In 1918, when she was 25 years old, Christia Adair went door-to-door organizing for women’s right to vote in Texas.
“This effort was to pass a bill where women would be able to vote like men,” Adair remembered later in a 1977 oral history interview with the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College.
“Well, we still didn’t know that that didn’t mean us. But we helped.”
When the bill passed, Adair went to the polls for the first time. The memory of what happened stuck with her the rest of her life.
“The white women were going to vote,” she said. “And we dressed up and went to vote, and when we got down there, well, we couldn’t vote. They gave us all different kinds of excuses why. So finally one woman, a Mrs. Simmons, said, ‘Are you saying that we can’t vote because we’re Negroes?’ And he said, “Yes, Negroes don’t vote in primary in Texas.’ So that just hurt our hearts real bad.”
After that experience, Adair began a long career as a civil rights leader in Houston. Because of efforts by her, by other African-American women leaders and even a U.S Supreme Court case, black women in Texas would eventually win back their right to vote, decades after the state ratified women’s suffrage.
June 28 marks 100 years since Texas ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A little over a year later, the amendment was adopted, giving women the right to vote. Whether all women were able to exercise that right was another story.
“There was poll tax, literacy test, grandfather clause, violence, economic coercion,” said Merline Pitre, a Texas Southern University professor and the author of the book In Struggle Against Jim Crow: Lulu B. White and the NAACP, 1900-1957. She explained that while black women were able to vote in northern states, women’s suffrage in the South was a reality only for white women.
“There is a theory that where you have a larger congregation of blacks then you have more overt racism,” Pitre said.
In 1923, Texas created the white primary, an additional institutional barrier that turned away black voters until 1944. The state determined the Democratic party was a private organization, which cleared the way for Democrats to allow only white people to vote in the primary.
At the time, the Republican party barely existed in Texas. The white primary was, in effect, the general election.
“The white primary, as one historian said, was like an iron curtain,” Pitre said. “As long as you were black, you could not change the color of your skin so you could never vote in the most important election in the state of Texas.”
The white women’s suffrage movement officially ended in 1920, but African American women continued working for years to exercise their right to the vote.
Historian Rosalyn Terborg-Penn wrote in African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920:
“When the African American women suffragists sought assistance from the National Woman’s Party, the party’s leadership position was that, since Black women were discriminated against in the same ways as Black men, their problems were not women’s rights issues, but race issues. Therefore, the NWP felt no obligation to defend the right of African American women as voters.”
In Houston, Lulu White was a suffragist who rose up through the ranks of the local NAACP chapter to become executive secretary. According to Pitre, White had been doubly excluded from other groups, like many African-American women, by white women in the suffrage movement and black men in the civil rights struggle.
“The NAACP was one of the few black organizations that allowed women some kind of leadership position in the 1930s,” Pitre said. “[White] was what some people would argue was just what the doctor ordered for the state of Texas. She had an acid tongue. She was unafraid to speak her mind to blacks or whites.”
For years, White organized to grow the chapter’s Houston membership and fight the Texas white primary in court.
“She always wanted to be in the forefront of trying to get the right to vote,” Pitre said. “So in 1943 she got that chance.”
Thurgood Marshall, then a civil rights attorney at the NAACP, took a Houston lawsuit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. When he won the case, Smith v. Allwright, the Texas white primary was declared unconstitutional.
African American women did critical work to support that effort.
“You don’t see very much written about them but who was going from door-to-door when they were trying to break down the white Democratic primary, raising money for the NAACP, because mostly blacks were contributing to it,” Pitre said.
“In that quest to be out front and up front, even African American men pushed back to keep them from their rightful place,” said Annie Johnson Benifield, a professor at Lone Star College. “They provided the backbone. But they were never prominently put out front. They were never allowed to speak up. It was still a man’s world.”
Even after Smith v. Allwright, many black women in Texas still couldn’t vote until the 1960s. Texas was one of the last five states that still required a poll tax in order to vote when the 24th Amendment banned the practice in 1964. Then in 1965, Congress passed the landmark Voting Rights Act, outlawing literacy tests and creating federal oversight of elections across the country.
“White middle class women got the right to vote with the 19th Amendment, for the most part. Poor working class white women did not,” Johnson Benifield said. “Having to pay that poll tax served as a means to disenfranchise you because even though the poll tax was only $1.50 then became $1.75, that was a day’s wages, and you could ill-afford, if you were poor, to spend a day’s wages just simply trying to do that.”
Now a board member of the League of Women Voters in Houston, Johnson Benifield said that voters today face new barriers like the Texas voter ID law and the recent statewide voter purge that removed 95,000 people from the rolls.
“You might make two steps forward but you’re always going to make one step back,” she said. “But I think the pendulum is actually swinging farther back than it should be.”
Still, Johnson Benifield said she thinks the next 100 years are going to be different than the last. In old photographs from the League of Women Voters a century ago, she sees exclusively white women. But today, Benifield, a woman of color, is a leader there. And that’s changing the picture.