Suffragists Paved the Way for the First Black Female Mayor of Chicago

For the first time in its history, Chicago will have a Black female mayor. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he would not seek a third term, over a dozen people entered the race to run the third largest city in the country and the largest in the Midwest. Of the 14 candidates who made the ballot, three were Black women — Toni Preckwinkle, Lori Lightfoot, and Amara Enyia. Preckwinkle and Lightfoot will compete in the upcoming runoff election.

These Black women represent a continuum of their predecessors who fought for suffrage and participated in political movements for the past 170 years. Excluded by white women, Black suffragists in Chicago formed their own suffrage and civic organizations. In 1913, Ida B. Wells co-founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, which aggressively canvassed door-to-door to elect Oscar De Priest as the first Black alderman in 1915. He became the first Black congressman from Illinois in 1929. Chicago women have continued to campaign and canvass for Black male elected officials, but they also ran for political office. In 1930, Ida B. Wells ran for Illinois state Senate, just 10 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment. Although she lost by a wide margin, she and her contemporaries paved the way for the Black women who have been elected to serve as some of the 50 aldermen who make up the City Council, as well as city treasurer, county clerk, and Cook County State’s Attorney. Others have also served in numerous powerful appointed positions. And now, Chicago’s next mayor will be a Back woman.

The two mayoral candidates have different professional backgrounds and experience. Preckwinkle is a long-term politician serving first as an alderman on the South Side and currently as Cook County board president. Lightfoot has never held elected office; she is a private practice attorney who has held various government positions in the city, including president of the Chicago Police Board. The candidates also have different sexual orientations, philosophies, and approaches to tackling challenges.

What they do have in common, however, is their desire to tackle various issues in Chicago, including racial inequality and economic disparity. Although Chicago was founded by a Black man named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable and is racially diverse — with an almost 33 percent African American population — it is one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. Black people have long been concentrated on the South and West sides of the city, which have been underdeveloped and under-invested in for decades, while the majority of the white and more affluent population live in the downtown area and North Side.

The city has several challenges that the next mayor will need to confront. There is a major pension deficit, vast disparities between neighborhoods, as well as challenges with the police department and the African American community. This long-term tension came to the forefront after Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, was shot 16 times in 2014. Some perceive that the police, mayor, and former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez tried to cover up an investigation into the shooting and simply pay off the family. This case has been used as an example by activists to highlight decades of systemic abuse and ethnic disparities in the police department. Chicago is also notorious for its “political machine,” where power is concentrated with one party and involves strong-arm tactics and strategies that have become known as the “Chicago way.”

Over the past 100 years, the women who effectively maneuvered through Chicago’s rough and tumble political landscape paved the way for today’s historical number of Black women being elected into top political positions. Black suffragists not only battled against white women for the right to vote but also fought against racism. They petitioned, marched, and lobbied local and national politicians so today’s Black women can not only vote, but run the government.

The path that these women blazed is now being documented in recent books and documentaries, including Angela P. Dodson’s Remember the Ladies and The Women’s Suffrage Movement and The Black Suffragist documentary. As a result of their efforts, Black women have made great strides to become major players as elected officials in Chicago.

After decades of Black women’s activism, either Lori Lightfoot or Toni Preckwinkle will become Chicago’s first Black female mayor. Not only will her win be historical, but for most residents of Chicago, there is a hope that she will help to transform the city. The hope is that the voices of the underserved communities will finally be heard and represented at the table of power.

As we celebrate her victory in the coming weeks, we should not forget that the next mayor of Chicago stands on the shoulders of thousands of women who paved the way.

About the Author

Michelle Duster is an award-winning author, speaker, and educator. Her professional background includes two decades of writing in advertising and marketing communications, event planning and concert promotion. Since 2008 she has written, edited, and contributed to nine books and dozens of articles. In addition, she is active with several committees and boards to develop city, state, and national projects that focus on African Americans’ and women’s contribution to history. She is the great-granddaughter of civil rights icon Ida B. Wells.