Martha Jones on Black Women in the Fight for Voting Rights

On February 21, the Zinn Education Project hosted historian Martha S. Jones in conversation with Cierra Kaler-Jones about the role of Black women in the long and ongoing fight for voting rights. This class was part of the Teach the Black Freedom Struggle online series. Thanks to a donation from the publisher, the Zinn Education Project was able to give copies of the new paperback edition of Jones’ book Vanguard:  How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All to 20 teachers who attended the event.

Here are a few reactions from participants:

So many intriguing ideas and perspectives, but what is standing out to me tonight is the idea of joy. So often in working with history and different perspectives, I focus on the challenges, the struggles. Bringing forth stories of joy, even (or especially) amidst the intense struggles, and joy as an essential element of our shared humanity, weaves together so many of the threads of different peoples’ experiences. Finding and highlighting the joy and happiness that often are there are ideas that are inspiring to me as I continue deepening my own knowledge of all this history and sharing it with others. Thank you.

The stories of our female ancestors are powerful and need to be told and taught! Using Vanguard I can share with my students the background of the struggle for Black women to vote and tie it into what is happening currently all across the country. This history is bigger than us.

I am saying yes to being an Alternative Election Judge for my community during next week’s Primary Election. I was wavering because of my schedule. But what can be more important than showing up as a Black woman to represent those who have gone before me — putting my voice, face, and yes, privilege out there to inspire others.

One of the things I learned today is how important it is to teach about the many different issues Black women have always organized around. There were not a lot of Black women who did single-issue organizing because they saw the complexity of the interlocking injustices they experienced every day.

I was most inspired by the idea that power comes from knowing you’re right. I came of age in the 1960s and never thought that in 2022 we had to nearly start all over again. Dr. Jones motivated me to never give up.


Here are some main points of the session from the tweet thread by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, high school teacher and Zinn Education Project team member.



Video of the full event, except the breakout sessions.



Here are many of the lessons, books, articles, and more recommended by the presenters and also by participants.

Lessons and Curricula

Reconstruction Mixer Collage (Updated) | Zinn Education Project Seneca Falls, 1848: Women Organize for Equality by Bill Bigelow

When the Impossible Suddenly Became Possible: A Reconstruction Mixer by Adam Sanchez and Nqobile Mthethwa

Who Gets to Vote? Teaching About the Struggle for Voting Rights in the United States by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca


Books, Articles, and Archives

In addition to Martha Jones’ Vanguard:  How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, the following books were referenced.

Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance by Mia Bay (Belknap Press)

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks: Young Readers Edition by Jeanne Theoharis and Brandy Colbert (Beacon Press)

Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Harvard University Press)

Persistence: Evelyn Butts and the African American Quest for Full Citizenship and Self-Determination by Kenneth Cooper Alexander (Orange Frazer Press)

Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom by William Henry Chafe (Oxford University Press, USA)

Hallie Quinn Brown (National Park Service article)

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Digital Gateway offer interviews, essays, and primary documents.

This Day In History

Shirley Chisholm | Zinn Education Project

March 24, 1853: Mary Ann Shadd Cary Published “The Provincial Freeman”

April 14, 1875: Frances Harper on Grassroots Organizing During Reconstruction

Feb. 7, 1926: Carter G. Woodson Launched Negro History Week

Aug. 22, 1964: Sharecroppers Demand Delivery of Full Suffrage in the U.S.

Jan. 25, 1972: Shirley Chisholm Began Historic Campaign for President

Participant Reflections

What was the most important thing (story, idea) you learned today?

I’m reflecting a lot about the story Dr. Jones shared about the woman who was LBJ’s chef (need to go back and look up her name). I think it’s incredibly powerful that she used her influence, her expertise to wield her power and to make history. I think allowing women to be authentically themselves resonates with young people today. I’m moved that young people do not always place each other into boxes and I think this story is incredibly illustrative of that idea.

I was inspired by the story of the search for the identity of the woman in the photo of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Also hearing Judy Richardson’s acknowledgement of the women who offered protection, and about Martha Jones learning of how the women in her family fit into the larger story.

That great change comes about by individual small actions whether recorded in official record or not.

Everyday Black women have always been and will always be at the forefront of the Black Freedom Struggle — and I love the phrase describing being nimble — “developing the capacity to be in a political moment and respond to it in real time.”

Learning about how “the struggle for mobility was the foundation of the Black women’s struggle for freedom.” I never thought of the violence inflicted on Black women to prevent them from exercising their right to vote, their political rights, their HUMAN rights!

The everyday lives of Black women who made a difference, even the ones we’ve heard of in history class like Ida B Wells, are barely developed as powerful figures who made a world of difference.

The conversational tone of Dr Jones wanting us to know these stories  — and the wonderful way Cierra encouraged that level of sharing and communication.

The determination that Black women had in face of obstacles and real violence that they experienced. They knew the risks and forged ahead anyway.

Everyone has a story — be encouraged to learn it and share it to be an inspiration for others. Together, we WIN!

What will you do with what you learned?

Add more historical literature and stories of Black joy, empowerment and liberation to my course on diversity. As is, the course centers oppression, violence and struggle related to race, gender, and sexual identities. As a Black female professor, I often find that the master narrative is all my students of color know and sadly believe about themselves and their histories. Being able to provide them with names and resources will be one of the most effective ways of disrupting deficit thinking and frankly noticeable self-hate.

My students do several short research projects throughout the year focusing on underrepresented voices in the curriculum particularly women and people of color. The names and other information from this session will be included but also the resources and the suggestion to “find them where they are” will guide my own research as well as that of my students.

I am a literacy tutor, and I will start introducing these women into my student’s literacy texts. Which also brings another element that Miss Cierra brought up about using photos of Black women as teaching tools — images of joy.

I am excited to delve deeper into the connection between anti-literacy laws, literacy tests for voting, and current miseducation in literacy at the elementary level. I will use this as fuel for teaching the science of reading in my school and sharing what I learn with teachers and students.

I will try to incorporate numerous ideas regarding the role of Black women in Reconstruction, voting, protecting each other, transportation resistance, etc.

Continue to use herstories to empower students to meet the challenges they’re facing today.

Additional comments

Thank you so much for your scholarship. Learning about the women who fought for voting and civil rights will help our students to understand it was not just men doing this work. So glad we have scholarship that takes us beyond the regulation textbook for our students to learn the diversity of the struggle. Thank you for sharing your family story as well. I feel it is those personal stories that we share that make the history more real for our students.

I am very happy that I chose tonight’s session with Dr. Jones. I’ve been searching for ways to improve my knowledge for my professional practice, but this session exceeded my expectations because it was a personal blessing. Just knowing more about the dynamic legacy of Black women in US history, revealed, uncovered, made visible to Black women like me.

Dr. Jones, thank you for emphasizing the intergenerational struggle to attain voting rights and the message that we must be versatile and prepared to continue to meet the new challenges we will continue to encounter on our journey for civil rights.

Thank you for this enlightening work on the role Black women have played in voting rights. It inspired me to learn about Puerto Rican women who have been instrumental in the work of activism.


Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and professor of history at The Johns Hopkins University. Her books include Vanguard:  How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All and Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America

Cierra Kaler-Jones is a social justice educator, writer, and researcher based in Washington, D.C. Her research explores how Black girls use arts-based practices as mechanisms for identity construction and resistance. She is the director of storytelling at the Communities for Just Schools Fund.

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