“For the future benefit of my whole race”: Ida B. Wells and the Alpha Suffrage Club

By Rachel Madden – Loyola University Chicago, Masters in Public History Program, Fall 2019.

On March 3rd, 1913, a commotion arose outside the White House. A parade of 5,000 suffragists marched up Pennsylvania Avenue, hoping to draw the attention of Woodrow Wilson, whose presidential inauguration was scheduled for the following day [1]. However, thousands of people who were in town for the inauguration crowded the parade route. Some of the spectators cheered the women on, but others jostled and harassed the marchers. Undeterred by the parade’s setbacks, the suffragists proudly finished their first national march.  

Another milestone occurred that day: Ida B. Wells, founder of Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club, defied orders to march in the back of the parade with other African American suffragists and marched with the Illinois delegation instead. She sought to demonstrate that African American women had just as much right as white women did to fight for suffrage.

“I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition,” Wells declared to her fellow Illinois delegates. “I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race” [2]. Statements and actions like these characterized Wells’ remarkable life; time and time again, she persisted in the face of discrimination.

Born into slavery in 1862, Wells spent her life tirelessly campaigning for the rights of women and the African American community. She began her career as a schoolteacher and part-time journalist in Memphis, Tennessee, where she wrote articles that raised national awareness about lynching. After receiving death threats for her work, she moved to Chicago in 1895 [3]. 

Ida B. Wells, activist and reformer, 1862-1931.
Library of Congress.

In 1913, the Illinois legislature prepared to vote on suffrage [4]. In January that year, Wells started the Alpha Suffrage Club, fearing that Illinois’ white suffragists were not going to advocate for the voting rights of African American women [5]. According to the club’s newsletter, the Alphas were the first suffrage club organized by African American women [6]. The group met each Wednesday evening between September and July, and membership swelled to 200 women by 1916 [7].

The club’s first action was to raise money to send Wells to the Washington, D.C. suffrage parade [8]. (More on Wells and the 1913 parade in a subsequent post here.) A few months later, in June of 1913, Illinois granted women the right to vote for the U.S. President and local offices [9]. Wells understood that the African American community would need to work together to elect African American politicians. She especially wanted to inform women about their rights to vote. She believed voting was an essential way for the African American community to overcome discrimination and oppression, writing in 1910 that “with no sacredness of the ballot there can be no sacredness of human life itself” [10].

Once Illinois law allowed women to vote for some offices, the Alpha Suffrage Club conducted a canvas of the 2nd, 14th, 30th and 6th wards, where they went door to door to urge women to register as voters and show up at the polls. The club even concerned itself with prisoners’ rights to vote, which was highly unusual for the time. They visited female inmates at the Bridewell Prison, becoming the first group to ever hold a suffrage meeting there [11].  

The canvasing and campaigning was no easy task, and the Alpha Suffrage Club faced taunting from African American men who feared the way suffrage challenged traditional gender roles [12]. Wells recalled in her autobiography that men “told them they ought to be at home taking care of the babies” [13].

At their weekly meetings, the women shared their progress and listened to speeches by members of the club or famous guest speakers, like Jane Addams [14]. They also marched in suffrage parades in Chicago whenever the opportunity arose, raised money to support legal cases of discrimination against African Americans, and wrote letters to the editor to protest when newspapers used racist language [15]. The club invited candidates who were running for office to speak, even though the women could not always vote for these candidates. “Although the women do not vote for circuit court judges, they consider it their duty to use their influence to aid in selecting good judges,” the club reported in 1915 [16].

Eventually, the club’s hard work paid off, and Oscar De Priest was elected Chicago’s first African American alderman in 1915 [17]. He would later go on to become the first African American politician elected to Congress in the 20th century [18].

Dr. Fannie Emanuel, medical doctor, settlement house founder, and second president of the Alpha Suffrage Club. The Broad Ax, May 29, 1915.

In 1917, the Alpha Suffrage Club elected Dr. Fannie Emanuel as president [19]. After women achieved universal suffrage, the club became part of the Illinois League of Women Voters, ceasing to exist independently as the Alpha Suffrage Club [20].

