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For Black Suffragists, the Lens Was a Mighty Sword

On the last day of his life, Frederick Douglass attended a meeting of the National Women’s Council. The prodigious orator and abolitionist came home to Cedar Hill, his hilltop house in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C.; spoke with his wife at the time, Helen Pitts Douglass, about the events and future plans; clasped his hands to his chest and died that evening. It seemed impossible that such an indomitable man was gone.

On that final day, his meeting had been an act of reconciliation. Douglass, the only African-American to participate in the Seneca Falls convention in New York in 1848, had been staunch in his support of women’s full enfranchisement at a time when this was a divisive issue in antislavery societies in the United States and Britain. His later support of the passage of the 15th Amendment, which conferred the right to vote on Black men, came as a blow to the movement for women’s rights at a key moment. The end of the Civil War had created urgency to secure Black suffrage through the 15th Amendment, however ineffectual it became through the vise created by racist Jim Crow era policies.

Even with the rift over the 15th Amendment, Douglass was unwavering in his support of women’s right to vote though his sense of timing and strategy shifted. “Her right to be and to do is as full, complete and perfect as the right of any man on earth,” he said in 1888 at the International Council of Women, in Washington. “I say of her, as I say of the colored people, ‘Give her fair play, and hands off.’”

Douglass was acutely aware that the advocacy of rights, equality and “fair play” for Black women in the suffrage movement, whose right to vote was contested even after the passage of the 19th Amendment, was inextricably connected to the power of photography. Considered the most photographed American man in the 19th century, he knew and argued that representational democracy is secured not only by laws and norms, but by the narratives fashioned by representation in culture as well.


The careful construction of a group portrait taken in 1909 testifies to her as undaunted. Burroughs is central, framed by a black doorway on the porch of the school she founded in the nation’s capital for the education of women of all races, the National Training School for Women and Girls, later renamed to honor her. Flanking the figures are the exposed materials of the building’s foundation, a signal of a new beginning and her effective labor. The funding for the institution was unique for the era as it came entirely from the Black community and largely from small donations by Black women.

Other Black suffragists, including Ida B. Wells-Barnett, also worked to marshal the power of images as an instrument of agency. Out of the large number of images she deployed in publications and correspondence, many are startling in their clarity born of her study of the conventions of various photographs to dramatize, as the scholar Leigh Raiford argues, “Black womanhood, the sanctity of the Black family, and the credibility of American civilization as a whole.” This includes a portrait from 1893 taken in Chicago, showing every detail of her black lace bodice and strands of her hair. The image does not merely convey the skill of the photography studio, it captures Wells-Barnett’s own intention to accent her singularity.

Read entire article at New York Times