The Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection

A Conversation with Shaneé Yvette Murrain-Willis

Black Women's Suffrage Digital Collection logo. A collage of geometric purple, blue, and orange shapes with images of Black women.

In this interview, Shaneé Yvette Murrain-Willis, Director of Community Engagement of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), discusses the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection. Dating from the 1850s to the 1960s, the Pivotal Ventures-funded BWS Collection highlights the critical role of Black women in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and their history of activism more broadly. Shaneé details the collection’s timeline, significance, and the steps DPLA took to keep the collection focused on Black women and their work that has been previously sidelined or erased. Shaneé also reflects on how the collection’s Statement on Potentially Harmful Language inspired similar statements in libraries and archives across the United States.

How would you describe the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection to the perfect stranger?

The Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection, funded by Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company created by Melinda Gates, provides access to more than 200,000 archival materials that help tell the story of the critical role Black women played in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and, more broadly, women’s rights, voting rights, and civic activism between the 1850s and 1960s. Cultural artifacts included in the collection also have clear and compelling relevance to contemporary issues like voting rights and intersectionality, as well as contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. The materials in this collection include photographs, correspondence, speeches, event programs, publications, oral histories, and other artifacts. In addition, the collection expands upon the Digital Public Library of America’s existing collections on Black women’s activism. These collections include primary source sets (curriculum guides) on Ida B. Wells and Anti-Lynching Activism; Fannie Lou Hamer and the Civil Rights Movement in Rural Mississippi, and The Equal Rights Amendment. By combining archival materials from DPLA’s network of over 4,000 institutions, newly digitized content, and partnerships, the collection seeks to engage students, educators, and researchers in exploration and dialogue around this important, yet overlooked, chapter in our nation’s history. Ultimately, the goal of the collection is to elevate Black women’s activism in our national narrative in places where it has been erased.

Screenshot of the website landing page for the Black Women's Suffrage Digital Collection.

Many people associate the beginning of women’s suffrage with the 1843 Seneca Falls Convention, a gathering that Black women were barred from attending. Associating women’s suffrage with white women overlooks the crucial role Black women such as Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett played in the movement for women’s rights. How does this collection seek to counter what DPLA terms a “gap in public consciousness [that] is rooted in the history of racism and exclusion within the Suffrage Movement”? How does archival work construct past and present narratives of Black women and their contributions?

The content featured in the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection explores linkages between women’s suffrage and other social causes of the 19th and early 20th centuries (anti-slavery, anti-lynching, education reform, and civil rights) as well as racism within the Suffrage Movement. By extending to the mid-20th century, the project helps dispel the notion that all women successfully secured their voting rights following the adoption of the 19th Amendment. Indeed, for Black women, the struggle to vote and to effect change through civic engagement more broadly did not end in 1920. Correspondence, speeches, photographs, and published writings from key figures such as Mary Church Terrell add new shades of context to related topics in our nation today, from the suppression of voting rights based on race and gender to the increasing number of women of color running for—and winning—elected office.  

Of note, DPLA partnered with the University of Chicago Library to feature the Ida B. Wells Papers 1884-1976 in the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection. The Memphis Diary, Crusade for Justice, and other autobiographical writings are important historical documents for chronicling the origin of Wells-Barnett’s anti-lynching crusade and involvement in the Women’s Suffrage movement. These records are additionally remarkable for illustrating a Black woman’s defiance against the conventional gender roles assigned to women in the late 19th century.

How do you see the BWS Collection being used as an educational tool within and outside of academia? How did DPLA’s range of programming further contribute to the collection’s reach?

Our goal was to create a digital archive of rich historical materials where women and girls of color—and learners of all stripes—could easily discover and engage with the stories and experiences of Black women at the forefront of voting rights and civic engagement. It is not enough to just put materials online; we also conducted outreach to promote its use, both broadly for scholars, journalists, activists, and others who led the national dialogue about women and voting rights, and in local communities, schools, and libraries, where the project informs and empowers participants as a learning tool and catalyst for conversation and action.

