Beyond the Right to Vote: African American Women of the Maryland Suffrage Movement

By Kacy Rohn, Graduate Assistant Intern

Augusta Chissell. Portrait

Augusta Chissell. Photo courtesy of Mark Young.

Stories of the Maryland women’s suffrage movement have been forgotten at many historic sites, but it’s possible to reconnect some of this history through sources like The Baltimore Sun and organizational chronicles of suffrage groups. Though these contain valuable information, they often omit the efforts of African American suffragists and the places where they worked. This erasure is a symptom of a larger divide in the suffrage movement: as racial tensions rose during Reconstruction, many white suffrage groups excluded women of color. Even though Maryland’s first suffrage organization, the Equal Rights Society, was founded by a racially diverse group in 1867, the dominant groups of the 20th century suffrage movement were led by white women who typically distanced themselves from women of color. In turn, African American women in Maryland directed their energies into broadly engaged civic groups that worked to secure the right to vote while tackling other issues, including Jim Crow laws and inadequate public education. Many women of color could not just set these pervasive problems aside and focus exclusively on the vote.

Augusta Chissell. 1534 Druid Hill Ave

Augusta Chissell’s home at 1534 Druid Hill Avenue in Baltimore

Typical of this broadly engaged civic activism was the Progressive Women’s Suffrage Club, also called the Colored Women’s Suffrage Club, which emerged in Baltimore in 1915. The Club was closely connected through overlapping leadership and membership to a lineage of African American women’s civic clubs active in the city. Augusta T. Chissell, a Suffrage Club leader, exemplified this far-reaching commitment to reform. She was a vocal supporter of the suffrage movement and continued working hard even after women won the vote to educate and activate new women voters. Her activism was recorded in the pages of the Baltimore Afro-American, where she authored a recurring column entitled “A Primer for Women Voters.” She used the column to answer readers’ questions about navigating their new civic role, including: Should a woman register as an “Independent”? and Where may I go to be taught how to vote? In the years following the suffrage movement, Chissell served as Chair of the Women’s Cooperative Civic League and as a Vice President in the Baltimore branch of the NAACP.

Augusta Chissell. CYWCA Cornerstone

The cornerstone of the C.Y.W.C.A. building at 1200 Druid Hill Avenue

Augusta Chissell’s legacy survives in her former home at 1534 Druid Hill Avenue, where she lived during her decades of civic activism, and in the former Colored Young Women’s Christian Association (CYWCA) building at 1200 Druid Hill Avenue, where the Suffrage Club began hosting public meetings in 1915. After attaining the right to vote in 1920, the Club used the CYWCA to hold recurring weekly ‘Citizenship Meetings’ for new women voters as well as ongoing lectures on voting and civic responsibility. These sites are located within the Old West Baltimore Historic District but deserve greater recognition for their individual connections to leading women and organizations of Maryland’s suffrage movement. Revisiting these histories and places is a reminder that this movement was a grassroots effort carried by the hard work of women of diverse backgrounds working in parallel to achieve a shared goal.

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