Ella Cunningham

(1878–1945) Ella was an African American activist who worked for black women's suffrage in the early twentieth century. She was especially active in 1917, when suffragists in New York State organized to pressure the state's voters to pass a women's suffrage amendment.

Born in South Carolina, Ella spent her adult life in New York City. She married at 19, but it ended in divorce. Despite her busy family and work life, as a domestic servant and laundress, Ella made time for political activism. She had no formal education; still she was literate and was determined to help black women gain the right to vote.

During World War I, Ella and other African Americans in New York City contributed $350 to the war fund for the Colored Men's division of the YMCA; remarkable considering her own income. At this same time, Ella was a member of the Colored Women's Suffrage Club of New York, participating in a statewide suffrage convention in August of 1917. The New York Age wrote an article about the event, which met in Saratoga in hopes of garnering support for a suffrage amendment, which was on the November ballot in New York State.

Women—black and white—traveled together to Saratoga. While suffragists had separate organizations, for this meeting, they united as affiliates of the New York City Woman Suffrage Party. The governor of New York and the mayor of New York City also attended the meeting. A reporter for The New York Age wrote that woman suffrage is one of the vital issues of the day to be given serious consideration. The State Suffrage party now has one million women enrolled under its banners.

The state convention was significant for black women in particular. While black and white women united to garner support for women's suffrage, black women had long been treated as inferiors to their white counterparts. Some black women openly demanded equal treatment, nonetheless, they supported the New York Woman Suffrage Party because it was their best opportunity to gain the right to vote.

The efforts of Ella and the other members of the Colored Women's Suffrage Club of New York City paid off. After hosting and attending meetings, sending postcards, knocking on strangers' doors, and even finding transportation for male allies to get to the polls on Election Day, Black women suffragists succeeded as New York voters made women's suffrage the state law in November 1917 three years before the Nineteenth Amendment required all states to grant women the right to vote.

Ella continued to live in New York City with her adult children and worked the same jobs that she had before she won the right to vote. But she experienced a significant difference: she was able to—and did—vote. (Bio courtesy Alexanderstreet.com)

Holy Cross Cemetery

St. Augustine, System: CEM, Section: AUGU, Row: 23, Plot: 42

3620 Tilden Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11203

Kings County

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