Susan B. Anthony, age eighty-three and traveling with her sister and her doctor, reached New Orleans by train on the night of March 17, 1903. No longer an elected leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, she could arrive late for the business committee meetings that always preceded an annual convention.
Earlier that same day, the New Orleans Times-Democrat published an interview with the association’s current president, Carrie Chapman Catt. Catt offered two reasons for a lack of progress toward woman suffrage in the South: women in the region were taught that voting “would detract from their feminine dignity” and would undermine white supremacy.
[T]hey have been made to believe that if equal suffrage were granted, negro domination would follow inevitably because the negroes predominate in the Southern States. It seems to me that the South has safeguards sufficient to prevent any such thing.
By “safeguards,” Catt meant the many devices that southern states were adopting to disenfranchise African-American men without obviously violating the federal constitution. To take the local example, in just two years under its constitution of 1898, Louisiana slashed the number of registered black voters from about 130,000 to just over 5,000, and the count kept falling.
When Anthony awoke to her first day in the city on March 18, the Times-Democrat carried an editorial by Page M. Baker, a Confederate veteran and a voice for white rule, in which he warned that advocates of racial equality would be found among the suffragists arriving in town; “women of Caucasian blood in the South” should not get involved. He pooh-poohed Catt’s faith in “safeguards” and called out Susan B. Anthony. It was not her historic connections to the end of slavery that caught his attention; Baker complained about something she had done just a month ago.
Did not Mrs. Susan B. Anthony, the most prominent living advocate of woman’s suffrage, recently assail the South for its attitude toward the negro, and did she not support the President in his effort to force negro Federal officers upon unwilling Southern communities, and, was not the letter in which she declared these views read at a meeting of negroes at New York, called for the specific purpose of denouncing the Southern people?
Baker had read about a mass meeting in New York City on February 19. Anthony did not attend it; at home in Rochester, she suffered from what sounds like shingles for most of the month. Baker conflated what she wrote to the meeting and what attendees approved as resolutions; she said nothing about conflicts over presidential appointments of African Americans in southern states.
What Anthony did do when asked was to lend her name to this event at Cooper Union, called to protest disfranchisement of African Americans in the South. Hers was a name to conjure with: one of the last surviving agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a veteran of postwar debates about how to protect the political rights of former slaves, and someone who had studied voting rights in the U.S. for better than fifty years. In her letter, she expressed a wish to “join with those who are like sufferers with my sex” in their lack of voting rights. She also brought history to the protest.
The trouble . . . is farther back and deeper than the disfranchisement of the negro. When men deliberately refused to include women in the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the national Constitution, they left the way open for all forms of injustice to other and weaker men and peoples. (New York Sun, 20 Feb 1903)
She had argued for decades that those amendments were written and interpreted as permission to states to deny suffrage at will. As if to prove her point, in her own federal criminal trial for voting in 1873, Associate Justice Ward Hunt opined:
If the State of New York should provide . . . that no person having grey hair . . . should be entitled to vote, I do not see how it could be held to be a violation of any right derived or held under the Constitution of the United States.
Southern states had seized an opportunity.
At the Cooper Union meeting, the focus was on Virginia, the latest state to launch schemes of disfranchisement. A new constitution, proclaimed in spring 1902, wiped the voting rolls clean and put in place rules and practices to block most black men from registering anew. The damage was done in advance of congressional elections in November 1902, and activists sued to stop certification of election results. In short order, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding, dismissed the case on the grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction in what was a political matter. The congressmen took their seats, and in January 1903, the court’s decision was appealed to the Supreme Court.
The chief actor in the suit was James H. Hayes, an African-American lawyer in practice in Richmond, who traveled north to raise money for legal fees. While keeping a busy schedule of speaking, he also wanted to change the political conversation about African Americans by highlighting the importance of black suffrage and openly condemning disfranchisement. His speeches around New York City warned his black audiences of the dangers to their own voting rights, if states could so easily take them away.
Someone invited Susan B. Anthony to send that letter to the meeting of February 19, but there is no longer a record of who that was. Alongside of James Hayes, representatives of two generations of white activists in the cause of racial justice were on the stage at Cooper Union. Seventy-year-old Moncure D. Conway, author, leading freethinker, and outspoken woman suffragist was a son of slaveowners, who joined the antislavery cause in the 1850s and had lived abroad since the war. Also on stage was the much younger John E. Milholland, forty-three, son of Irish immigrants, who was coming into his own as an advocate for racial equality. Bishops of two black denominations, Alexander Walters and William B. Derrick, also took the stage. Walters stood not only for his church but also for his secular activism as a founder and former president of the civil rights group, the National Afro-American Council. Hayes too worked with the council, and its leaders may have been the link to Anthony: its treasurer and one vice president were friends of hers in Rochester, New York.
Back in New Orleans on March 18, the business committee approved a public letter to answer Page Baker’s editorial. The official record attributes the disingenuous letter to Alice Stone Blackwell, but its central assertion cropped up like a well-rehearsed refrain at the annual meeting in speeches and formal resolutions. To make woman suffrage palatable to southerners like Baker, the association’s leaders embraced the white supremacists in its ranks and conceded the right of states to disenfranchise citizens.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association is seeking to do away with the requirement of a sex qualification for suffrage. What other qualifications shall be asked for it leaves to each State. (Times-Democrat, 19 Mar 1903)
Susan B. Anthony’s name as the association’s honorary president was affixed to this letter along with the names of elected officers.
During her interview on March 16, Catt was asked, “Are there negro women belonging to the suffragists?” Putting political rights aside, the interviewer broached the social rules of racism, by asking, were the northern visitors practicing racial equality? Catt’s answer was, at best, peculiar.
. . . I am told we have them. I do not know them personally. I have had no communication with them as negroes.
