Racial and Ethnic Tensions in Minnesota's Suffrage Movement

When the Suffrage Movement Sold Out

Minnesota's suffrage movement struggled with racial, ethnic and class prejudice.

When Jamar Clark died after being shot by Minneapolis police in November 2015, hundreds of people gathered in the square outside Minneapolis's City Hall to demand justice. #BlackLivesMatter, then only two years in existence, led the march.

The fight for racial justice has been long and arduous. Sadly, the women's suffrage movement did not do as much as it could to uplift women of all backgrounds.

While women were campaigning for suffrage in the 1910s, the Mexican Revolution was propelling Mexican immigrants to search for a better life. Some came to Minnesota, finding work on area farms. Their presence was viewed with suspicion by some suffragists. Mrs. Walter Thorp, a close associate of Clara Ueland and secretary of the Political Equality League, remarked that they were “alien voters whose loyalty is in doubt” and “Mexican Peons ... are easily exploitable”.

Native Americans were also marginalized in the movement. While local suffragists idealized Native American culture for its matriarchal organization, they often shared the view that Indigenous peoples were degraded savages in need of rescue. In what today would be labeled cultural appropriation, one St. Paul suffrage group took the name the Sacajawea Club. It aimed to celebrate the brave Shoshoni woman who guided Lewis and Clark. But during its existence from 1904 to 1910, the group focused little on the rights of Native Americans.

African American residents of Hennepin County also took an active interest in the suffrage movement, but they were unlikely to join the overwhelmingly white and middle-class organizations. Nellie Francis organized the Everywoman Suffrage Club in St. Paul to provide a safe and supportive space for Black women to work for voting rights. During World War I, the Everywoman Suffrage Club helped Black people who were orphaned or aged at the Crispus Attucks Home at 469 Tedesco Street in St. Paul.

For more information:

Brenth Staples, "When the Suffrage Movement Sold Out," New York Times, February 3, 2019.

Ellen Gruber Garvey, "Black Suffragists Finally Begin to Get Their Due," Star Tribune, March 31, 2019.

MNHS Minnesota Women Suffrage Association, Press Releases, undated 1913-1918 “Women Want a Loyal Vote,” February 6, 1918


#Black Lives Matter

#Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter protesters in front of City Hall demand answers in the death of Jamar Clark.  Source: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, "Gallery: Black Lives Matter at Minneapolis City Hall," Star Tribune (Dec. 3, 2015) View File Details Page

Minneapolis City Hall, ca. 1900

Minneapolis City Hall, ca. 1900

Minneapolis City Hall and Hennepin County Courthouse (also known as the Municipal Building), was designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style by Long and Kees, a Minneapolis architectural firm. Groundbreaking took place in 1889. Construction did not officially end until 1906, although the structural exterior was essentially complete by the end of 1895. The building replaced an earlier City Hall that existed from 1873 until 1912 near the old intersection between Hennepin Avenue and Nicollet Ave. Source: Minneapolis City Hall, Wikipedia View File Details Page

Nellie Francis (1874-1969) and the Everywoman Suffrage Club

Nellie Francis (1874-1969) and the Everywoman Suffrage Club

Image: Griswold™s high school graduation photograph, 1891. From St. Paul Central High School records, Minnesota Historical Society. In St. Paul, a group of African American women (or "colored" women, as was the common term then) founded their own suffrage organization. Led by Nellie Griswold Francis, a charismatic leader, the Everywoman Suffrage Club adopted the motto "Every woman for all women and all women for every woman." Francis hailed from St. Paul's Black upper class. Born in 1874, she came to St. Paul from Tennessee. In 1891, she was the only African- American graduate of St. Paul's Central High School. In 1893, she married William Trevanne Francis, St. Paul's lead Black attorney. In addition to working for racial uplift through the Urban League and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which her husband helped to organize in St. Paul, she was a patron of the (predominantly white) Schubert Club and the Woman's Welfare League. During World War I, the Everywoman Suffrage Club continued to advocate for suffrage, as well as for racial emancipation and uplift. The Club helped homeless and orphaned Black people at the Crispus Attucks Home at 469 Tedesco Street in St. Paul. When she and her husband bought a home in a white neighborhood, they were targeted with violence from the Ku Klux Klan. In response, she initiated, drafted, and lobbied for the adoption of a state anti-lynching bill, which was signed into law in 1921. The Crispus Attucks Home was razed to create Eileen Weida Park in the late 1960s. View File Details Page

