Activists paved the way for Democratic VP nominee Kamala Harris, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and every Black woman voter
Houston City Hall and Bayou City bridges were illuminated this past week in purple, white and gold – the colors associated with women’s suffrage to commemorate the centennial of (White*) women gaining the right to vote in 1920.
Black women would continue to fight for another four decades and longer for unabridged access to the ballot, along with Black men. Other women of color also waged battles that ensured their right to vote in years after August 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified by the requisite number of states to secure adoption and certification.
Early Black women Suffragists celebrated on the national scene included Sojourner Truth, Frances E.W. Harper, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Ida B. Wells. Their work formed a critical foundation for the enfranchisement of all U.S. women, but also for the racial uplift for Blacks by connecting voting rights to civil rights.
Those Houston lightbulbs shining bright in 2020 glow brightest for the work of Black women in Houston who fought for the right to vote for women, African Americans and all people.
Their efforts over the last 100 years paved the way for Houston’s own Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a Texas Southern University alumna, to become the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the South in 1972.
And now, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris – a Black woman of South Asian Indian and Jamaican descent and a graduate of the historically Black Howard University – stands on the shoulders of generations of Black women, as the first African American woman and woman of color to become the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
One of those Suffragists who laid the path for Jordan and Harris was Christia V. Daniels Adair. Today, she is perhaps best known and celebrated as a namesake of Houston’s Christia Adair Park, a Harris County Precinct One recreational site on Cullen Boulevard. Famously, a John Biggers mural of scenes for her life is erected under a pavilion at the park. She was present for the park’s dedication on her 84th birthday.
Born in 1893 in Victoria, Texas, Adair was a Texas Suffragist who was turned away at the polls after White women in the state began voting. At the time, Blacks and Hispanics in South Texas were not allowed to vote in Democratic primaries. Adair worked to change that and much more.
Her civil rights activities included working to desegregate public accommodations including restaurants, city buses, department store dressing rooms and the Houston Public Library.
She served as the Houston NAACP’s executive secretary in the 1950s and showed courage and leadership as the branch faced repeated bomb threats. Adair was also part of efforts to make Black Texans eligible to serve on juries and to secure county jobs.
In addition to becoming one of Harris County’s first Black precinct judges, Adair was among the inaugural inductees of the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984. She died at age 96 in 1989.
Another early pioneer was a Black woman from Houston named Mrs. R.L. Yocome.
“In 1920, when the Republican Party had one wing called the Lily White and another called the Black and Tan, a Black Houston woman – Mrs. R.L. Yocome – may have been the first female to run for the state legislature. She lost,” according to an account written in Women in Texas History.
Today’s lights also shine bright for Lula B. White.
Born in 1900, she was an advocate for equal salaries for Black teachers and voting rights by working against all-White primaries in Texas in the 1930s. (The U.S. Supreme Court overturned all-White primaries in Texas in Smith v. Allwright in 1944.)
“The NAACP was one of the few Black organizations that allowed women some kind of leadership position in the 1930s,” Dr. Merline Pitre, a Texas Southern University history professor and author of White biography, told Houston Public Media in 2019. “[White] was what some people would argue was just what the doctor ordered for the state of Texas. She had an acid tongue. She was unafraid to speak her mind to Blacks or Whites.”
White persuaded Heman Marion Sweatt to become the plaintiff in the NAACP’s suit to desegregate The University of Texas law school. (The U.S. Supreme Court case led to the conversion of the Houston College for Negroes into what is today Texas Southern University and the founding of its affiliated Thurgood Marshall School of Law.)
White served as acting president of the Houston NAACP, full-time executive secretary of the branch and later as state director of Texas NAACP branches.
In 1957, a week before her death, the national NAACP established the Lulu White Freedom Fund in her honor.