Voting rights struggles are not new for African Americans. On Saturday, Oct. 15, Brooklynites gathered to celebrate four notable women who fought in the early 1900s to ensure that African American women had the right to vote.
Congress had passed the 14th and 15th amendments granting African Americans U.S. citizenship rights and prohibiting racial discrimination in voting, but neither amendment was being enforced. So activists such as Sarah J.S. Garnet, Mary E. Eato, Dr. Verina Morton-Jones, and Lydia C. Smith formed and served as officers of the Equal Suffrage League (ESL), where they pushed to have Black citizenship opportunities made real.
The Oct. 15th plaque dedication, sponsored by the National Votes for Women Trail (NVWT) and the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, brought out state and local politicians, members of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, members of Alpha Kappa Alpha’s local Psi Lambda Omega chapter, and area residents to take part in honoring these early activists. Dr. Judith A. Burgess served as the host of the ceremony at Cuyler Gore Park, which is across the street from the New Carlton Rehabilitation & Nursing Center building at 405 Carlton Street—the former site of the YMCA, where the ESL used to hold their meetings.
Dr. Burgess did the primary research on the work of these pioneering women suffragists, and she is a member of the NVWT. She reminded the audience that the ESL activists being celebrated “didn’t sleep on the job. They worked hard to make sure that we had the vote.
“Now,” she said, referencing get-out-the-vote efforts today, “we have to make sure that we have a democracy.”
City Councilmember Crystal Hudson praised Dr. Burgess’ work promoting the history of Black women suffragists in Brooklyn. “It’s a real honor to represent a district that has so much rich history—particularly by Black women,” Hudson said. “Not so long ago we renamed PS9 to Sarah Smith Garnet School because we know that Black women started so many movements here in Brooklyn—particularly the right to vote, the movement for women to be able to vote. And for Black women, specifically, to be able to vote. People like myself and the assemblymember, the state attorney general, and every other Black woman who’s ever been elected would not be able to stand before you as elected representatives if it wasn’t for the history that’s come before us and the good fight that so many Black women have fought to ensure that.”
State Attorney General Tish James attended the ceremony—she is from the neighborhood and wanted to add her praise for the ESL activists and their efforts to push for passage of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote: “It was a long, frustrating, and arduous effort, one in which our ancestors and our great grandmothers and our grandmothers, and—for some of us—our mothers never received proper credit for in the struggle. And the struggle, unfortunately, continues,” James said.
“Our foremothers never received proper credit for their efforts to shore up democracy in this country, despite being the Americans most committed to universal suffrage and, frankly, the Americans with the most to lose. … The hard work and diligence of our ancestors were crucial for women gaining the right to vote. However, for Black women and our families, we know it’s only been 60 years,” James added, noting that the Black community, as a whole, has literally only had voting rights enforced since 1965.
Following readings of the biographies of Sarah J.S. Garnet, Mary E. Eato, Dr. Verina Morton-Jones, and Lydia C. Smith, Dr. Burgess took ceremony participants over to 405 Carlton Street. The audience applauded as she unveiled the new plaque on the building which states: “Road to the 19th amendment. Votes For Women. African American women led by Pres. Dr. Verina Morton-Jones used this former YMCA in 1908 as headquarters of the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn, William C. Pomeroy Foundation 2022.”