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Women’s Suffrage

While Mary was teaching and mentoring the students of her growing school she battled for the rights of women and African Americans. Her activism began around the same time as the school and never slowed down. Mary joined the Equal Suffrage League, part of the National Association of Colored Women, and after years of hard-fought battles, in 1920 women won the right to vote through the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Seeing the power of organized political action first hand inspired Mary to not stop with women’s suffrage and she continued to fight for the enfranchisement of African Americans. African Americans were not banned from voting outright, but through a combination of violence, intimidation, poll taxes, and arbitrary “literacy tests” Blacks across the South were successfully kept from the ballot box. Mary set about changing this.

Mary was soon elected to lead the Florida chapter of the NACW and she saw it as her duty to register as many African American voters as she could. Mary got on her bicycle and began riding through her community going door-to-door to raise money for the poll tax that voters had to pay before they were allowed to vote. At night she taught African Americans men and women to read well enough to pass the literacy tests that were administered by the county before voters were allowed to cast a ballot. Both were tactics to keep Blacks from voting and would eventually be abolished, but at the time they were the official, legal hurdles that Blacks had to overcome before they could vote. By the time of the election Mary had raised enough money and taught one hundred fellow African Americans to read well enough to pass the test. The night before the election a group of eighty white men, all members of the Ku Klux Klan confronted Mary, but amazingly she refused to back down. Luckily the racist white men did not make good on their threats of violence, and the next day Mary led a procession of one hundred African Americans to the polls, each were voting for the very first time.

Mary’s courageous defiance in the face of violent racist intimidation spread quickly among Blacks across the U.S. and Mary became a much sought after public speaker. During her travels she met the famed African American scholar W.E.B. DuBois and was inspired by a story he told about being refused the right to check out his own books from libraries across the South just because of his race. Mary acted. She opened her school’s library to the public and in so doing created the first and only library in Florida where African Americans could check out books.

In the 1920s Mary’s fame and influence continued to grow. She was the only southern woman of any race elected to the National Urban League's Executive Board. She served as president of the Southeastern Federation of Women's Clubs and then twice as the national president of the NACW. She also served as the president of the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools and was on the Interracial Council of America. Then in 1935 she founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), an organization that to this day works to advocate on behalf of women of African heritage throughout the world. She continued to serve as its president until 1949.

Mary used her new found celebrity to advocate for educational opportunities for African Americans. Her work in the field of education and social services was unsurpassed and President Calvin Coolidge invited her to the Child Welfare Conference in 1928 and President Herbert Hoover appointed her to the White House Conference on Child Health in 1930. However, it was her relationship to President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt that made Mary the most powerful African American woman in America.

Mary served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s Special Advisor on Minority Affairs from 1935 to 1944. During the 1930s she forged a close friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt whom she first met years earlier at a luncheon organized by Mrs. Roosevelt’s mother-in-law. Eleanor was so fond of Mary that she insisted that Mary always have access to the President. In 1936, President Roosevelt appointed Mary to the position of Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration (NYA); this meant that Mary was the first African American woman to head a federal agency. Mary and Eleanor Roosevelt became such good friends that the first lady insisted that the rules segregating Blacks and whites be waved so that they could sit next to one another at the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in 1938. Eleanor Roosevelt often referred to Mary as "her closest friend in her age group.”

Classroom Resources

Voices for Votes: Suffrage Strategies
Created by the Library of Congress, this lesson plan has middle school students examine a variety of primary source documents and then discuss methods used to change the perceptions of women during the suffrage movement.

Women, Their Rights and Nothing Less
Created by the Library of Congress, this activity asks high school students to use primary documents to identify the various roles of women during the suffrage movement.

The History of Women's Suffrage
This Web site offers a brief history of women's suffrage and is the main source used for the information above. The site is a great source for general information about Women's History Month and includes videos, timelines and additional resources.

Political Culture and Imagery of American Woman Suffrage
This comprehensive Web site, maintained by the National Women's History Museum, walks individual through a detailed journey of the women's suffrage movement.

Reforming Their World: Women in the Progressive Era
The National Women's History Museum Web site continues to follow the fight for women's equality into the Twentieth Century.