African American Women and the Vote, 1837-1965

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

all of them collectively. It was this very sense of community rather than citizenship, of peoplehood rather than personhood, that was the basis for their activities. In other words, it was their vision of freedom that granted them the right to assume the political responsibilities which neither the state nor some members of their own community acknowledged to be theirs.

It is dear that to understand southern black women's political history in the post-Civil War era requires that we develop alternative political definitions to those defined by liberal democratic thought. Even the terminology by which we understand African American women's political struggle must be rethought, for we currently have no language in which to express the concepts that these women understood. The significance of this may be difficult to contemplateboth for black women historically and for our notions of how far we have progressed today. For understanding African American women's involvement in the political process in the post-Civil War era, even without the franchise, requires us at least to consider the possibility that when black women, like those in Richmond, obtained the legal franchise in the 1920s they may actually have been far less involved in the political decision-making process than were their unenfranchised foremothers in the immediate post-Civil War period. 62

Ultimately northern and southern white men may have denied African American women the freedom fully to shape their own lives in the post-Civil War era. But we, trapped in our own mental prisons, have denied them their freedom as well, insisting instead that they accept our very limited and pessimistic vision of human possibilities. There is an enormous amount of work yet to be done on southern black women's political history in the last four decades of the nineteenth century. Just as African American women, as part of black communities throughout the South, struggled in the post-Civil War era to catch, that is, to make real, their vision of freedom, we, as historians, must now struggle to catch, that is, to understand, their vision of freedom. In the process we need not only to refine our base of information but also to reconstruct our frameworks, creating new ones that allow us to interpret these women's lives in ways that do justice to their vision of freedom.


Notes

This essay had its origins in my students' questions and insights as we explored definitions of freedom in African American Studies 100 and History 202 at Emory University, 1986-87. Their excitement about the ideas and their willingness to challenge not only my assumptions but their own deeply held convictions were inspirational as well as informative. Earlier

-87-

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