This exihibit is the first of many events during year-long commemoration of 19th Amendment Centennial
Empowerment of the Double Drawback exhibit opens at the Evansville African American Museum Saturday. (Photo: Provided)
EVANSVILLE, Ind. — As the community and country gear up to celebrate the centennial of women’s right to vote, the Evansville African American Museum is opening an exhibit to tell the untold stories of black women who helped make that possible.
The museum’s newest exhibit, Empowerment of the Double Drawback: African American Women and the Suffrage, opens at 1 p.m. Saturday. Admission to the special exhibit, which will be open through 2020, is included in general admission, which is $5 for adults and $3 for children.
Museum executive director Ashley Jordan said the exhibit tells the untold stories of African American women and their involvement in the suffrage movement.
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“One of the biggest misconceptions of suffrage is that it was one movement of women united,” Jordan said. “In fact, it was two separate movements. Unfortunately, some of our white sisters chose race instead of gender.”
The opening of the exhibit will feature historical reenactments including Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell.
Ida B. Wells was one of the most famous suffragists and a founder of the NAACP. Her portrait is on display at the State Capitol. (Photo: Mary Kline-Misol / Special to the Register)
Terrell was a well-known African American activist who championed racial equality and women’s suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th century. An Oberlin College graduate, Terrell was part of the rising black middle and upper class who used their position to fight racial discrimination, according to the National Women’s History Museum. Wells-Barnett was a prominent journalist, activist and researcher in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who battled sexism, racism and violence, according to the museum.
This is the first of dozens of events planned in Evansville and the surrounding communities to commemorate the passage of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote.
Jordan said black women had a much longer journey, though, to fully secure that right until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. Much of that journey is documented in the exhibit.
“My hope is that people leave knowing more about these unsung champions,” she said. The exhibit will feature women like Wells-Barnett and Terrell as well as lesser-known women and organizations with local ties, including Bettiola Heloise Fortson, born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and who lived in Evansville for a time and was active in the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first black female suffrage association that was integral in the movement.
“We want to chronicle the importance of the vote,” Jordan said. “Hopefully people will be inspired to be a champion of their own story for freedom and the importance of maintaining the vote.”
A number of individuals, cultural institutions and organizations from the Evansville area have been meeting for months to collaborate on a year-long celebration of the 19th Amendment Centennial celebration — 2020 Vote Centennial Celebration.
Roberta Heiman, a member of the group, said they have several events lined up, both big and small, ranging from major exhibitions like the one opening Saturday and one opening at the Evansville Museum next year to a yellow garden planned by the Master Gardeners in tribute to the suffragists whose colors were yellow and purple. Both the University of Southern Indiana and University of Evansville will have programs planned and a local speakers’ bureau is being put together for organizations that would like to highlight the suffrage movement and women’s issues today.
Dexter Elementary fifth graders arrive at the Evansville African American Museum on Lincoln Avenue for a tour Friday, February 15, 2019. (Photo: MIKE LAWRENCE / COURIER & PRESS, Mike Lawrence)
For a full schedule of events or more information on how to get involved visit steppingupevv.com/2020-vote-centennial-celebration.
“It’s been so encouraging to see so many people who want to recognize the significance of it,” Heiman said. “We don’t want such a significant historical event to go unrecognized. We’ll be celebrating throughout the year, not just looking back at what happened 100 years ago but looking forward and assessing the issues that still persist — issues with gender equality and voter suppression efforts that still exist today.”
Heiman said it is hard for many to imagine that half of all citizens in this democracy were denied the right to vote as recent as 100 years ago.
“Women were denied access to most colleges,” she said. “Women were denied access to most professions. If women wanted to survive, they had to get married and stay in that marriage, no matter how bad. Women couldn’t own property in their own name. So getting the right to vote for women was so important — power through the ballot was so important so they could achieve equality.”
That reality is hard for many to imagine, especially younger generations. That’s why Heiman said it is so critical to commemorate the suffrage movement and all the work that has been done since then and what needs to continue to happen.
“It is so unimaginable to younger women today what life was like for women then,” she said. “But they need to know that these were hard fought victories, every step of the way. Also, that they can be lost because today there are efforts underway to make it difficult for women and others to vote.
“Today we have to wonder what suffragists of 100 years ago would think today of the situation for women in America as we kind of collectively hold our breath for the next Supreme Court decisions on certain women’s rights and voter rights. Those things are not all that secure. And the only way we are going to secure them is to vote, to exercise our right to vote.”
As Jordan pointed out, there is an image portrayed of that suffrage movement — either glossed over in history classes or famously told in movies and novels. They mostly focus on the iconic national leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and center around Washington D.C. and New York. But Heiman stressed that much of that work took place in communities like Evansville and Indianapolis with the fight ending up in Washington D.C.
The year will be spent telling the stories of some of those with local ties who were involved in the fight.
Heiman’s goal with the commemoration is a lofty one — “I hope every eligible voter in Vanderburgh County will vote in all the elections in 2020 and thereafter,” she said. “I want to increase awareness of the power of the ballot and the importance of the right to vote.”
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