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

Sarah Hummel, Crier Staff

On Thursday, Jan. 31, 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.

The event began with an introduction from Professor Brady, who 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. This conversation, she said, would make listeners reexamine “who was and wasn’t being considered” in the suffrage strategies and suffrage narrative that most people learn about from an early age.

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. Other “challenges” included Susan B. Anthony’s derogatory language toward African American men and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s stance against the 15th Amendment.

Professor Thorn was followed by Victoria Adewumi, who provided a passionate reenactment of an abridged version of Mary Church Terrell’s 1898 speech “The Progress of Colored Women.” Before beginning the speech, Adewumi explained that while Terrell was wealthy and well-educated, making her distinct in many ways, she was still keenly aware of what was at stake. 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.”

Adewumi’s performance of Terrell’s speech engrossed the audience. 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.

The performance was followed by a brief discussion between panelists and the audience, raising questions about the potential challenges of speechmaking and the complex definition of progress in the late 19th century. Professor Brady remarked how many of the concerns in Terrell’s speech – concerns about kindergartens, childhood safety, medical care, and the right to not be suspected of wrongdoing – remain relevant in today’s society.

Professor Thorn concluded the afternoon’s event by reminding audience members to reconsider the traditional narrative of suffrage and women’s rights. By asking the audience to question “who exactly are the women,” the challenges of achieving progress in a movement that emphasized commonality yet encompassed diversity become more visible.  

For those interested in suffrage and American women’s history, the Grappone Institute is inviting Dr. Lisa Tetrault, author of The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898, to campus on March 20.