CLASH OVER RACE AT MILHOLLAND GRAVE in LEWIS (1924) by Sandra Weber
Background After submitting a “Woman’s Rights Petition” to be considered by the Legislature of Alabama, Susan B. Anthony was asked to remove the word “black” from the petition. Anthony complied with the request, then resent the petition and waited for a reply. Meanwhile, on October 16, 1859, North Elba resident John Brown and 21 men, including his two sons and two neighbors, raided Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to liberate slaves.
In late December, Mr. J. J. Ormond of Alabama replied to Anthony that her petition was rejected as soon as it was laid on the table. The “treasonable and murderous invasion of John Brown,” coupled with the sympathy and praise given to Brown by Northerners, “extinguished the last spark of fraternal feeling for the people of the North. We now look upon you as our worst enemies.”
The incident demonstrates how women’s rights and anti-slavery sometimes clashed in unexpected ways. In general, there was cohesion and cooperation among the two causes. Many reformers, such as Anthony, campaigned for both the suffrage movement and the abolition movement. Even after the outrage expressed by Alabama, the 1860 New York State Woman’s Rights Convention delegates adopted “Resolution 3: That we believe in the equal rights of all human beings.”
The Civil War interrupted work for woman suffrage, but after the war ended, reformers took up the banner of equal rights. Women and men, black and white, joined the newly-formed American Equal Rights Association (AERA). Lucretia Mott served as president, Elizabeth Cady Stanton as vice-president, and Susan B. Anthony as corresponding secretary. The membership included such notables as Frederick Douglass, Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Frances Ellen Watkins. The object of the AERA was to secure equal rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, regardless of race, color, or sex.
As the goal of Universal Suffrage began to appear unattainable, the group disagreed about how to proceed. “There are others who say that this is the hour for the establishment only of the equality of the races,” said Anthony at the AERA Convention in December 1866, “that is, the black race shall be brought on a level with the white race. We go beyond this; we believe that this is the hour to establish the equality of every individual who is subject to the government of the United States---not the hour for the races, but the hour for human beings to be established in equality.”
Ratification of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868 caused more controversy because it included the word “male.” This was the first time a constitutional amendment explicitly excluded women. Shortly afterwards, Congress passed the 15th Amendment, which gave the vote to black males but not women. Anthony and Stanton were frustrated that the idea of Universal Suffrage had been abandoned.
After having worked together for many years, the band of reformers divided. Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in May 1869; Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell and Julia Ward Howe formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in November 1869. While Stone and AWSA supported the 15th Amendment, NWSA opposed its ratification because it excluded women from voting, thus affirming the inferiority of women.
Many abolitionist friends of Stanton and Anthony withdrew moral and financial support. In their furor, Anthony and Stanton acted and spoke in ways that were undoubtedly atrocious and racist. Susan B. Anthony pledged that she would cut off her right arm before she ever demanded the ballot for the black man and not the woman. “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung,” said Stanton, “who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who can not read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling-book, making laws for Lucretia Mott, Ernestine L. Rose, and Anna E. Dickinson.” Stanton and Anthony sought to shock people into seeing the absurdity of excluding women from voting. Their strategy backfired, depicting them as racially prejudice rather than exposing the ridiculousness of gender prejudice. Although Lucy Stone criticized the actions of Anthony and Stanton, she realized the predicament faced by all the reform leaders. She said: "I will be thankful in my soul if any body can get out of the terrible pit."
After the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870, most associates of Anthony and Stanton forgot or forgave the ugly politicking and viewed their actions in the context of the struggle for universal suffrage. For example, Sojourner Truth continued to support NWSA. Unfortunately, race prejudice did not disappear. Anthony, Stanton, Stone, Anna Shaw, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, and other white women leading the suffrage movement continued to swim in “the terrible pit.”
Editorial by W. E. B. DuBois in the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, October, 1916
Some rich white supporters of the suffrage movement, often Southerners, wanted to exclude black women while liberal factions of the movement, usually the foot soldiers, promoted equal rights for all. Many white suffrage leaders shunned black women to appease their southern supporters, but there were exceptions. Inez Milholland was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a close friend of W. E. B. DuBois. At the 1913 Suffrage Parade, she insisted that black women be allowed to march.
After her tragic death while campaigning for “Votes for Women” in 1916, Inez Milholland became the Suffrage Martyr. The National Woman’s Party (NWP) frequently pulled the iconic Inez back into the spotlight. Her gravesite in Lewis, New York, became the scene of a racial incident in 1924.
The Clash at Inez’s Grave On August 15-17, 1924, the NWP held a “Women For Congress” conference in Westport, NY. More than 200 women from across the nation gathered to nominate and elect women candidates for Congress. The final day, Sunday, August 17, was a memorial celebration in honor of Inez Milholland. At her family’s estate, Meadowmount, in nearby Lewis, hundreds of women performed a beautiful pageant that traced the history of women. "The display was distinctly professional, the action thoroughly disciplined, the drama altogether the most spontaneous and effective ever given out of doors in America," reported the Plattsburgh Daily Republican.
The “Forward Into Light” pageant was spectacular, but the news reports were marred by an incident earlier in the day. A headline in the New York Times announced: “Sees Snub to Negro by Woman’s Party.”