In February of 2019, the city of Chicago renamed “Congress Parkway” to “Ida B. Wells Drive.” Wells is the first African American woman to have a street named after her in downtown Chicago [21]. One hundred years after women gained the national right to vote, the legacies of Wells and the Alpha Suffrage Club live on.

Bibliography

[1] Cohen, Danielle. “This Day in History: The 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade.” Published by The Barack Obama White House on March 3, 2016. Accessed October 27, 2019, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/03/03/this-day-history-1913-womens-suffrage-parade.

[2] “Illinois Women Feature Parade.” Chicago Tribune, March 4, 1913. Newspapers.com.

[3] “Ida B. Wells.” National Park Service, last modified June 27, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/people/idabwells.htm; Schechter, Patricia A. Thinking Suffrage: Ida B. Wells-Barnett on Faith and Politics. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street, 2014. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C2677155.

[4] “63. Illinois Suffrage Act.” Illinois Secretary of State, published as part of the “100 Most Valuable Documents at the Illinois State Archives” online exhibit. https://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/departments/archives/online_exhibits/100_documents/1913-il-suffarge-act.html

[5] Wells, Ida B. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Edited by Alfreda M. Duster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970, 378-379. Google Play.

[6] “The Alpha Suffrage Record.” Vol. 1, No. 1. (March 18, 1914). Digital Resource Library of Illinois History.  http://livinghistoryofillinois.com/pdf_files/The%20Alpha%20Suffrage%20Record,%20Volume%201,%20Number%201,%20March%2018,%201914.pdf

[7] Williams, Katherine E. The Alpha Suffrage Club. Half-Century Magazine, September 1916, 12. Alexander Street.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “63. Illinois Suffrage Act.” Illinois Secretary of State, published as part of the “100 Most Valuable Documents at the Illinois State Archives” online exhibit. https://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/departments/archives/online_exhibits/100_documents/1913-il-suffarge-act.html

[10] Wells, Ida B. How Enfranchisement Stops Lynchings. NAACP Papers (Reel 8, Part I: Meetings of the Board of Directors, Records of Annual Conferences, Major Speeches, and Special Reports, Proceedings of the National Negro Conference, May 1910, Library of Congress, Washington DC), United States. Library of Congress. Manuscript Division, 1910, 5. Alexander Street.

[11] Williams, Katherine E. The Alpha Suffrage Club. Half-Century Magazine, September 1916, 12. Alexander Street.

[12] Schechter, Patricia A. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Accessed October 27, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.

[13] Wells, Ida B. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Edited by Alfreda M. Duster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970, 379. Google Play.

[14] “The Alpha Suffrage Club to Give a Banquet.” Chicago Tribune, November 15, 1913. Newspapers.com.

[15] “Alpha Suffrage Club.” The Broad Ax, June 17, 1916. Newspapers.com; “Chicago, Ill.” The New York Age, February 25, 1915. Newspapers.com;Wells, Ida B. “The Eighth Regiment.” Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1916. Newspapers.com.

[16] “Alpha Suffrage Club.” The Broad Ax, May 22, 1915. Newspapers.com.

[17] “Alpha Suffrage Club.” The Broad Ax, April 10, 1915. Newspapers.com.

[18] “De Priest, Oscar Stanton.” History, Art and Archives of the United States House of Representatives. https://history.house.gov/People/Listing/D/DE-PRIEST,-Oscar-Stanton-(D000263)/

[19] “The Alpha Suffrage Club.” The Broad Ax, February 3, 1917. Newspapers.com.

[20] Beasley, Delilah L. “Activities Among Negroes.” Oakland Tribune, May 2, 1926, 40. Newspapers.com.

[21] “Major Downtown Street to Be Renamed After Ida B. Wells.” NBC Chicago, February 11, 2019.https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/Major-Downtown-Street-to-Be-Renamed-After-Ida-B-Wells-505658121.html

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