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“All Bound Up Together”

A video reenactment of a speech given by Black activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper at the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in 1866.

“We are all bound up together” – Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

“We are all bound up together” – Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, filmed reenactment starring Ariana DeBose as Francis Harper, 2019. New-York Historical Society; Special thanks to the CUNY School of Professional Studies.

Video Transcription Text

Summary

I feel I am something of a novice upon this platform. Born of a race whose inheritance has been outrage and wrong. Most of my life had been spent in battling against those wrongs. But I did not feel as keenly as others, that I had these rights, in common with other women, which are now demanded.  I am new to the fight for suffrage. I have spent most of my life battling racial oppression. Until recently I did not feel that I had much in common with white women who are demanding equal rights.
About two years ago I stood within the shadows of my home. A great sorrow had fallen upon my life. My husband had died suddenly, leaving me a widow, with four children. I tried to keep my children together but my husband died in debt; and before he had been in his grave three months, the administrator had swept the very milk-crocks and wash tubs from my hands. I was a farmer’s wife and made butter for the market. But what could I do, when they had swept all away?  Two years ago my husband died suddenly. I was left alone with four children. I tried to keep my children but my husband left debts to be paid. The debt collector sold all my butter making tools to pay them. What could I do for money when my work tools had been taken?
Had I died instead of my husband how different would have been the result! By this time he would have had another wife, it is likely; and no administrator would have gone into his house, broken up his home, and sold his bed, and taken away his means of support. If I died instead of my husband, things would have been different. He would have remarried. No debt collector would have taken his things to repay the debts.
I say, then, that justice is not fulfilled so long as woman is unequal before the law. We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the Black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society cannot afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members.  This country will never have justice as long as women are unequal. We are all one people, and society cannot oppress the weakest in society without damaging everyone. You tried to oppress Black people. You oppressed them for two hundred years. By doing so you hurt the spiritual energy of white men in this country. When Black people were enslaved, white men were not allowed to thrive either. Society should not neglect people the opportunity to grow.
I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dewdrops exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they can be divided into three classes: the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The good will vote according to their convictions and principles; the bad has dictated by prejudice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, the winning party.  I do not think that giving women the ballot to vote is going to immediately fix all the wrongs. I do not think white women can fix everything. I think, like men, white women can be divided into three groups: the good, the bad, and the uncaring. The good will vote to their own commitments, the bad will be controlled by prejudice and evil, and the uncaring with vote for whoever they think will win.
You white women speak of here of rights and I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me. Let me go tomorrow morning and take my seat in one of your street cars – I do not know that they will do it in New York, but they will in Philadelphia – and the conductor will put his hand and stop the car rather than let me ride.  White women speak of rights and I speak of wrongs. I, as a Black woman, have always felt alone. I must fight every person for equal rights, and every person will try to keep me down. If I tried to get on a street car tomorrow, the conductor would not let me on. Maybe they would in New York, but not in Philadelphia.
In advocating the cause of the colored man, since the Dred Scott decision, I have sometimes said I thought the nation had touched bottom. But let me tell you there is a depth of infamy lower than that. It is when the nation, standing upon the threshold of a great peril, reached out to its hands a feebler race, and asked that the race help it and when the peril was over, said You are good enough for soldiers but not good enough for citizens. In my fight for racial justice, I’ve often thought this country had hit rock bottom. But I was wrong. We asked Black men to fight in the war to save this nation. But when the war ended we told them they were good enough to die for the country, but not good enough to vote.
We have a woman in our country who has received the name of Moses, not by lying about it, but by acting it out. A woman who has gone down to the Egypt of slavery and brought out hundreds of our people into liberty. The last time I saw that woman her hands were swollen. That woman, who was brave enough and secretive enough to act as a scout for the American Army, had her hands swollen from the conflict with a brutal conductor who undertook to eject her from her place. That woman, whose courage and bravery won a recognition from our army, and from every Black man in this country, is excluded from every thoroughfare of travel. So talk of giving women the ballot box. Go on! It is a normal school and the white women of this country need it. While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America. There is a Black woman people call Moses. She earned that nickname by helping hundreds of Black people self emancipate. Last time I saw her her hands were injured. That woman, who was a scout for the Union Army, had been injured fighting with a streetcar conductor who threw her off a street car. That woman, who was recognized by the Army, and who is a hero to all Black men in this country, is not allowed to use public transit. So sure, you can talk about giving women the right to vote. White women need it. But while this kind of racism still continues, it is white women who need to be reeducated about the real oppression happening in America.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “We Are All Bound Up Together,” 1866. Transcription.

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Background

After the Civil War, white women suffragists and Black male activists competed to advance their causes. Some white women suffragists believed they deserved the right to vote because they had worked hard to support the war. Many believed in white supremacy, and resented the idea that Black men would have power over them at the ballot box. Some believed that white women’s rights should be prioritized over those of Black Americans. Many Black men activists wanted to see the rights of Black men guaranteed immediately. Many were uncertain that granting women the right to vote was a good idea. Most agreed it was a low priority.

Black women suffragists represented the intersection of these two positions, demanding the right to vote for all men and women regardless of race. They also spoke out about issues specific to Black communities. They called for increased legal protections, greater employment opportunities, and financial independence for all Black Americans.

About the Document

This video is a reenactment of a speech given by Black activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women. Frances was invited to speak at the Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York City in 1866. At the time, the U.S. government was debating whether to grant full citizenship to the millions of Black people freed from slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment. At the same time, white women suffragists were leading a major campaign to get women the right to vote.

Frances told her mostly white audience that if Black and white activists worked together to secure the rights of all Americans, then everyone would benefit. She also asked white activists to acknowledge and fight against the extreme inequalities Black people faced in the United States. The audience was so inspired by her words that they voted to form the American Equal Rights Association, a group dedicated to promoting the causes of both Black and women’s suffrage.

Vocabulary

  • suffrage: Voting rights.
  • suffragist: An activist working to get women the right to vote.
  • Thirteenth Amendment: The amendment that outlawed chattel slavery in the United states.

Discussion Questions

  • How does Frances Ellen Watkins Harper tie the causes of women’s rights and Black rights together in her speech?
  • How does Frances Ellen Watkins Harper distinguish herself from white women suffragists? Why does she feel this distinction is necessary?
  • Why is it important to acknowledge the intersectionality of historical women of color?
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Suggested Activities

Themes

ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE; AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

Source Notes
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