Part of our outreach includes partnerships with academics, organizations, and national platforms. DPLA partnered with scholars of Black Women’s Suffrage including Dr. Alison M. Parker, Chair & Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware, Allison Robinson, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, Dr. Allison K. Lange, historian and author of Picturing Political Power Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and library curators to create new interpretive content. This content (key figure bios, timeline) highlights stories and research based on the source materials and draws linkages to contemporary topics and events, including key suffrage biographies, a timeline chronicling Black Women’s civic activism from 1820 to the present, and exhibits.

This gap in our public consciousness is rooted in the little-known history of racism and exclusion within the Suffrage Movement, which resulted in white women emerging as the movement’s primary protagonists, while Black women were effectively wiped from the narrative.

DPLA was especially proud to create programming with our network of African American collections and invite sub-grant partners to share insight into their curatorial choices for the collection. We were able to put our partners in dialogue with scholars and practitioners who are teaching with their materials, therefore exploring how digital artifacts can help reconstruct the visibility of Black women’s activism. To commemorate the 2020 launch of The Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection, we hosted the webinar Race, Power and Curation, which has the distinction of being the best-attended online program in DPLA history. DPLA partners, including the Smithsonian Institution Archives, hosted watch parties and re-shared links to the collection and the webinar recording throughout their networks.

As part of our partnership with Pivotal Ventures, we were introduced to collaborators with national platforms who have helped us share DPLA’s free cultural heritage resources and eBooks with a wider audience outside the academy; the “Public” in the Digital Public Library of America. Pivotal Ventures invited DPLA to submit artifacts for inclusion in the Truth Be Told collection for their Evoke site, which features artifacts from the larger Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection. This exposed DPLA to new readers interested in Black women’s stories. Getting to tell the story of these remarkable women with historian and Truth Be Told curator Allison Lange for publications like Glamour and Forbes helped us reach an even wider audience.

Additionally, I was invited to join the Well-Read Black Girl Festival in November 2020 (a book club, podcast, festival, and creative community dedicated to Black women) to speak in a panel along with historian Allison Robinson and author and historian Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, to explore how digital artifacts can help us better understand the legacy of Black women suffragists. It was an incredible honor to share space with such a dynamic collective of Black women bibliophiles just minutes after the election news broke that the USA would have its first African American and first Asian American vice president, Kamala Harris.

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The Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection was released during the centennial of the 19th amendment. However, the collection’s about section emphasizes that “For Black women, the struggle to vote and effect change through civic engagement more broadly did not end in 1920.” What is the value of a collection that challenges the idea that all women successfully secured the right to vote with the 19th amendment’s passing?

Great question! Mary Church Terrell. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Anna Julia Cooper. Ida B. Wells-Barnett. These women played significant leadership roles in the United States Women’s Suffrage Movement and beyond, yet their names and stories have been all but written out of history. This gap in our public consciousness is rooted in the little-known history of racism and exclusion within the Suffrage Movement, which resulted in white women emerging as the movement’s primary protagonists, while Black women were effectively wiped from the narrative.

For example, in the 1890s, women in Alabama began forming their own organizations to advocate for the rights of women and children. By the 1910s, groups such as the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association formed with the specific goal of securing women’s suffrage, but many of these groups only advocated for white women’s suffrage. After decades of arguments for and against women’s suffrage, the US Congress finally voted in favor of the 19th Amendment in 1919. After Congress passed the 19th Amendment, at least 36 states needed to vote in favor of it for it to become law. Despite the many organizations pushing for Alabama to ratify the 19th Amendment, the state rejected the amendment on September 22, 1919. Many women in Alabama supported suffrage, but the Women’s Anti-Ratification League did not. Women belonging to this group thought Alabama women should be more concerned about raising families than civic life.

We celebrated the BWS Collection’s launch on September 8 in recognition of the date Alabama ratified the 19th Amendment in 1953 as a way to further highlight examples of under-researched moments in the suffrage movement and the history of denied and delayed rights.

