was for workers in her position to be paid a living wage. To help improve the lives of workers like herself, she became an active member of Service Employees International Union Health Care Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas (SEIU HCIIMK).  She went on to serve on its executive board for the nursing home division representing thousands of nursing home workers across the state of Illinois. At a young age Lakesia was challenged to care for her paralyzed grandmother. She realized through this life experience that it was in her DNA to help others who were in similar circumstances. 

Lakesia is devoted to the care of one of our most vulnerable populations, demanding better conditions ensuring the safety of seniors and, just as importantly, the safety of nursing home workers!  As a nursing home worker, she led her co-workers in a campaign to enforce a short staffing law that was passed some years ago, but not properly enforced, in order to promote workers' and nursing home residents' safety. She said that she believes, "it's important for her to protect seniors and workers in the industry,  and that's when she became an activist in the movement for safe staffing and to raise the hourly minimum wage to $15. "

Late last year, the Chicago City Council approved an ordinance, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour effective July 2021 for employees who work in Chicago, first raising it to $14 in July 2020.
Lakesia has committed herself to ensuring that young people are being heard in the movements for social justice, and was a founding member of the Future Fighters, an organization with that focus.  She also recognizes the importance of working across generations, and she is the co-founder of Intergen Alliance, which is a sector of SEIU millennials. She worked with millennials from across the country starting with New York City to help form committees to organize the workers across generational lines to address local issues.  

More recently, Lakesia Collins has been working as an organizer with SEIU HCIIMK; she represents homecare, childcare, hospital and nursing home workers. Collins is currently a candidate for State Representative in Illinois' 9th District which represents several diverse communities across the Chicago area: Lincoln Park, Little Village, Cabrini Green and North Lawndale. We wish Collins well in this new chapter in her life.


A Message from WWHP's president....

It's no secret to anyone that we are not living in normal times. We have to concentrate on keeping ourselves and our families healthy, while dealing with nearly unprecedented economic and social disruptions. Most, if not all, programs in recognition of Women's History Month have been postponed or canceled. But as you hunker down and practice social distancing, check out our website, wwhpchicago.org and/or "Like" us on Facebook. Some other websites, including those below, can help you observe Women's History Month virtually: 


Like us on Facebook
Working Women's History Project

Please contact us through Amy Laiken