Susan B. Anthony’s 80th birthday, 115 years ago today, coincided with her retirement from the presidency of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association at its annual convention in Washington, D.C. Elaborate birthday celebrations kept returning to the topic of race in the nation’s past and present.
The party started in the afternoon of February 15 here, at Washington’s Lafayette Square Opera House, one of the largest halls in the city (left), where every seat was taken. The men and women arriving for this public event received a program (right), listing musical performances and speakers.
Festivities resumed in the evening at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where two thousand guests passed through a receiving line to shake Miss Anthony’s hand. Janet Jennings, a nurse during both the Civil and Spanish-American Wars and a nationally published journalist, wrote of this reception:
The great hall of statuary was brilliant with lights and fragrant with flowers. Among the paintings was the portrait of Miss Anthony presented to the gallery that day by Mrs. John B. Henderson of Missouri. Taking it all in all, no woman in the nation ever had such a tribute to her worth and and work as this celebration to Miss Anthony.
The local Evening Star noticed that
A number of local organizations of women, among them almost the entire membership of the Washington College of Law, attended the reception in a body.
Just having Susan B. Anthony in town prompted some unease about racial discrimination in the capital city. On the day the Washington Times covered her parties, a columnist collecting gossip “In the Hotel Corridors” revealed that African-Americans who called on Miss Anthony at her hotel were denied use of the elevator. He went on to complain not about the racism of hotel management but about female journalists/suffragists who reported the fact back to their hometown papers.
To Helen Pitts Douglass, the white widow of Frederick Douglass who lived in Washington, the more worrisome types attracted to the city by Susan B. Anthony were suffragists from the South whose states had already deprived black men of any right to vote. She attended a few meetings of the delegates ahead of the birthday and complained to a friend on February 12, “Sat. evening Louisiana spoke, and three times the little thing declared for ‘white supremacy’–apparently to no one’s discomfort.”
At the Opera House, both groups were in the audience when Joseph H. Douglass, the talented twenty-nine year old grandson of Frederick, stepped on stage to play a violin solo, the Hungarian Rhapsodie by Stjepan Hauser. Joseph also led an orchestra at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s reception. After the music, at the Opera House, Coralie Franklin Cook rose to deliver what the program called, “Greetings from Colored Women.” Cook, who is thought to be the first descendant of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves to complete college, was a professor of English and Elocution at Howard University. Of the birthday girl, she had high praise:
Our children and our children’s children will be taught to honor her memory for they shall be told that she has always been in the vanguard of the immortal few who have stood for the great principles of human rights.
Cook then reminded her largely white audience that the premise of mobilization for woman suffrage had been the promises of equality, that
not till [woman] had suffered under the burden of her own wrongs and abuses did she realize the all important truth that no woman and no class of women can be degraded and all women kind not suffer thereby.
Helen Douglass, again writing on February 12, was clearly disappointed in Susan B. Anthony’s record on race. They were acquaintances, perhaps friends, who had worked together planning Frederick Douglass’s funeral five years earlier. But Helen placed a very large burden on Susan and, indeed, on the woman suffrage movement. She expected them to champion universal voting rights—black and white, man and woman—against a tide running the other direction in southern states.
The colored people do not like Miss Anthony, and she has lost the chance of a life time, the chance to endear herself and her cause to thousands to whom suffrage is as important as it is to herself,–the chance to put the association on record as standing squarely for humanity and loyalty–the chance to stay the advance of a spirit that is encroaching upon the safety of our Republic and to lead and strengthen the moral purpose of the women of the land.
Susan B. Anthony’s retirement went into effect before her birthday. Maybe she was testing her new liberty when she rose to speak at the conclusion of the Opera House program. At age 80 and without office, she could not rise to Douglass’s challenge, but she could certainly show the white supremacists in the audience where she stood. She could strive to merit Coralie Cook’s high praise. Reports of her remarks differ. Emma Sweet, a skilled stenographer and occasional assistant to Anthony, probably filed this first passage with the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. Tired and a bit overwhelmed, Anthony expressed gratitude for letters and telegrams from around the world and continued:
but none has touched me so deeply as that which came from a little town in Alabama with a postal order for 80 cents. It came from a woman whose mother and father have clanked the chains of slavery, and those 80 cents are worth more than the wealth of the Indies to me, and as I have sat and heard from all these friends here, nothing has touched me so deeply as from her whose face is of a deeper hue, and no music has touched me like the music of Frederick Douglass’s grandson.
There the report slipped into paraphrase, but we can pick up the thread in the Woman’s Tribune. Anthony thought this was a good moment to talk about the importance of slavery and its abolition in sharpening the nation’s ideals of liberty and forging strong people.
Nothing speaks so strongly for freedom, for liberty in this nation as does the fact that descendants of families who went through that great agony are able to secure development and opportunities for education, and to stand on this platform and celebrate my half century of work for liberty–the peers of any Anglo-Saxon.
Almost as afterthought, she added:
I am glad of the development that has come to women of the Anglo-Saxon race too.
Happy birthday, Susan B. Anthony!
Updated February 2016 to add sources
Janet Jennings, “Susan B. Anthony—Story of a Life Devoted to an Idea,” unidentified & undated clipping, Susan B. Anthony scrapbook 1876-1903, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Helen Pitts Douglass to My dear friend, 12 February 1900, Emily Howland Correspondence, Box 5, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College.