What is the significance of placing the founding of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society at the beginning of the collection’s timeline? How does women’s suffrage intersect with other social movements like anti-slavery and civil rights?

That is a great question! We wanted to demonstrate how Black Women were organizing for social change prior to the Suffrage Movement and point to civic activism, public debate and advocacy, community education, and organizing across time. We also aimed to show how Black women’s participation in social movements begins, continues, accelerates, and compounds. For example, the timeline and key suffrage biographies range from Charlotte Vandine Forten and her daughters joining with a like-minded group of women to form the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, to Mary Ann Shadd Cary who addressed the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee in 1874, urging them to rectify the fact that although she paid equal taxes, she did not have equal rights. In 1880, Shadd Cary founded the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association, which urged Black women to fight for suffrage and equal rights.

Another example of how the extended timeline of social movements demonstrates Black Women’s ongoing activism is Charlotte Rollin’s speech at the 1870 South Carolina Woman’s Rights Association convention. At the convention, Rollin said, “We ask suffrage not as a favor, not as a privilege, but as a right based on the grounds that we are human beings, and as such entitled to all human rights.” According to historian Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Rollin’s speech is the first by an African-American woman other than Sojourner Truth to be preserved by white suffrage leaders in their history of the suffrage movement. This is uncovering a major milestone in the documentation of Black Women’s public speaking.

Making these artifacts related to Black women’s suffrage digitally accessible to a larger audience is important to recognize and celebrate the significant contributions of Black women and their resiliency in the face of ongoing racism and exclusion. By uncovering the who, what, where, and sometimes why of an item, we can understand its significance and inherent value.

I understand that this collection grew out of archival materials from DPLA’s network of over 4,000 institutions. How did expanding the collection’s timeline enable new partnerships, and what impact did collaboration have on digitization?

The Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection is comprised of primary and secondary source materials drawn from DPLA’s network of institutional partners, including content that is already discoverable in DPLA, newly-digitized materials, and content from new partners that are not yet part of DPLA’s network.

To expand the content available in the collection, DPLA stewarded partnerships with the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library; Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture in Charleston, South Carolina; Tuskegee University; the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University; and Southern California Library. The partners’ choices regarding which collections to prioritize for digitization and metadata remediation were informed by their insights on user interest and demand for these artifacts to be made available. Their sub-grant proposals included impact on curriculum development, exhibits, and other scholarship.

The sub-grants (up to $25k) were utilized by the five institutions to digitize artifacts and create associated metadata related to the history of Black women in the suffrage movement, and, more broadly, women’s rights, voting rights, and civic activism between the 1850s and the 1960s.

In addition, DPLA also sub-granted funds ($100k) to support the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s Engage 2020: Look Back, Move Forward campaign. Engage 2020 was a wide variety of programming targeted to diverse groups of individuals engaging in facilitated conversations around important civic issues about the history of voting in the U.S., past and current campaign trends, and also spotlighting the history of women’s voting rights, especially Black women.

A huge part of this work is ensuring that collections are well described, records are labeled with full names, dates, places, organizations these women were involved in, and the names of partners in the struggle, all of which makes them more discoverable and provides reliable information about under-researched women.

When curating this collection, how did you contend with presumed whiteness and neutrality within metadata? Could you describe your noise cancelling process and how it aimed to keep the focus on Black women and their words?

The BWS Collection was designed to give access to materials in such a way that the stories speak for themselves without appropriation/colonization to “empower people to learn, grow, and contribute to a diverse and better-functioning society.” A huge part of this work is ensuring that collections are well described, records are labeled with full names, dates, places, organizations these women were involved in, and the names of partners in the struggle, all of which makes them more discoverable and provides reliable information about under-researched women. As part of what we called a Noise Cancellation Party, DPLA staff dedicated time to search and collect subject terms or keywords related to Black Women’s suffrage. We developed a methodology for distinguishing content about those we wanted to include in the collection.

