In 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped slavery at age 29 and spent the next several years helping more than 300 others to flee human bondage as well via the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, Tubman became a Union spy, and for that reason is known as the first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. military. In addition to her abolition work, Tubman also became a prominent activist for women's suffrage, traveling around the United States speaking on behalf of the cause and attending suffrage meetings and conventions. When once asked whether she believed women should have the right to vote, Tubman replied, "I've suffered enough to believe it."
Born in 1854, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper began a notable wordsmith, known for her poetry, speeches and other writings on abolition and women's suffrage. In addition to becoming a well-traveled speaker and poet, Harper was also a leader among a number of activist organizations. During the late 1800s, she headed up the Women's Christian Temperance Union (1883 to 1890), the American Association of Educated Colored Youth (1894) and the National Association of Colored Women (1897).
Emigrationist Mary Ann Shadd Cary ran the anti-slavery paper The Provincial Freeman, making her the first female African-American newspaper editor in U.S. history. Although she eventually acquiesced to readers' desire for a male editor, Cary continued her activism, campaigning for women's rights throughout her adulthood and also became the second African-American woman in the United States to receive a law degree, which she earned at Howard University.
Margaret Murray Washington was married to Booker T. Washington, and she also made a name for herself in her own right as principal of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now known as Tuskegee University). For her work at Tuskegee, as well as helping establish country school and educating women, Washington became hailed as "one of the greatest women of her generation." Washington was also heavily involved in women's organizations, becoming the first president of the National Federation of Colored Women's Clubs and, later, the vice president of the National Federation of Afro-American women.
In 1893, scholar, educator and activist Anna Julia Cooper addressed the mostly white crowd at the World's Congress of Representative Women: "I speak for the colored women of the South, because it is there that the millions of blacks in this country have watered the soil with blood and tears, and it is there too that the colored woman of America has made her characteristic history and there her destiny is evolving." Cooper's biography is even more remarkable considering she was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1858 and eventually went on to obtain a PhD at the University of Paris.
Born in 1842, Ruffin played a prominent role in the 19th-century women's suffrage movement as an editor of Women's Era, the first newspaper for African-American women, the first vice president of the National Association of Colored women and a co-founder of the American Woman Suffrage Association. In spite of her dedicated activism, Ruffin experienced the racism of many white suffrage organizations during the Reconstruction Era, although that clearly didn't hold her back from working to advance the enfranchisement of the African-American community and women alike.
Along with Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Mary Church Terrell helped lead the fledgling National Association of Colored Women in its mission "to furnish evidence of the moral, mental and material progress made by people of color through the efforts of our women." A suffragist and education reformer, Terrell became the first African-American woman appointed to a school board, and in 1940, Terrell published her autobiography "A Colored Women" in a White World, and she didn't stop her work there. Thirteen years later, at the age of ninety, she led a successful drive to end the segregation of public facilities in Washington, D.C.
Journalist, suffragist and anti-lynching crusader, Ida B. Wells was a fearless activist for racial and gender equality. After witnessing the horrors of lynching in the Jim Crow South, Wells moved to Illinois and began speaking out about the racist violence being directed at African Americans. By the 1890s, Wells anti-lynching crusade was taken up by the various women's clubs across the nation, and that issue, along with women's suffrage, became the platforms upon which the National Association of Colored Women was founded in 1896. Wells also went on to establish the Alpha Suffrage Club, the largest black woman's suffrage club in Illinois, and in 1913, she defiantly marched with white suffragists in the National American Women's Suffrage Association's Washington D.C. march, despite organizers' instructions that black women remain at the back of the parade. The resulting press coverage assured black women of their place in the suffrage movement.