Challenging the narrative: race, women’s suffrage, and Mary Church Terrell

Sarah Hummel, Crier staff

Last month, community members gathered in the Dana Center to hear a panel discussion on race, suffrage, and civil and women’s rights activist Mary Church Terrell. The discussion was an installment in the Intercultural Center’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebratory Program and was also part of the Gregory J. Grappone Humanities Institute’s “Women 100” events to mark the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Panelists included Professor Thorn of the English Department, Professor Brady of the Psychology Department, and guest speaker and performer Victoria Adewumi, community liaison for the Manchester Health Department.

Professor Brady previewed how this discussion on Mary Church Terrell, race, and suffrage coincided with her own research in risk and resilience, while also extending into public health and social justice.

Professor Thorn then provided the audience with a brief overview of American women’s suffrage history, identifying significant local and national dates in the movement. Such dates included the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the presidential race of Victoria Woodhull in 1872, and the eventual adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

The next segment of Professor Thorn’s presentation listed “challenges” to the traditional suffrage story. These “challenges” included African American women’s rural organizations and church groups who petitioned to join the suffrage movement, but who were also turned away from the movement and from various suffrage parades.

Professor Thorn was followed by Victoria Adewumi, who reenacted an abridged version of Mary Church Terrell’s 1898 speech “The Progress of Colored Women.”

A first generation American, Adewumi also reflected on her parents’ hope in the “ideal of America,” a hope conveyed in Terrell’s speech which made the speech “read exactly like today.”

The speech emphasized the accomplishments of African American women and, interestingly, did not directly address the question of enfranchisement. Terrell’s focus, instead, was on race. Optimistic yet sincere, Adewumi’s compelling performance brought 121-year-old words to life and conveyed them in an uplifting and engaging way.