This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the United States constitution, granting women across the country access to vote — or so the textbooks have said. Martha S. Jones, a historian, educator and author of upcoming book “Vanguard: How Black Women Overcame Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All,” has dedicated her personal and professional life to uncovering the untold histories of African American women in U.S. politics.
Born in Central Harlem to an African American father and German and Irish mother, Jones attended the City University of New York School of Law, began her professional career as a lawyer and spent her free time exploring her family’s genealogy.
“I was born before the important decision Loving v. Virginia in 1964, which declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional,” Jones said. “There really wasn’t a vocabulary for people like me, or people who would be deemed ‘mixed-race’ or ‘biracial,’ and the family I was brought up in.”
With a growing curiosity for her African American ancestry, Jones began to pursue history in her academic endeavors at Columbia University and began teaching as a law, history and African American studies professor at the University of Michigan.
Today, she is a professor in the John Hopkins University history department, the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, immediate past co-president of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians and an award-winning author.
Her new book “Vanguard,” which will be released in September, goes past the standard story of women’s suffrage and explores the history of African American women’s battle for the ballot. Jones was featured in a Facebook Live event hosted by PBS Books in partnership with the Northwest African American Museum July 29 to discuss “Vanguard” as a part of the Trailblazing Women Virtual Series. Her interview is now available indefinitely on the PBS Books Facebook page, YouTube channel and website.
For many students in the U.S., the country’s history is first described in late elementary school with a handful of words and names. It’s an epic tale of revolution, a battle against a merciless king and victorious independence for all. It isn’t until much later that students begin to discuss African slavery, disenfranchisement of Black people and women and the civil rights movement to understand and form ideas about present-day United States. Even after 12 years of moving through the timeline of American history, so many stories remain untold to students and masked by white narratives of bravery and innovation.
Jones is hoping to change that.
“I am working now with K-12 teachers across the country, talking to them about ‘Vanguard’ and the history that I’ve tried to tell and working with them to determine how it might become incorporated in the lessons that they teach,” Jones said.
“Vanguard” reveals that while the year 1920 may have been historic for many white American women, the 19th amendment did not secure the right to vote for Black women. Getting their ballots required taking charge of their own suffrage movement.
But before expecting that textbooks and Advanced Placement exams are revamped to expand on African American history, Jones hopes students and educators raise their expectations for what they’re teaching and learning in school. “I want students to come into the classroom and say, ‘But what about African American women?’ This is a way to begin to change what happens in a classroom — by lifting or expanding students’ expectations.”
In addition to its relevance to the anniversary of the 19th amendment, “Vanguard” also happens to be going on the shelves during a critical time for the Black Lives Matter movement, following the murders of numerous Black Americans by police officers. Jones hopes her book will spark some long overdue conversations about the power of Black women in politics and expand the consciousness and curiosity of non-Black Americans who aspire to understand multiple histories.
“Once readers are able to better see the history of Black politics and how it’s flourished even in the face of racism and segregation, it will allow them to understand that Black Americans come into politics with fully formed philosophies, theories, issues, commitments, histories and more, that do not need permission from white Americans to be shared,” Jones said. “The women that I write about are not trying to get a seat at white women’s tables. They are building their own tables where they are having their own conversations, and always have been.”
Read more in the July 29 - Aug. 4, 2020 issue.