School suffrage in Kentucky ends


School suffrage in Kentucky ends


Kentucky was first in the nation to grant women school suffrage: the right to vote in school board elections. More than 50 years later, the legislature 👇expanded -- and then abruptly revoked -- school suffrage. How come? Because Black women turned out. 🧵

By 1901, the state legislature had extended school suffrage twice. The patchwork (see yesterday's post) now covered more women in more cities. Lawmakers understood that the new voters would include KY’s politically mobilized Black women - they just didn’t expect so many of them.

Democrats were generally anxious about holding onto control of the state. In Lexington, the Democratic kingpin was pretty sure he had bought the Black vote with a patronage appointment of the school superintendent. But he miscalculated. 

Black voters loathed the superintendent. In a letter to the paper, school board member Dr. P.D. Robinson wondered “if the white people know that not one tax-paying representative Negro was willing to go before the School Board and speak in behalf of [Superintendent] Russell?”👇

G.P. Russell was a hack, and the community demanded better. African American women had registered that fall specifically to oppose him in the school board election.

Their registrations were visible -- because they registered in person, and they registered as Republicans. This chart by @rhollingsworth shows the Republican registration advantage going into the 1901 election.

Democrats used voter intimidation & long lines at the polls to suppress votes. Only 50% of registered voters cast ballots - compared to 93% a few years before.

Low turnout by white women magnified the impact of Black votes for Republicans - and the Democrats freaked out. [Standard 19th c. disclaimer: Democrats were the more overtly racist party at the time; Republicans moderately less so.]

Within months, the legislature repealed the expansion of school suffrage. White women tried to bargain, happy to throw Black women under the bus. They suggested adding a literacy test - but they were too weak to engineer that compromise.

How do we know racism motivated the rollback? Maybe it was just partisan politics, right? One party wants to win so they try to disenfranchise the other party - could happen! Wellll…. here are some receipts:

  • Senator Embry Allen wrote a constituent that “he could not endure the idea of this race of people, who are so easily made arrogant and overbearing, being allowed to control our schools.”

  • “We will have to give up any rights that will give additional rights to the negro,” wrote Mary Atkinson Cunningham, a prominent DAR member. “[I]t seems to me to be infinitely preferable to have the board controlled by men than by negroes and a few white women.”

School suffrage was eventually reinstated -- but not until the legislature was certain who would vote. By 1912, aggressive use of poll taxes and literacy tests successfully quashed Black votes. That year white women statewide won the right to choose their school boards.

There’s even more to this story - bribery, prostitution, assassinations! - all well-told by @rhollingsworth in Ohio Valley History. I'm indebted to her and @MelanieGoan @anya_jabour + context from @missmelbeck & @fraziermuseum.

#suffrage100 #BreonnaTaylorMatters


Daily Suffragist


Oct 2, 2020


Kentucky school suffrage revoked thread.png


Daily Suffragist, “School suffrage in Kentucky ends,” Daily Suffragist, accessed July 14, 2024,

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