African American Women and the Vote, 1837-1965

By Ann D. Gordon; Bettye Collier-Thomas | Go to book overview

An examination of postbellum case law suggests that the quest for justice, including legal justice, required that every avenue to achieve victory be tested and every method be explored. In those decades following the Civil War, many African American women used judicial redress to secure for themselves and for their race the rights and privileges many other Americans took for granted. Litigating cases took considerable courage and tenacity. The stakes for bringing such legal actions remained high; as a result, black women litigants took substantial risks. Personal dignity, money, property, and, ultimately, the dismantling of the racial status quo all hung in the balance. Advanced in their thinking, it is likely that these nineteenth-century black women—against overwhelming odds—held fast to a vision of America to be realized many decades in the future. Indeed, racism proved to be a formidable adversary but one that nonetheless could sometimes be overcome.

Of the cases examined in this essay, the success rate for the black women litigants was low. Far too frequently, state and federal appellate courts reversed lower court decisions that favored black women. Perhaps, however, the number of actual courtroom victories is less important than the legacy these women left behind. The litigation records reveal that the women were aware of their entitlement to both citizenship and participation in the mainstream of American life. As a result, their individual quests for justice have left us a rich legacy of legal activism and a blueprint for equality and justice in American life.


Notes
1
Morroe Berger, Equality by Statute:The Revolution in Civil Rights ( Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967), 4-8.
2
Derrick A. Bell, Jr., Race, Racism, and American Law, 2d ed. ( Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), 4-38; Charles A. Lofgren, The Plessy Case:A Legal-Historical Interpretation ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 23; John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom:A History of Negro Americans, 6th ed. ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), 206-7, 226-27, 231-32; Donald G. Nieman, Promises to Keep:African-Americans and the Constitutional Order ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 56-57, 59-61, 106-8.
3
Quoted in Stephen J. Riegel, "The Persistent Career of Jim Crow:"Lower Federal Courts and the 'Separate but Equal' Doctrine, 1865-1896, American Journal of Legal History 28 ( 1984): 22. See also Nieman, Promises to Keep, 67-68, 86-87.
4
West Chester & Philadelphia Railway Company v. Miles, 55 Pennsylvania 209, 210 ( 1867).
6
Ibid., 212; see also Lofgren, Plessy Case, 118-21.
7
Chicago & Northwestern Railway Company v. Anna Williams, 55 Illinois 185, 187 ( 1870).
8
Ibid., 188; see also Lofgren, Plessy Case, 122.

-118-

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