This week in history: Alpha Suffrage Club gets to work

The club, co-founded by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, launched in Chicago in 1913 to fight for Black women’s suffrage. Here’s a look at the club in its early days.

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Ida B. Wells was born into slavery and became a leader in the struggle against racism. | Sun-Times files

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was one of the founding members of the Alpha Suffrage Club, which supported Black women’s suffrage.

Sun-Times files

As reported in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

When the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, passed in 1920, the victory felt hollow for many Black women in Chicago. The 15th Amendment barred voting discrimination based on race, but other barriers stood in the way of Black women (and Black men) from voting, such as poll taxes, literacy tests and the very real threat of violence. And very few suffrage groups allowed Black women to join their ranks or supported their right to vote.

In 1913, journalist and suffragette Ida B. Wells-Barnett likely had these thoughts swirling in her head. So she (with the help of white activist Belle Squire) set out to ensure they would have a seat at the table when it came time to vote by forming the Alpha Suffrage Club, which held its first meeting on Jan. 30, 1913.

The club advocated for Black women’s suffrage and Black political leadership at the local level, according to JSTOR Daily’s Ashawnta Jackson. Wells thought of the club as one “that would champion causes for the race and inspire a reconceptualization of the role of African American women in America.” Members sought to teach Black women how to use their voices to advance themselves and their community.

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The Chicago Daily News rarely reported on any of the Alpha Suffrage Club’s meetings, but a brief announcement for one did appear in the Oct. 12, 1914 edition:

“Alpha Suffrage club, 8 p.m. at Bethel A.M.E. church, West 30th and Dearborn streets. Speakers: Miss Mary McDowell, Miss Harriet Vittum. Others invited to speak are Miss Jane Addams, Franklin I. Dennison, W.R. Cowan and Dr. George C. Hall.”

The paper gave no further details and did not send a reporter, but another short brief from the Chicago Defender, the city’s African American newspaper published by Robert S. Abbott, provided a clearer picture of the meeting.

“Owing to a small registration last Saturday, the Alpha Suffrage club is making an especial effort to reach women,” the Defender said in an Oct 10 brief. “There will be a big mass meeting at Bethel church, corner 30th and Dearborn street, Monday evening, Oct. 12th, 8 o’clock.”

The meeting would function as “an educational one,” likely owing to the speakers slated for the event. Both McDowell and Vittum worked for settlement houses (the University of Chicago Settlement and Northwestern University Settlement, respectively) where they helped low-income families access food, housing, employment, education and healthcare.

Almost as if in preparation for the 19th Amendment’s passage, the club also invited all of the Black candidates who would be running on the county commissioners’ ticket.

“As it is the last night before registration,” the Defender continued, “the club is anxious to have a crowded house. Everybody is cordially invited to be present and help make ‘County Commissioners’ Night’ a success.”

The Defender published a brief recap of the Oct. 12 meeting in its Clubs and Societies section, dedicated to “weekly gossip from the Societal, Religious, Fraternal and other organizations.”

In addition to McDowell and Vittum, both Dennison and Hall also made it to the meeting, along with Elizabeth I. Davis, Blanche Glimer, Judge Jarecki and “Mr. Stelk, attorney,” the Defender said. Addams likely did not attend.

Though billed as “County Commissioners’ Night,” the meeting appeared to focus on social issues more than political ones.

“Conditions existing at present in public institutions for the poor were especially emphasized and the need of persons interested solely in the welfare of the inmates, rather than in politics.”

The club’s efforts to reach more women eventually paid off. By 1916, Wells-Barnett’s group had almost 200 members and become a political force, playing a vital role in the election of Ald. Oscar DePriest.

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