Irene Moorman Blackstone

Suffragist, Club Woman Extraordinaire, and Activist for Racial Equity

Irene Moorman, 1909 (Wikimedia Commons)

Irene Moorman was born in Virginia to a formerly enslaved woman named Johanna Enders Moorman, just seven years after the end of the Civil War.

Details of her early life are hard to track down, but what I did find is impressive.

In under three decades, she went from being one of 18 children from a poor Black family in the South under Reconstruction to a prominent New York businesswoman.

She made her way from Virginia to New Jersey then New York where she worked in brokerage and real estate firms. I have no idea where she got her education, or how she ended up in male-dominated fields like those. But I do know that public and private aid was scarce in those days. She likely relied on her wits and tenacity.

At the Clubhouse

Once in New York, Irene established herself by joining a lot of clubs.

For many New Yorkers, club life was synonymous with social life at the time. Social clubs — not unlike the ones you’d find on a present day college campus — were organized around everything from heritage (German clubs, Irish clubs, Italian clubs, etc) to vocation (police clubs, lawyers clubs, theatrical clubs) to income, and yes, to gender. The first women’s club — the Colony Club — was established in 1903 by some very wealthy women and it caused a great scandal, but also inspired dozens of other women’s clubs to form in short order.

Irene joined, and was an elected officer of, about a half-dozen or so, including:

  • Negro Women’s Business League of New York (president)
  • Metropolitan Business Women’s Club of Brooklyn (founder and president)
  • Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs (treasurer)
  • National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (board member)
  • Young Women’s Christian Association (board member)
  • Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn
  • Political Equality Association

Won’t You Join Me, Madam President?

As president of the Negro Women’s Business League she attracted the notice of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, a wealthy, eccentric, and controversial suffragist.

Mrs. Belmont liked to be in control of things, and in 1910 she decided that she should integrate the suffrage movement. She may or may not have been aware of the complicated history of race in the movement when she did so. Alva Belmont was accustomed to getting her way, and so when she decided she wanted to reach out to Black women she called on one that she deemed an appropriate ally — Irene Moorman.

Alva asked Irene to help her organize Black women for the suffrage cause, and Irene said yes.

As a first step, she organized a gathering of 200 women at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church on West 53rd Street. The main event was a speech by Alva Belmont.

In it, Alva proclaimed her dedication for the rights of women of all races, and exhorted those present to join her organization — the Political Equality Association. She promised that if 100 of them did she would build a branch in Harlem.

Broken Promises

Many women did sign up, and Belmont did build the branch. But the relationship between Moorman and Belmont was tenuous from the start.

“[I asked her] if she really thought colored women would be allowed to vote if the ballot privilege was conferred on them, as it is to the colored men of
the South. She assured me that if it were made the law that women
might vote, the right would not be denied them,” wrote Irene.

Her skepticism temporarily assuaged, Irene proceeded with plans for the Harlem branch of the PEA, which her community had insisted be called the Men’s and Women’s Political Equality Association. They didn’t share their white sisters’ animosity towards men.

Unfortunately, Irene’s skepticism proved prescient. By the time the branch opened the following year, relations had already soured. Following in the footsteps of some of her unreliable foremothers, Alva chose to ally with powerful southern white women and give up her association with Irene Moorman. Not long after it opened, the Harlem branch of the PEA closed.

A Stage of Her Own

Despite the rift with the PEA, Irene Moorman was firmly on the public stage, and continued to speak publicly on behalf of women’s rights and civil rights.

In 1915, a Long Island newspaper described her as a woman of “dashing appearance” (unclear why that’s relevant) “who is a familiar figure at woman suffrage headquarters in Manhattan.”

Around the same time, Irene married a Reverend Blackstone, but the marriage didn’t last long. She fought him in the courts for several years and eventually was awarded an alimony payment of $3/week. The experience likely strengthened her determination to fight for her own political power as a Black woman.

Greener Idealogical Pastures

Still as passionate and involved as ever, but feeling betrayed by the mainstream women’s movement, Irene soon found a new community. In 1916, she attended the first New York City lecture ever given by Marcus Garvey.

His message of pride and worthiness and shared struggle must have moved her deeply, and only a year later she joined his club,

Marcus Garvey with his second wife, activist Amy Jacques Garvey, 1922 (Wikimedia Commons)

becoming president of the ladies’ branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

In this capacity, she kept speaking publicly about both racism and sexism. In one lecture, decrying the power structures that kept Black women down, she urged them to “leave white women’s kitchens” and rely on their own unique skills and ingenuity.

In 1919 she was a featured speaker at the funeral of Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made Black millionaire and subject of Netflix’s Self Made, starring Octavia Spencer. Unfortunately, the writers of the miniseries didn’t dramatize the funeral. An oversight.

Later in life, Irene’s career as a club woman culminated in her election as president of the New York City Federation of Women’s Clubs — president of the club of all the other clubs.

She never stopped fighting for equality, both for her sex and for her race.

“I am American. I am Black. And I am proud that I’m Black,” she proclaimed.

Sources:

Neuman, J. (2019). Gilded suffragists: The New York socialites who fought for women’s right to vote. New York: Washington Mews Books, and imprint of New York University Press.

Keisha, B. N. (2018). Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Biographical Sketch of Irene Moorman Blackstone written by Susan Goodier, fl. 2007 (Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street, 2017), 2 page(s)

Johnson, J. M. (2020). Not as a Favor Not as a Privilege, But as a Right: Woman Suffragists, Race, Rights, and the Nineteenth Amendment. Western New England Law Review, 4242(3), 389–394.

Irene Moorman Blackstone. Iowa State University Archives of Women’s Political Communication.

Wilder, C. S. (2000). A covenant with color: Race and social power in Brooklyn. New York, NY: Columbia Univ. Press.

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Ariel Azoff

Ariel Azoff

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NYC Tour Guide, writer, and amateur historian focusing on NYC women’s history. My day job is staying curious @AtlasObscura.