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The Role of Women in Tennessee Elections

In Tennessee in 1919 women were recruiting the votes of other women to vote for the first time. In Nashville, suffragists who had been working for many years for this right, hastily organized women to register and as part of their of the preparation for their first election, struck a rare alliance with African American women leaders. There was a political agreement between the two groups, white women suffragists and African American women leaders. Black women of Tennessee would turn out and vote and, in return, the white women would support a number of specific social services to the African American community. This was a practical, mutually satisfactory, and altogether surprising alliance. This is an example of the effort it takes to break through racial barriers, to even limited, biracial cooperation.

The Nashville alliance suggests that there was an alternative to the bitter race relations of the postwar years. This alternative was due to the development of African American women s organizations, which gained more influence because of the connections black women had with white women of the Methodist Women s Missionary Society. In a time where black men had already lost meaningful political influence as citizens, voters and members of the Republican Party, black women had taken an activist role, establishing programs in their communities and seeking allies to establish power in government. Black women joined suffrage ranks because they were convinced it was important to vote in order to protect their interests and because the saw suffrage as a part of a strategy for racial progress. White suffragists started this alliance because they believed in suffrage as an important cause and because they, too, had a political agenda.

The alliance between these two groups is odd for a number of reasons. During this time there were many racial problems. Many lynching and brutal assaults had occurred due to the racial problems that had accelerated by World War I. African Americans experienced hostility over their men wearing uniforms of the armed forces and because of black labor moving to the North. Whites during this time wanted to maintain supremacy, segregation, and racial inequality. Nashville had been the place of an organized black protest of a lynching that had happened in the area, but Nashville had refused to recognize the march of two thousand blacks.

The timing of the women s alliance was not the only thing that made it unusual. The question of what kind of effect the votes of African American women was raised many times. Southern opponents of woman suffrage feared that African American votes were a threat to white supremacy. White suffragists argued that demographics made the votes of African American women irrelevant, or that their votes could be dealt with in the same way that African American men s votes were. Southern suffragists thought that the race issue was a perfectly good reason to keep all women from voting. Most white suffragists did not consider blacks voting as part of their campaign, only in Tennessee do white suffragists seemed to have joined an alliance with black women.

Nashville was the center of African American middle class since reconstruction, so it was probably a logical place for this alliance. As a result, there were many African American churches and women in these churches insisted on an independent voice within their churches and community. Many African American women s club was also formed in Nashville and the leaders of these societies had an important role in forming the union between the two races. The issues that the African American women dealt with were many of the same issues that white suffragists were concerned about. These women raised funds for better schools, day-care centers for the children of working mothers, settlement housing and many other causes. African American leaders understood the uses of voting potential. African American women and white women had enough common interests to make these associations profitable for both. Together they achieved goals and learned political skills, and both groups benefited from working together.

Although it may have seemed that these groups were working to end racial barriers, very few white women were working toward that goal. The white suffragists had no commitment to the black women, the suffragist goals were specific to the politics of the movement, and they sought to use African American voters for their own needs. Many women insisted that their first task was to register women to vote.

Many of the things the African American women were promised to get help from the white women suffragists were achieved. Black nurses were hired in the city hospital for the first time, to care for black patients. Being a probation officer was a job that African Americans wanted and they were granted that. African Americans could now have black representation on a motion picture censorship board. The state of Tennessee opened up a vocational school for colored girls. These along with other things were made possible by women having a chance to vote on issues that matter to them and from working with the other suffragists.

For African American women the alliance produced gains and demonstrated the importance of organization within the African American community. The alliance with Nashville white suffragists was for black women one way of achieving goals. Whatever the motivation of white suffragists, the African Americans were very clear about their reasons for joining in the alliance. They wanted to make a difference, and they knew through cooperation, they could receive benefits.

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