For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932

By Lisa G. Materson | Go to book overview

Introduction

In 1913 Ella Elm rejected the life of limited and unsteady employment that was available to black women in Arkansas by relocating to Illinois, where she had heard “there was lots of work.”1 Work, or wage labor, had been a necessary component of Elm’s life in Arkansas after she “went to school some.”2 Elm did not describe the nature of her employment in Arkansas to the interviewer who visited her home in downstate Illinois in the late 1930s. She would have been in the minority of black women in the state if she did not eke out a marginal income through agricultural and domestic labor. By the time Elm departed for Illinois in 1913, African American laborers were suffering from severe under- and unemployment in Arkansas’s cotton- and corn-dominated economy.3 Ella Elm’s life in Arkansas was marred not only by tough economic times but also by political turmoil. As a child and then young woman, Elm watched Arkansas’s white Democratic-controlled legislature disfranchise black men between 1891 and 1909.4 These efforts reduced the black male vote in Arkansas from 71 percent in 1890 to 24 percent in 1892 and eliminated the presence of black men in public office throughout the state.5 Along with limited employment opportunities, such disfranchisement schemes pushed many southern women like Elm northward.

Once in Illinois, Ella Elm set out to make a better life for herself than had been possible in Arkansas. Unlike the majority of migrant women, Elm did not have to rely long on her own wage labor. Shortly after her 1913 arrival in Illinois, Ella met and married fellow Arkansas native, “Texas” Elm. Ella and Texas were able to survive on his income, an aspiration of many black families who depended upon the wage labor of every member. Although raised in Arkansas, Texas had traveled across the South finding short-term jobs “to get by with” and, in fact, earned his nickname because of the considerable time he spent in the state of Texas seeking these odd jobs. He relocated to Illinois in 1912 because, as Texas told the interviewer, he “heard there was better opportunities for colored folks” up North. He quickly found

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