Suffragist of the Month – June, 2018

Addie Waites Hunton, 1866 – 1943

Addie Hunton was born June 11, 1866* to a prominent black family in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father was a successful businessman; her mother was active in the African Methodist-Episcopal Church. When her mother died Addie was sent to Boston to be raised by an aunt. There she received a comprehensive education, and in 1889 became the first black woman to graduate from Spencerian College of Commerce in Philadelphia. In 1893 she married William A. Hunton and divided her time between teaching and helping him with his work in the YMCA. They eventually had four children, two of whom died in infancy.

Over the next twenty years the family moved frequently, both parents working for both the white and black YMCA. As her children grew Addie became more interested in humanitarian issues. Her husband died in 1916, and when the US entered World War I Addie volunteered with other black women for service overseas, serving the humanitarian needs of the segregated black American troops stationed in France. They conducted literacy, cultural and athletic programs, and helped establish a library. She also helped the black troops deal with issues of discrimination and injustice they were enduring, despite their service to their country. Addie returned home from the war to continue working for the rights of black women, serving as president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).

Ironically, it was not until after the ratification of the 19th Amendment that her suffrage work really began. In the fall of 1920 both black and white American women looked forward to exercising their right to vote for the first time. White women registered to vote with comparative ease; for black women, especially those who lived in the south, it was a very different story. Discrimination was blatant and far-reaching. While attempting to register they were often kept waiting in long lines for hours, while white women were allowed to register ahead of them. Black women were sometimes called upon to answer arcane questions about the Constitution, or to pass property tax regulations not imposed on white women. They endured insults and threats, were quizzed and harassed. Some gave up, thus forfeiting the right they had fought so hard to attain.

Addie Hunton and other black suffrage leaders fought back. The NAACP and NACW formed suffrage divisions, offered voter education programs, and sought the help of white suffragists. They fought with the National Women’s Party to recognize the discriminations they faced, and testified to those injustices at Congressional hearings. After seventy-two years they were still fighting for the right to vote.

After a lifetime of public service Addie Hunton died in 1943, without seeing her race fully enfranchised. While conditions have improved, legislatures continue to pass laws intended to restrict access to voting. Names are still purged from voter rolls illegally; in some southern states the number of voting places has been reduced, requiring voters to travel farther, and wait longer to register and vote. Addie Hunton’s work to insure equal voting rights for all continues to be a vital necessity to this day.

Happy Birthday, Addie Waites Hunton!

*Year of birth is sometimes listed as 1875

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