March 8th is International Women’s Day. Graphic: Meredith Stern/Just Seeds.
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Aware they were not wanted, fearful they might be attacked, 22 founding members of Delta Sigma Theta, a new Howard University sorority, joined the procession anyway. Among black activists, the prevailing view was that if white women needed the vote to secure their rights, black women needed it even more. One adviser was Mary Church Terrell, a founder of the NAACP and an activist for women’s rights. When the sorority was founded Jan. 13, she wrote its secret oath.
Memories of parades fade like old photographs. But for those who were least welcome, the 1913 suffrage parade has become a touchstone. Says Ella McNair, the Deltas’ director of public relations, “Everybody who has been a member of this organization knows about the march. They could have had a social, they could have had a tea. But they did not choose that. They were committed to advocacy and social action.”
Marking their historic role a century ago, and also celebrating the centennial of their founding, thousands of Deltas plan to fill Pennsylvania Avenue today along with members of other women’s organizations.
If Paul had her druthers, there would have been no black marchers. But just days before the parade, she became more receptive to the possibility. What brought matters to a head was a letter from Nellie M. Quander, a schoolteacher and Howard graduate, who said that Howard women wanted to take part. Usually prompt to reply, Paul took a week to respond. She suggested Quander “call” at the headquarters of Paul’s parent organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Records do not reflect a meeting.
Complaints of discrimination reached the association, which wired orders to permit black marchers. Paul had no choice. Representing the sorority in negotiations, Terrell agreed that the Deltas would march next to the New York delegation.
Meanwhile, panicky reports came from white suffragists in Chicago that Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the celebrated author of an anti-lynching campaign and an African American, planned to join the procession. When the Illinois unit mustered, leaders instructed Wells-Barnett to walk with an all-black group. Tears forming, Wells-Barnett refused to take part unless “I can march under the Illinois banner.” By all accounts she solved the issue herself, defiantly joining the unit in mid-parade. Mary Walton, The Day the Deltas Marched into History. The Washington Post