Celebrating Lethia Cousins Fleming
From October 2019-October 2020, we will be featuring a special guest blogger once a month to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
This month we are excited to share a post from Carol Lasser, an Emerita Professor of History at Ohio’s own Oberlin College. Professor Lasser’s work focuses on women, gender, and race in history. You can learn more about the blog series here.
March is Women’s History Month, and this year, 2020, is the centennial of the 19th amendment—an anniversary that I commemorate but I don’t celebrate. To understand why, let me recount the life of Lethia Cousins Fleming (1876-1963). She’s not your old-school suffragist. A remarkable African American Ohioan who fought for votes for all women, she became a force in local Cleveland and then national politics. And, to borrow a phrase, she did it her way.
Lethia Cousins was born in Tazewell, Virginia, into an African American family comfortable enough to send her to Ironton, Ohio, for high school and Morristown, Tennessee for College. She then taught for two decades in Black schools in the Bluefields, West Virginia, region where the mining industry was growing rapidly. There people of color defied the rise of Jim Crow with their electoral participation and their vibrant community building. And there, Lethia became active in women’s organizations, woman suffrage, and, I suspect, politics, within a lively Republican party.
Lethia Cousins came to Ohio at age 35 when she married Thomas Wallace Fleming. Tom was big deal in Cleveland. A former barber turned lawyer and Republican party operative, he had, in 1909, secured election for one term to an at-large seat on Cleveland’s City council, becoming its first African American member. Although solid on race issues, Tom was no idealist; he worked with Republican machine politicians who opposed the efforts of Progressives and Democrats to clean up corruption. But Republicans were, after all, the party of Lincoln. And Lethia Cousins Fleming joined Tom in the rough and tumble of politics in Cleveland’s Central district, with its bars and boarding houses then swelling with Black southerners seeking new chances “Up North.” As Tom later said, “We rose in politics together, because we worked as one in all our efforts.”
Lethia became known as an expert fundraiser for local Black institutions including the city’s Mount Zion Church, its Home for Aged Colored People and its Phillis Wheatley Association—a residential settlement house serving single female migrants. She worked within Black women’s clubs to secure their endorsement of woman suffrage and she joined the predominantly white Cleveland Women’s Party. When over 10,000 Ohio suffragists marched in Cleveland in October 1914, Lethia was there—along with other African American women leaders including Phillis Wheatley founder Jane Edna Hunter and Mary Martin Brown, later the first African American woman elected to the Cleveland School Board.
And Lethia was tough; she demanded that the suffrage movement take women of color seriously. After the Civil War, the old abolitionist-feminist alliance had dissolved, and most suffrage supporters took up a “Southern Strategy” that pursued voting rights for white women while maintaining the regional disenfranchisement of Black men. In collaboration with Democratic party rule, a combination of literacy tests, grandfather clauses and poll taxes, succeeded in taking the ballot away from all but 5% of African American men in the states below the Mason-Dixon. Meanwhile, the extra-legal violence of lynching was on the rise.
Lethia believed that women’s suffrage would challenge these injustices. As she wrote to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “The negro women will never stand the treatment that the negro men have stood in regard to voting.” She applauded Ohio’s suffragists who demanded “that all women must receive equal treatment at the hands of our government,” continuing
This is a new day. After the many wars in which the negro men have laid down their lives for the democracy of the world they have been treated inhuman[ly]….We, the colored people of America are not going to ask for alms any longer; rather we are going to demand some of the things that are due to us, and one of the first that we are demanding is a square deal, a fair play and a right to live as human beings…
Lethia plunged into efforts to make democracy work; even before Ohio women could vote, she took charge of Tom’s 1915 campaign for a City Council Seat from Ward 11, rallying local women of color to organize their menfolk to vote for her husband, with promises of improvements in street lighting and paving, a municipal bathhouse, playground, and gymnasium. Tom won, and retained this office until 1929. In appreciation of her talents, the Cleveland Republican machine appointed Lethia as “Precinct Committeeman”—there was no gender-neutral term. It was the beginning of her rise in the Republican party.
In 1920, following women’s enfranchisement, Lethia’s skills attracted her national recognition. Accompanying Tom when he served as an appointed delegate to the Republican Presidential Convention in Chicago, Lethia lobbied among African Americans for the nomination of fellow Ohioan Warren G. Harding. She was so successful that, after the Flemings visited the Hardings at their home in Marion, Ohio, the candidate asked Lethia to head the National Republican Women’s Bureau in Chicago, an organization created specifically to recruit newly empowered African American women voters into the GOP.
Lethia was thrilled. As she reported: “Colored women have done much with organization for good …. They have felt more keenly than the men the vast injustice that has been visited upon their race.” Referring to the recent conclusion of World War One, she went on, “They stood behind American armies with sacrifices and prayers….No American mother has made a deeper, more moving sacrifice than the colored mother.” Then praising the candidate and his party, she went on:
Senator Harding has opened the door of hope by giving the assurance to the race that the wrongs that have been perpetrated against it by the Democratic party will cease with his election. The Republican party standing as it does for the last word in freedom, began its existence upon the principle of liberty by abolishing slavery, and is living up to its traditions in being the prime mover and largest contributor to the greatest emancipation of the century—granting the suffrage to all womankind.
Realizing the fact that there are 2,913,000 colored women of voting age, we are urging the colored women to organize. She is in a position to make herself a power for good, and to use her suffrage for the highest purpose. She can be a wonderful aid to her race in its struggles against the oppression that the Democratic party has visited upon it. We have a chance to aid in the redemption and we intend to take advantage of it.
Other prominent African American women with Ohio connections also worked for Harding in this, the first presidential contest to include Black women voters. Oberlin College graduate and founding president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Mary Church Terrell organized with Lethia in the East. Wilberforce dean, author, and prominent clubwoman Hallie Q. Brown rallied Republican women of color in the Midwest. Lethia led them proclaiming:
The Nineteenth Amendment was nothing less than a miracle…We as Colored women have prayed for a better day, a day when we would be in a position to demand fair play and an equal chance…..
So my dear fellow citizens, we must elect Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and with them a Republican Congress; then we can feel that we as Race women have real friends at the head of our great Nation.
The Harding Campaign was the first of five presidential contests in which Lethia would head efforts to rally women of color to the Republican candidate. In 1924, she chaired the Ohio “Colored Women’s Committee” before directing activities for Calvin Coolidge. In 1928, she organized on behalf of Herbert Hoover. Her efforts in 1936 for Alf Landon and 1940 for Wendell Willkie were less successful, but testified to her ongoing party loyalty. Yet the era of African American allegiance to the party of Lincoln had, by then, ended.
Unfortunately, Lethia Cousins Fleming did not succeed in derailing the suffrage movement’s “Southern Strategy.” Nor did she live to see the end of southern disenfranchisement of people of color. Only in 1964 did the 24th amendment to the US Constitution eliminate the poll tax; and not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did Black voter registration make real progress, making it possible for more Black women to exercise the rights promised the 19th Amendment. But in her lifetime, Lethia made her mark. An African American suffragist who demanded justice for women and men of her race, she worked to make a place for women of color in electoral politics. And so, while I will only commemorate the passage of the 19th amendment, I celebrate Lethia Cousins Fleming, a champion among Ohio women.
Carol Lasser is Emerita Professor of History at Oberlin College. She has written on Antebellum American women including Lucy Stone, antislavery, gender, and education. Her most recent book, with Gary Kornblith is Elusive Utopia: The Struggle for Racial equality in Oberlin, Ohio (LSU Press, 2018)
Thumbnail image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery.