Sunday, November 29, 2009

For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932.

By Lisa Materson.

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, February 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8078-3271-4, $42. 352 pages.

Review by Jason Hostutler, Mount Mary College, Wisconsin

In For the Freedom of Her Race, Lisa Materson makes an important contribution to our understanding of the role of African-American women within Jim Crow era politics. Materson tells the story of black women activists in the context of the Illinois political system, working in favor of the Republican Party agenda that supported the use of federal authority to protect the constitutional rights of black citizens. Separated from the influence of Southern white supremacists, these women strove to make a positive political impact for those black Americans facing disenfranchisement and terror in the American South. Individually, these women-activists were of diverse social, economic, and educational backgrounds. However, each had migrated to Illinois from the recently “redeemed” and increasingly racist South, and each possessed a zealous drive to assist the embattled Southern black community in any political way possible. Initially these political opportunities were very limited for Illinois women, but gradually increased alongside expanding suffrage. Women in Illinois won the right to vote in school elections in 1891, and for municipal and federal offices in 1913; they were finally granted full franchise in 1920. Materson convincingly makes the case that even when the outlets for political expression were limited, these African-American activists represented those in the South who had lost their political voice “by proxy,” and encouraged African American men in their communities to do the same. Over time these activists began to lose faith in the Republican Party, as Republican politicians failed to make good on promises to assist their black constituents with anti-lynching legislation. In this manner, the origins of the African-American embrace of the Democratic Party are visible years before the 1932 election of Franklin Roosevelt.

Materson provides numerous case studies to convincingly demonstrate the high level of engagement of Illinois black Republican women in the years 1877-1932. The author describes these decades as the “nadir” and “crucible” of black life in America. Activists such as Ella Elm, Jennie Lawrence, and Alice Thompson Waytes rose to the challenge and actively engaged local, state, and eventually national politics with a zeal fueled in part by the racial injustices occurring in the southern states. Materson’s examination of these women provides much-needed detail to a political drama that in previous historiography has been overshadowed by the story of the black reformer Ida B. Wells. Wells is mentioned only as a side note to allow lesser-known actors to take center stage. The stories of these women make Materson’s study a colorful and fascinating read. Still, the author’s treatment of the specific activities of these women can be at times too superficial. When lacking specific evidence to detail the exact words and activities of her subjects, Materson relies on generalizations based on the overall social climate of the era to imply what the women should have been thinking or doing at the time. Furthermore, the author is also vague about the specific accomplishments of the black activists, especially with regard to their impact on the lives of the Southern black community they are supposedly representing. While these issues are troubling, they do not detract from the quality of this study overall. For the Freedom of Her Race sheds new light on a previously under-examined topic in the political history of the Jim Crow era. The accessibility of this study is due in no small part to Materson’s clean and precise writing style and vibrant storytelling. Her research, most notably in Chicago-area archives, is meticulous.

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