Black Women, History, and the Democratic Party

Anise Jenkins, President of Stand Up for Democracy, participating in the Washington D.C. Emancipation Day Voting Rights March on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building (Photo: Elvert Barnes, Flickr).

On May 30, 2018, Axios published an article announcing, “Black women feel slighted by the Democrats.” The article explains how African American female candidates, many running for the first time, are not receiving the support or recognition from the national Democratic Party. A DNC spokesperson denied the claims stating, “African-American women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we know we can’t take them for granted.”

Despite these pledges, Black women candidates feel unsupported by the party. Kimberly Hill Knot, a candidate for Congress from Michigan, notices that issues important to African Americans, particularly in cities, have been sidelined in the fight between moderates and progressives. As she told a reporter, “I think some of the other groups (like progressives) have gotten more attention than any racial group… I don’t hear the national party talking about an urban agenda.” The national party, these women argue, cares only about money and the ability to raise funds. “These are organizations that are meant to help make sure black interests are represented,” Alabama candidate Audri Scott Williams lamented, “and yet everybody is looking at who’s more electable based on money.” Unfortunately, these candidates’ frustration is not a recent phenomenon.

Although journalists today discuss dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party as a byproduct of increased Black women’s candidacy during the Trump era, historically African American women have long been forceful voices against blind party allegiance. In the late nineteenth century in particular a significant cadre of Black women, many who could not vote at all, denounced publicly uncritical support of the Republican Party, which had become the political home for African American voters after the Civil War. They joined growing voices calling for a Black independent politics that advocated supporting whichever candidate from whichever party best supported their interests in the expansion and protection of civil rights. They rejected calls for Republican loyalty based on a supposed noble past as the party of abolition, Lincoln, and emancipation. What mattered was what the party was doing now and for many the answer was: very little. This sentiment became especially strong as Jim Crow infected public life and lynching increased in the 1890s. Disillusioned African American voters watched as the federal government, largely dominated by Republicans, did little to stop the rising tide of Black bloodshed.

In some cases women took their independent politics directly to the polls as voters. As the Boston-based organ of the Women’s Era Club announced, “in presenting a candidate, colored men should not be indifferent to the women voters; they hold tremendous power.”1 In Boston, which allowed women to vote in school board elections, a reporter witnessed a Black woman voter rejecting influence from party forces. Surrounded by white women pressing for her to support their candidate and after several minutes of loud discussion, the woman exclaimed her conviction to vote for the “best man” and swore that she would not be a “foolish puppet” for any particular party.2 As voters, African American women held fast to ideas of political independence and refused to back a candidate solely on party affiliation.

These women denounced Black male leadership who they felt too often placed personal ambition and party interests over priorities of the African American community. In 1894, Chicago-based activist Fannie Barrier Williams wrote in the Women’s Era newspaper condemning the “folly and neglect of self-interest that have made colored men for the past twenty years vote persistently more for the special interests of white men than for the peculiar interests of the colored race.” She bemoaned being put in the “humiliating position of being loved only for the votes we have.” Williams agued Black voters should “array themselves, when possible, on the side of the best, whether that best be inside or outside of party lines.”3

Portrait of Pauline E. Hopkins, from R. S. Elliott, “The Story of Our Magazine,” Colored American Magazine, May 1901 (Photo: The Digital Colored American Magazine Project).

While Williams used pages of the press, the author, journalist, and playwright Pauline Hopkins embedded pointed critiques of partisan solidarity in her novel and romantic narrative Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (1900). She outlined the dilemma facing African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. “Conservatism, lack of brotherly affiliation, lack of energy for the right, and the power of the almighty dollar,” Hopkins wrote, “are the forces which are ruining the Negro in this country…These are the contending forces that are dooming the race to despair.” Hopkins’s novel follows southern migrant Sappho Clark as she moves through realms of Black Bostonian society. In her travels, she encounters the characters of John Langley, “the colored politician,” and the novel’s hero Will Smith. In them Hopkins personifies the debate over partisanship. Langley at first speaks out against lynching and the Republican Party, only to moderate his stance when offered an appointment by a white politician in exchange for calming more radical activists. Smith, on the other hand, is a forceful advocate for Black political independence. “To the negro alone,” he declares, “politics shall bring no fruit.”

Hopkins connects anti-lynching statements directly to calls for independent politics. “You say you’ve got no power to stop lynching,” one character accuses a white Republican, “If you haven’t the power before election, where will you get it after the votes are in…It’s votes you want, and after you get them…you won’t know us; and robbing and killing the black man can go right on.” Fed up with the lack of response from Republicans to save Black lives, Hopkins and others like her increasingly argued for racial solidarity supplanting partisanship.

Through her narrative, Hopkins frames as heroes those who put race first, and condemns to tragedy those who would put their own interests above that of Black progress. She makes a final dramatic stand for independent politics when the proud race advocate Will Smith, now married to Sappho Clark, literally sails off to Europe into the sunset, while the disloyal and self-interested John Langley, who sold out to Republican interests, dies alone and disgraced in the Alaskan tundra. Although it is difficult to gauge the breadth of Contending Forces circulation, its readers made clear its impact. One Chicago reader praised the novel as “undoubtedly the book of the century…classed as one of the standard works of the day.”4 Through her fiction, Hopkins joined women in the press and at the polls in denouncing African American partisanship and calling for a twentieth century driven by Black leaders and organizations for Black interests.

These nineteenth century protests attempted to move a mass of Black voters toward independent politics, yet most remained loyal Republicans. This push for racial political autonomy, however, nourished the roots of large-scale Black protest in twentieth century organizations like the Niagara Movement and the NAACP. As Hopkins writes in her novel, “We can be organized, if the work is done by the right ones in the right way. We can help start a new party.” These new organizations thrived and in some ways replaced the role of national political parties in Black politics. Activists today, like those of the past, refuse to be taken for granted and are holding the national parties accountable for the support of African American interests. Although polling shows African Americans still overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, political parties should take note of the past and present African American disillusionment with supposed political allies. Kerri Harris, running for US Senate from Delaware, put it bluntly: the Democratic Party “can keep pretending like we don’t exist or come out against us as candidates, but they’ll realize the best way to uphold our Democracy is to encourage it.” As the author of the Axios article forecasts, “The conversation about the party’s support of the black community—both as voters and candidates—is not going away any time soon.”

  1. Editorial, Women’s Era, December 1894
  2. The Boston Herald, December 11, 1888, in Election Scrapbooks, 1867-1901, Boston City Archives, Boston, Ma.
  3. Fannie Barrier Williams, “Woman in Politics,” Women’s Era, November 1894. See also, Lisa Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race (UNC Press, 2009), 51 and Millington Bergeson-Lockwood, Race Over Party (UNC Press, 2018), 152-153.
  4. “Editorial and Publisher’s Announcement,” Colored American Magazine (October 1901): 479.
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Millington Bergeson-Lockwood

Millington Bergeson-Lockwood is an author and historian of race, politics, and the law in United States history. He received his PhD in history from the University of Michigan in 2011. His new book, Race Over Party, examines the intersections between racial and partisan politics in nineteenth century Boston. He currently lives in Lilongwe, Malawi. Follow him on Twitter @MillingtonBL.

Comments on “Black Women, History, and the Democratic Party

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    Very interesting! I was aware of some of this, but not all.

    I do have a question for you, though. If I remember correctly, the DNC was quite heavily involved in supporting Kamala Harris, and is involved in supporting Stacy Abrams.

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