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‘It’s in our DNA:’ Why Black women are an electoral force in Florida

The movement behind the 19th Amendment disregarded Black women. Now, 100 years later, Black women are one of the most active voting blocs in Florida.

As the nation gears up on Tuesday to commemorate 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, Black women across Florida are flexing their electoral muscles.

In Florida, 57 percent of Black women are registered to vote, the highest percentage for any racial, ethnic or gender voting bloc, according to an analysis of the state’s Division of Elections data conducted by former University of South Florida Political Science Professor Susan MacManus.

The analysis also shows that the greatest gender-based registration gaps falls among Black registrants. Black men’s registration rate falls at 42 percent, a figure 15 percent lower than Black women.

Beyond voting behavior, the number of Black women on the ballot for Florida’s congressional and state legislative seats is on the rise this year. The upswing, said MacManus, appears to stem from a tradition of activism and organizing on the part of Black women while in college.

It’s a level of participation that serves as a definitive rebuke of how Black women were treated in the women’s suffrage movement, which was aimed mostly toward securing equal rights for white women.

After its founding, the National American Woman Suffrage Association barred Black women from attending their conventions. And in 1913, Black women — including the 22 founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. — were pushed to the back of the first women’s suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. by the march’s white organizers.

Still, they marched. And marched.

On Saturday, local Delta Sigma Theta members joined a “Roll to the Polls” event in St. Petersburg that was organized in honor of U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Voters gathered at Al Lang Stadium and drove to a polling site to drop off their mail-in ballots.

”We don’t want to lose that voting right that we got back in the ’60s,” said event attendee Deborah Carson, 55.

Those Black women who continue to push for voting rights say it goes beyond an allegiance to a cause. Former state Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa says it’s who she is.

“It’s in our DNA,” said Joyner, 77. “It’s part of what Black women are.”

•••

Florida’s 27-member congressional delegation includes two Black women, Frederica Wilson and Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief strongly considered to be Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate before he chose another Black woman, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California.

Even in today’s Washington, the fight for equal rights continues, said Wilson, 77, whose district represents parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

“Every morning I wake up, I put on an armor just to survive,” Wilson told the Times. “I have scars on my back from years of fighting for equal rights.”

Wilson says being Black and a woman means constantly advocating for recognition, constantly advocating to simply have a voice. Yet despite Black women having to elbow their way into positions of power, said Wilson, she’s encouraged by the number of those women holding public office recently. It’s something she said her parents never would have imagined.

Wilson calls Black women the “champions” of voter registration and voter mobilization.

Many connect Black women’s high rates of civic engagement to their deep rooted history around voting rights advocacy.

This modern activism “is simply a continuation of what Black women have been doing all along,” said Cheryl Rodriguez, an associate professor of Africana Studies and Anthropology at the University of South Florida. Throughout history, said Rodriguez, there are hardly any Black women activists who did not fight for the right vote. Today, she says, African-American women understand that history and “they want to honor it.”

•••

African-American abolitionist Sojourner Truth was the first to formally bring a Black women’s perspective to the white-led women’s movement. In her “Ain’t I a woman?” speech from 1851, she called on white suffragettes to recognize her worth as a woman, too.

While that call went unheeded in the decades to come, Truth is now recognized for her role in advancing the rights of Black women. In 2009 she became the first African-American woman to have a memorial bust in the U.S. Capitol.

Florida was slower than other states in recognizing the voting rights of women. It was not one of the 36 states to ratify the 19th amendment when it passed. While lawmakers passed a law in 1921 granting all residents suffrage, it took until 1969 for Florida lawmakers to ratify the amendment. Meanwhile, Jim Crow laws denied the franchise for Black residents well into the 1960s.

Joyner, who was arrested twice for her role in the civil rights movements, said she feels compelled to vote every year as a tribute to the activists — Black and white — who died for the right to cast a ballot. “There’s no way I could turn my back on it,” said Joyner. “That ballot box is all power.”

With less than 80 days until the Nov. 3 general election, Black women are mobilizing voters — calling on them to get out to the polls, cast their mail-in ballots, and prepare not only for this year’s elections but next year’s mayoral and city council elections.

State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, sponsored a House bill earlier this year similar to the Equal Rights Amendment, which Florida has yet to ratify. Driskell says she’s continuing the work of Gwendolyn Cherry, the first African-American woman to serve in Florida’s Legislature, who introduced the Equal Rights Amendment in the House in 1972.

“It’s been amazing to be a part of that history,” said Driskell. But she finds herself questioning how much longer marginalized groups must fight for equal rights.

“It’s incumbent upon us to vote,” she says. “The only way that we make sure we’re seen and heard and that our communities get our needs met is to vote.”

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