This post is by Amanda Campbell, an undergraduate student at the University of Memphis and a 2019 Library of Congress Junior Fellow.
In March 1919— just 17 months before the 19th Amendment was ratified by the necessary 36 states— a federation of African American women’s associations applied for membership in the Leslie Woman Suffrage Commission. They were denied. This was a critical moment on the timeline of women’s suffrage. It was certainly neither the first nor the last incidence of racist exclusion among the white leaders, but in this moment, Ida Husted Harper, the writer of the responding letter, declared that it was actually a strategy to exclude African Americans. The Leslie Woman Suffrage Commission did not extend the fight for equality to their own operation.
When first I read this rejection letter in the online collection of the Library’s Mary Church Terrell Papers, I had never heard of the Leslie Woman Suffrage Commission, or its colorful history. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more, so I dug into the Library’s collections.
I found A Complete Record of this organization, where I encountered a shocking and fascinating tale. The storied editor of the turn of the century Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Frank Leslie, was the third husband of Miriam Florence Follin. Upon his death, Frank Leslie left his failing newspaper and his personal debts. Mrs. Follin Leslie then became legally known as Frank Leslie. She paid the debts, resurrected the paper (with some help from a boosted readership after President Garfield’s assassination), and earned a small fortune. She then married Oscar Wilde’s brother.
I discovered that throughout her life, Mrs. Follin Leslie was a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement and a sometimes-donor to Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Carrie Chapman Catt. In her will she expanded this philanthropy by leaving the bulk of her estate (excepting a few funds set aside for her surviving family members) to Mrs. Catt to be used in the cause of suffrage.
After extensive court battles with Leslie’s family, Mrs. Catt emerged with more than half a million dollars. With this she began the Frank Leslie Suffrage Commission. Of these funds, $25,000 was distributed to activists in New York which led to the victory of suffrage in New York state that also led to a “doubling” of suffrage sentiment across the country.
Miriam Follin is not the only unsung hero of the women’s suffrage movement. By examining the digitized correspondence of suffrage leaders, asking questions, and exploring related collections, students can learn more about some of the lesser-known suffrage supporters.
Share your students’ discoveries with us!