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From Fulton to Waterloo: How a Black Ky. native impacted the fight for women’s suffrage in Iowa

State Historical Society of Iowa

Though it’s far removed from the major battlegrounds for women’s suffrage, a Black west Kentucky native left their mark in the fight for women’s voting rights in rural Iowa.

Vivian Smith’s journey starts in Fulton, where she was born in 1891 to Samuel and Clemmie Smith. Her parents were both freemen – meaning they were a part of the first generation of African Americans to not be born into slavery. The Smiths eventually moved to Iowa, first to Clinton and then to Waterloo, in the aftermath of the Illinois Central Shopmen’s Strike of 1911.

Within a decade of her move to Iowa, women would win the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The road to suffrage was a long one, beginning in earnest in the decades before the Civil War with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony led the charge nationally, but people like Smith were working toward the same goal in the rural Midwest.

Robert Neymeyer, a history professor at The University of Northern Iowa, has studied the suffragist movement in Northern Iowa. He said the suffrage movement was slower in the Midwest than it was on the East Coast and metropolitan areas. The first march for women’s voting rights in Iowa didn’t happen until 1908, when more than 50 demonstrators took to the streets of Boone.

Even though it was a slow process, Neymeyer said suffragists’ efforts in Iowa were successful.

“It was a process,” Neymeyer said. “People worked hard at it, they worked to contribute to the effort, they contributed their personal time and personal wealth to it. But it was not a large movement that brought people into the streets.”

Smith pushed to open doors that were typically closed to Black people at the time. She attended Iowa State Teachers College – known today as University of Northern Iowa.

University of Northern Iowa Chief Diversity Officer Gwenne Berry said even though families like the Smiths moved to the North to escape segregation, there was just as much racism in states like Iowa and there were efforts to keep Iowa towns like Waterloo segregated.

“There was very little difference between the North and the South,” Berry said. “[Racism] was less overt in the North. There were still decided attempts to keep Black people from achieving.”

When Smith earned her bachelor’s degree in English in 1916, she was just the second Black graduate to attend the university. Murda Beason, Smith’s cousin, was the first just six months earlier.

After graduating, Smith faced racial discrimination while hunting for a teaching position. Her frustrations from going through this process led to her joining the Waterloo Suffragette Council and the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, which regularly organized and protested for gender equality. Eventually, Smith became the chairwoman for suffrage in the federation. Before finding a teaching job, Smith had to take up a job with a cleaning company to make ends meet.

“Vivian Smith did not allow herself to sink into this spiral of despair or depression,” Berry said. “It would have been easy for many people to do just that. After all of that work [she was] told ‘Too bad…here's a scrub brush.’”

Support for the women’s suffrage movement was bolstered by organizations like the ones Smith was a part of in Iowa. These grassroots organizations were more than a political movement, they were close-knit communities of like-minded people. Smith, an accomplished violinist and singer, would often perform for her peers at council and federation meetings.

As a part of the IFCWC, Smith advocated not only voting rights, but for the basic necessities women were denied at the time, such as having their own bank accounts. The group also created

the first dormitory for Black female students who could not find living spaces due to segregation while attending the University of Iowa. The dorm, known as the Iowa Federation Home, was built in 1919 and was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 2020.

Iowa’s voters weighed in on a referendum to allow women to vote in June 1916, but the measure would fail by close to 10,000 votes. Three years later, Iowa would ratify the 19th Amendment.

Smith taught at Black schools in the 1920s and 1930s in Iowa and in Illinois. During this period, she married Leroy Watts and they had a child, Leroy Watts Jr., who would later become an accomplished basketball player and a Korean War veteran.

When schools across the U.S. began integrating in the 1950s following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, Waterloo schools still weren’t hiring Black teachers.

Smith would pass away within a decade of the ruling, dying at age 70 in 1961.

Her work and her contributions to Iowa women’s history haven’t been forgotten though. In 2021, Smith’s story was included in “Toward a Universal Suffrage: African American Women in Iowa and the Vote for All,”atraveling exhibit that paid tribute to the Black women’s suffrage movement in the state.

Mason Galemore is a Murray State student studying journalism. He was the editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper. Since then has explored different publication avenues such as broadcasting. He hopes to travel as a journalist documenting conflict zones and different cultures. He remembers watching the Arab Spring in 2011 via the news when he was a kid, which dawned in a new age of journalism grounded in social media. His favorite hobbies are hiking, photography, reading, writing and playing with his Australian Shepard, Izzy. He is originally from Charleston, Missouri.
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