Noise Cancellation is the intellectual and contextual work of:

  • Searching for women’s names in controlled vocabulary for people, places, and organizations, including terms no longer used
  • Taking brief notes about characters and relationship information for context, and using Wikipedia pages to determine who they are and why they are important to the collection
  • Identifying reliable info about under-researched women

Our work and intentionality in developing a process to discover relevant records about the history of Black Women’s Suffrage shined a spotlight on a glaring issue impacting the field of librarianship. Among the challenges we faced were poorly described records that did not include women’s names, associations, and context about their importance in history. Our most recent projects highlight how we utilize technical skills and collaborate with a broad network of partners to maximize impact. We believe that the potential impact of this work is much larger than simply curating a one-off collection and I look forward to working with DPLA’s network of partners to make the stories of under-represented communities more discoverable.

DPLA has also worked to ensure that new records contributed by partners from the larger DPLA site are pulled into the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection. New keywords include the names of prominent figures like Stacey Abrams, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, Vice President Kamala Harris, #MeToo Founder Tarana Burke, and contemporary voting rights organizations. Updated hashtags include #BlackVotesMatter and #SayHerName.

The collection’s Harmful Language Statement emphasizes balancing the “preservation of this history with sensitivity to how it is presented.” What role do archivists play in weeding out bias and using inclusive language within their collections? How can collection development be remediated?

The Black Women’s Suffrage Collection has inspired new practices that will increase diversity within the DPLA network. One example of this is our Statement on Potentially Harmful Language designed specifically for BWS. DPLA’s Metadata Working Group wrote FAQs for the Statement on Potentially Harmful Language geared toward a broad audience of middle school students to educators, as well as the general public. Our goal was to explain why potentially harmful content may be found in this collection, and why that content is important to history. We worked to avoid using potentially off-putting library jargon and terms. The statement addresses the presence of potentially harmful metadata and descriptive terms while acknowledging that some librarians and archivists are working to solve the problem. At the same time, we wanted to state our conviction that the problem should be addressed, even if the scope was large. Not only has DPLA adopted a version of this statement for our entire aggregation, but we’ve been pleased to hear from libraries across the country that have used this statement as a jumping-off point to develop similar statements for their libraries. In fact, in 2021 the U.S. National Archives added a statement of potentially harmful content to their website.

About the interviewee:

Shaneé Yvette Murrain headshot.

Shaneé Yvette Murrain-Willis is Director of Community Engagement of the Digital Public Library of America, supporting a national network of more than 4,000 contributing cultural heritage organizations to advance the preservation, dissemination, and use of our shared digital heritage. She also stewarded partnerships and curation for the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection.

Prior to joining DPLA, Shaneé led the collection of campus records and a community archives project with local churches at the University of West Georgia as University Archivist and assistant professor where she was named Faculty Member of the Year in 2018.

Previously she was Director of Library Services and Archivist at Payne Theological Seminary, where she curated the Payne Theological Seminary and African Methodist Episcopal Church Digital Collection and was Project Coordinator of the Religion in North Carolina Digital Collection at Duke Divinity School. She was the 2019 President-Elect of the Society of Georgia Archivists and serves on the Board of Directors of Atla, formerly known as the American Theological Library Association.

Shaneé, born in New York City, and bred in Central Florida, holds a B.A. in Religion and Philosophy from Bethune-Cookman University, a Master of Divinity from Drew Theological School, and a Master of Library Science from North Carolina Central University. 

To learn more about the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection, please visit:

Vanguard Book Cover

For more on Black women’s voting rights and voter suppression, tune into “The TIE Podcast Fall Session Preview: A Conversation with Martha S. Jones”

In this episode, TIE editor in chief Alexia Hudson-Ward speaks with Dr. Marsha S. Jones on her critically acclaimed title, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. In addition to writing, Dr. Jones is a Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, Professor of History, and a Professor at the SNF Agora Institute at The Johns Hopkins University. 

This interview was conducted by Ashley Roy. She is the digital media assistant at Choice.