Equalizing Minnesota's Prisons:  Isabel Higbee

Equalizing Minnesota's Prisons: Isabel Higbee

For Isabel Higbee, (n©e Isabel Davis, also known as Mrs. C. G. Higbee) an activist and suffragist from St.Paul, the vote would be the means to reform Minnesota's prisons, where many of the state's poor and disenfranchised ended up. Higbee was both a suffrage supporter and a constant advocate for women's prison reform. Higbee believed that rehabilitating women, especially those with children, should be the ultimate goal of incarceration. She opened the first reformatory in Shakopee, Minnesota. She also advocated for child labor laws and women police officers in St.Paul. Higbee's death was one of the movement's tragedies. In March 1915, shortly after making a statement to the legislature advocating for women's reformatories, she died in the State Capitol lounging room. Her death shocked her fellow activists, who only grew more determined to continue on without her. State Board of Control, “Dedication Plaque,” Incarceration in the Archive, accessed August 10, 2020, https://carceralhistory.dash.umn.edu/inthearchive/items/show/81. | Creator: Grant Berg View File Details Page

Knute Nelson (1843-1923):  Friend or Foez

Knute Nelson (1843-1923): Friend or Foez

Many of the country's politicians held a double standard when it came to extending political rights to disenfranchised peoples. After the November 1916 elections, MWSA chair Clara Ueland made a frank analysis of Minnesota's congressional delegation and the prospects for a suffrage amendment. Most were friendly toward a constitutional amendment, although non-committal. She judged Senator Knute Nelson as the most reliable. Nelson had served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1883-89), as governor of Minnesota (1893-95), and as Senator (1895 to 1923.) A Norwegian immigrant, he had volunteered in the Union Army and vocally opposed slavery. But Nelson also sponsored the Nelson Act of 1889, which created the White Earth Indian Reservation in western Minnesota. It consolidated Minnesota's Ojibwe / Chippewa peoples from other reservations in the state, allocated communal land to heads of households, and opened up sale of the remaining thousands of acres of land to immigrants. On women's suffrage, however, he stood firmly in favor. View File Details Page

Ione Wood Gibbs (1871-1923) and African-American activism

Ione Wood Gibbs (1871-1923) and African-American activism

African-American residents of Hennepin County took an active interest in the suffrage movement. Minnesota's Black newspapers, such as The Appeal and The National Advocate, provided regular positive coverage of both the local and national movements, featuring complimentary portraits of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Such coverage looks ironic and even painful to us today, now that we've learned more about the racism in the mainstream movement. Minnesota's Black press took an accommodationist stance and was not quick to call out discrimination. Minneapolis's African-American activists included Ione Wood. She moved to Minneapolis in the 1890s from Kentucky, where she had been a teacher and writer. She had also been on the editorial staff of Our Women and Children, a Baptist women's magazine run by her uncle. Wood had already built a reputation as an outspoken leader. The 1893 edition of Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities observed that she "ranks today among the foremost of our women, first, from the standpoint of acknowledged intellectual ability to write; second, as an earnest educator and race advocate." Wood married restaurant owner Jasper Gibbs in 1890 and had five sons. She became active in the Ada Sweet Pioneer Club, a literary and musical club in Minneapolis. When Minnesota's (predominantly white) women's club movement denied entry to African-American organizations, she clicked into action. In 1905, the Minnesota Federation of Women's Clubs voted to deny membership to the Adelphi Club, an African-American women's organization in Minneapolis. In doing so, it was following the lead of Susan B. Anthony, who had urged the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA)to adopt a “separate but equal” membership policy. This stance formed part of their “southern strategy,” which aimed to gain support in the South. The prominent black intellectual and suffragist W. E. B. DuBois warned that this position “represents a climbing of one class on the misery of another.” White suffragists were not exempt from contemporary prejudices. They struggled to reconcile noble ideals with political pressures. In response, Minnesota's African-American women formed their own federation. Gibbs served as the first president of the Minnesota State Federation of Afro-American Women's Clubs. She went on to national roles as vice-president of the National Association of Colored Women between 1912 and 1914. Like other African American women, Gibbs chose to work for racial uplift rather than for women™s suffrage exclusively. Her essay "Woman's Part in the Uplift of the Negro Race" (1907) is still in circulation today. View File Details Page

Street Address:

City Hall, 350 S 5th St, Minneapolis, MN 55415 [map]

Cite this Page:

A. J. Hanson, Grant Berg, and Jacqueline deVries, “Racial and Ethnic Tensions in Minnesota's Suffrage Movement,” Augsburg Digi-Tours, accessed June 25, 2021, https://digitours.augsburg.edu/items/show/71.

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