Bridgeville’s Sadie Waters and the 19th Amendment
On June 2, 1920, Delaware’s General Assembly dashed all hopes that the First State would be the final state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing women’s constitutional right to vote. When the House adjourned without reconsidering its earlier negative decision, the amendment remained one state short of the 36 needed to ratify. In August, Tennessee’s legislature provided the crucial vote.
That fall, as Delaware’s women prepared to exercise their voting rights, it was unclear whether all eligible women voters would enjoy the same opportunities to cast their ballots. During the ratification debate, anti-suffrage legislators, editorialists, and the leaders of the Delaware Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage had targeted African American women, arguing that they would be unfit voters. Using racially charged arguments to bolster their position, they made regular use of demeaning, insulting, and inflammatory stereotypes. The state’s African American suffragists responded forcefully to the insults, but the question remained: Would all newly enfranchised women be able to vote freely?
Bridgeville’s Sadie Monroe Waters, a teacher at the Greenwood Colored School, believed they should. In September, she became vice president of a women’s organization dedicated to registering voters and preparing for the November elections. In October, she and her shopkeeper husband, George L. Waters, rallied the area’s African American voters for the Republican Party. Then, shortly before Election Day, she delivered what the Wilmington Evening Journal termed a “masterly address” to an enthusiastic audience in eastern Sussex County.
Sadie Waters’s activism in the cause of voting rights and her commitment to the party of Lincoln stemmed from both personal and political history. As a child, she no doubt had heard stories from her father, the Rev. Henry A. Monroe, of his experience as a drummer boy in the famed Civil War unit, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. To Henry Monroe and his daughter, the Republican Party was the party that had ended slavery, guaranteed equal citizenship to African Americans, and extended voting rights to black men. If by 1920 the party had lost its Reconstruction-Era radical edge, few African Americans were yet likely to mark a ballot for the Democrats, identified in the South as the party of disfranchisement and white supremacy.
Like Sadie Waters, most African American suffragists were middle-class women who committed time and energy to their churches, women’s clubs, and community organizations. Like Sadie Waters, too, many were teachers. Their commitment to “votes for women” went beyond the simple fairness of the thing to encompass a broad program of racial equity, including equalization of facilities, curricular offerings, and teacher salaries across the state’s segregated schools, criminal justice reform, and state funding for institutions—such as hospitals—serving black communities. Her advocacy, like that of African American suffragists elsewhere, was part of a larger, ongoing freedom struggle.
Nevertheless, the path to the polls was not easy. African American women might have a constitutional right to vote, but many pre-1920 features of Delaware’s notoriously corrupt politics—bribery, intimidation, and the blatant gerrymandering of legislative seats—remained in place. Two October events seeking to intimidate or defraud individuals out of their rights drove home the difficulties African American women faced.
First, a leading clubwoman, suffragist, and founding president of the National Association of Colored Women, Mary Church Terrell, on her way to make get-out-the-vote speeches in Dover and Wilmington, was threatened with arrest for “disorderly conduct” at the Dover railway station.
Her offense? Asking the station agent to assist her in finding her Dover host’s telephone number. Her “tone,” the agent averred, was “far from courteous.”
Then, on the heels of Terrell’s ordeal, the Democratic state chairman received space in the Wilmington Every Evening (whose editor had consistently taken race-baiting anti-suffrage positions) to make an overt threat to all African American voters, men as well as women. They should be prepared, he warned, to be arrested at the polls if they tried to bypass state election requirements. On the final weekend of voter registration, he carried out the threat, targeting two African American couples who were fully eligible to register. The arrest warrants were quickly invalidated, but he got the effect he sought: publicity that would likely depress registration and turnout, suppressing black votes.
In 2020, as we commemorate the centenary of the 19th Amendment, we must also remember that African American women’s efforts to exercise their voting rights were accompanied by attempts at intimidation and vote suppression. And we should recall the determination of women like Sadie Waters who believed in the amendment’s promise.