The day began with a service at the Lewis Congregational Church, which was followed by a pilgrimage through the cemetery and up “Suffrage Hill” to Inez’s grave. Banner bearers carried NWP flags, the 26th Infantry Band from Plattsburgh played, and a vested choir sang. Representatives of Vassar College, the Inez Milholland Chapter of NWP, and the Milholland family placed wreaths and flowers on the grave. Then, the trouble began.
Inez's father, John E. Milholland, brought three black guests with him: Mrs. Hunton of New York City, a representative of the NAACP; Dr. Emmett J. Scott, Secretary-Treasurer of Howard University; and Lucy Slowe, Dean of Women at Howard. Milholland had asked the NWP to place Mrs. Hunton and Dr. Scott on the program to make speeches at the grave, but he was told no place could be made on the “already arranged program.” At the last moment, the NWP decided there would be no speakers at the grave.
Believing that his black friends were being debased, Milholland felt it was his duty to say something. Otherwise, the spirit of Inez might rise from the grave and say to him: “Dad, why were you afraid?”
As the crowd stood silently at the grave, John Milholland began to speak. “In the first suffrage parade Inez herself demanded that the colored women be allowed to march; and now today we were told that it would mar the program to have these guests of mine speak.” He had nothing more to say, except “Inez believed in equal rights for everybody.” Leaders of the NWP talked in low tones and then asked Dr. Scott to give his speech. Dr. Scott said:
I come bearing a message and a tribute from the twelve million colored people of America, who would not wish an occasion so interesting and so significant as this to pass without recording their love and respect for the intrepid, glorified spirit who gave her life for the Righteous Cause which has come to grip the hearts and minds of men and women the world over. . . .
Standing at this shrine, we shed our tears in sorrow because of her too early passing, but in our hearts we feel the thrill of joy that such a woman lived and gave her beautiful life to making bondage more unholy and freedom more righteous.
Dr. Scott also recalled the 1913 parade in Washington, DC, and how Inez fought for the women of Howard University to be allowed to take their proper place, not at the end of the procession. “The colored women of America have never forgotten this event,” he said. “Inez Milholland stood for a democracy which comprehended equality of rights, of privileges, of opportunities, for all the children of men.”
In speaking to the press after the ceremony, NWP officer Greta Wold Boyer explained that putting black speakers on the program “would be bad politics.” The NWP did not want to appear to be “bringing in the colored people” because they were trying to elect some "women congressmen" in the southern states. “And after all,” concluded Boyer, “this is our convention --- not Mr. Milholland's."
Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman’s Party, said: "This was arranged as a demonstration of women and it was no place for colored people to speak." (Not even women of color?)
This was the basic story as told by the Times and other newspapers across the country. Headlines accused the NWP of drawing the “Color Line” and snubbing the “Negro.”
The NAACP immediately sent a telegram to Alice Paul and the NWP protesting against “the cowardly capitulation to race prejudice by the National Woman’s Party at the grave of Inez Milholland.” As a member of the NAACP, Inez would have repudiated such a position. “If capitulation to race prejudice is to be the price of election of women to office, we sincerely hope that every one of your candidates will be defeated in the coming election.”
In letters to friends, Alice Paul claimed to be “astonished” by the charge of discrimination. She said the NWP insisting on equality, even though it brought criticism from some members. For instance, the North Carolina delegation withdrew from the last convention because Negro delegates were allowed at social functions. According to Paul, the NWP had “always asked Negro women equally with white women to participate in everything that we have ever organized.”
Alice Paul and the NWP were blind to the systemic racism inherent in their words and actions. Having a few black members of the NWP did not mean the party was immune from discrimination or racism. Were any black women officers of the NWP? Or speakers? Did the goals of the NWP include equal rights for black women?
With regards to the incident at Inez’s grave, Paul carefully avoided blaming the blacks for the incident and pointed out how politely she had treated them. She said, “they fell in with these plans” and “their feelings were not hurt." When Mr. Milholland called upon Mr. Scott and Mrs. Hunton to speak, “The Woman's Party members listened with courtesy to these two speakers and at the conclusion expressed appreciation to them of what they had said.”
It seemed as if Paul expected to be congratulated for her behavior, rather than criticized. She did not want to address the issue of race; her main concern was bad publicity. Paul encouraged her associates “to secure any publicity you can in Negro papers concerning our position.”
The Crisis magazine of the NAACP printed an article about the incident, but not from the NWP’s angle, from the point of view of Mrs. Addie W. Hunton. “I have been to Meadowmount!” she said. “It has been a journey full of incident, beauty and pathos. Again, I have seen the yellow streak in the Woman’s Party!”
After describing the details of the grave incident, Mrs. Hunton commented on the afternoon program at Mount Inez. She had watched the beautiful scenes of the “Forward Into Light” pageant as the Torch of Liberation was passed down from women of one era to another. However, it seemed like “a farce” to Mrs. Hunton because it lacked the great principle of Inez Milholland’s life --- “Righteousness.”
Mrs. Hunton said, “The torch to me was the symbol of bigotry rather than liberty.”
Alice Paul and the NWP were part of a racist society, unattuned to the oppressions suffered by others. John Milholland had the courage to voice his disapproval at the Lewis Cemetery in 1924. This paved the way for Dr. Scott to speak eloquently and forcefully for equality of rights and opportunities for all.
Human rights’ work is a part of our local history and the work continues today. As Mrs. Hunton observed during her brief time in the region, the grave of Inez Milholland is overshadowed by the same mountains that tower above the grave of John Brown. “Both martyrs to the cause of freedom; both deserving our lasting homage.”