The topic was timely in New Orleans: the city was hosting not only the annual meeting of suffragists but also meetings of the National Council of Women, and local bigotry blocked a delegate named to represent one large affiliate of the Council, the National Association of Colored Women.
Anthony spent most of her time in New Orleans at rest in her hotel room, emerging for a few events. There is no evidence that she audibly protested the accommodations made to white domination by her successors. But in what reads like direct defiance of Carrie Catt, she accepted an invitation to speak at the Phyllis Wheatley Club, the city’s leading club of black women. Best known for providing social services and training for skilled jobs, the club’s members also included advocates of suffrage. Moreover, the club’s president, Sylvanie F. Williams, was the very delegate blocked from the National Council of Women. Williams acknowledged what Susan B. Anthony had done. While presenting flowers to her guest, she spoke about the rough treatment accorded to black women and ended,
When women like you, Miss Anthony, come to see us and speak to us, it helps us to believe in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and, at least for the time being, in the sympathy of woman. (Woman’s Journal, 4 Apr 1903)
On her way north from New Orleans, Anthony stopped in Alabama to visit Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Margaret Washington hosted the traveling suffragists, assembled the girls to hear a short talk by Miss Anthony, and paraded them all past her to shake hands. Where was Mr. Washington? He had gone to New York to put pressure on Mr. Hayes and Bishop Walters to tone things down, to be less critical of the south and less insistent on full citizenship. In a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt on March 27, Washington wrote,
I feel rather sure now that I have got them down to a sensible and helpful basis their work will be along right lines.
If Hayes changed direction or became more “sensible,” it is not evident now. In April, he reached Rochester, and at a meeting there on April 28, he and Susan B. Anthony addressed a large crowd in Central Church. Among his hosts were John W. Thompson, treasurer, and Hester M. Jeffrey, a vice president, of the Afro-American Council. Thompson was well acquainted with Anthony through his leadership of the national campaign to erect a monument to Frederick Douglass in the city where he lived before the war and where he is buried. Though a relative newcomer to the city, Hester Jeffrey had grown close to the much older Anthony. She was a leader both in the African American community and in the city’s integrated societies of women, including its Political Equality Club.
Republican Mayor Adolph Rodenbeck presided, while notable, local advocates of racial equality sat on the platform. The church’s own Rev. James P. Sankey (white) was joined by the Revs. J. J. Abrams and A. Sellers Mays (both black). Susan Anthony, Hester Jeffrey, and John Thompson took their seats. Then came Nathan Patchen Pond, a white businessman and proud officer in the United States Colored Cavalry during the war.
Rodenbeck opened with a detailed and blunt historical lecture about the ups and downs of black voting rights since emancipation. Anthony spoke next. Freedom without voting rights was a mockery, she proclaimed, whether the individuals were black men, black women, or white women. She joined the issues of race, gender, and voting rights to revive her claim to a citizen’s right to vote.
The trouble is that the men of the north cannot take determined action very well because of the inconsistency of that action. They cannot reasonably advocate the enfranchisement of the negro while they withhold the same advantage from the women of their own part of the country. They are really in such a muddle that they don’t know how to get out of it. (Rochester Union and Advertiser, 29 Apr 1903)
James Hayes spoke last. The press reported that part of his speech designed to demolish the potent myth of imminent “negro domination.”
And right here . . . I desire to refute a statement that is often made which is not true. It is often said that there are more black men in the south than white men. In the south there are 8,000,000 negroes and 17,000,000 white men. The domination of the black race is not feared. The negro never did dominate. He would never dare to dominate.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in the cases from Virginia in April 1904 and issued a unanimous opinion at month’s end. No surprise, the court ruled it was too late to do anything about an election held in November 1902. The court treated this as a moot case–one for which there was no remedy: Congress had recognized the winning candidates and seated them. In a unanimous opinion written by Associate Justice David J. Brewer, the court dodged all questions about racial discrimination and about the constitutional rights of African Americans.
The fleeting cooperation of James H. Hayes and Susan B. Anthony, at a dark moment in American history, has proved easy to overlook. Great transformations did not ensue. The rules and laws of racial discrimination grew harsher; interracial collaboration did not gain popularity; neither white women nor African Americans solved their shared problem–that states retained their rights to disenfranchise. They still do. But in this encounter between Anthony and Hayes, the souls of reformers are exposed. They both were made of the stuff that fuels social movements. They shared convictions about human rights and believed in acting on their political and moral choices, always hopeful that their obstacles were not truly insurmountable. The spiritual says, “You got a right, I got a right,” and synthesis follows, “We all got a right to the tree of life.” If only.
Shannen Dee Williams researched these stories when editors at the Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony found them recurring in documents of 1903, and her careful work has been my foundation and starting point. Where I’ve gone from that point is entirely on me.
James H. Hayes is not pictured here because I cannot find a picture. If you know of one, please let me know.
Make this an occasion to read a classic, originally published right in the middle of these events, in April 1903. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk. The Library of America published a paperback in 1990.
For context in Anthony’s life, see: An Awful Hush, 1895 to 1906, vol 6 of Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ed. Ann D. Gordon et al. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2013)
Historians form strong opinions of Hayes and don’t agree with each other. For a range, see
** Vol. 7 of The Booker T. Washington Papers, ed. Louis R. Harlan et al. (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1977.)
** R. Volney Riser, Defying Disfranchisement: Black Voting Rights Activism in the Jim Crow South, 1890-1908 (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 2010).
** Benjamin R. Justesen, Broken Brotherhood: The Rise and Fall of the National Afro-American Council (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008)
Opinions from the Supreme Court on Virginia’s constitution:
Jones v. Montague 194 United States Reports 147 (1904)
Selden v. Montague 194 United States Reports 153 (1904)