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The Great Migration Revealed in Boston's Women’s Voter Registration Records

Among the 50,000 women who registered to vote in Boston in 1920, a large number living in the South End were women of color.

By Anna Boyles

South End kids pose on stone lion, 511 Columbus Ave.
South End kids pose on stone lion, 511 Columbus Ave., ca 1917-1934, Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The United States ratified and adopted the 19th Amendment of the Constitution in 1920; this amendment prevented states from denying the right to vote on the basis of sex and allowed many women to vote for the first time in our nation’s history. Women across the country flocked to voter registration offices to fulfill their right to full suffrage. Among the 50,000 women who registered to vote in Boston in 1920, a large number living in the South End in particular were women of color. The South End neighborhood at this time was home to a growing population of Black residents. Many of these newcomers arrived during what is known as the Great Migration. The Great Migration refers to the time period from the 1910s to the 1970s, when there was an exodus of Black people from the south. These Black southerners left their home states seeking better economic opportunities and an escape from Jim Crow policies and violence. Black women born in North Carolina, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia represent a significant number of those in the 1920 voter registration records from Boston’s South End.  

Ward 13 Voter Register
Excerpt from Ward 13 of General Register of Women Voters showing voters from North Carolina and Virginia, 1920, Boston City Archives

While many migrated from across the country, a number of Black people native to Massachusetts made neighborhoods like the South End their home. For example, members of the Mary Eliza Project spotted a woman born in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, registering to vote while living on Lenox Street in Boston. Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard has supported a historically Black community since the 1700s, and it was a resort destination for the Black community in the 1900s when other towns on the island refused to serve Black vacationers.

Entry from Women's Voter Register showing Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts
Excerpt from Ward 13 of General Register of Women Voters showing a voter born in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, 1920, Boston City Archives

It wasn’t just those born in the United States who added to the number of Black citizens of Boston; immigrants from the Caribbean, too, settled and registered to vote here. Women originally from the British West Indies stood in line and signed their name in the 1920 voter registration books next to women from New England and the southern United States. The British West Indies referred to the British territories in the Caribbean, including the Bahamas, Belize, Guyana, and Jamaica, among others.

Excerpt of Women's Voter Register, Ward 6, showing birthplaces
Excerpt from Ward 6 of General Register of Women Voters showing voters born in the British West Indies, 1920,Boston City Archives

In the early 1900s, the United Fruit Company ran steamships between Boston and ports in Jamaica. These ships not only transported cargo like bananas, but they also allowed people to travel cheaply between the Caribbean and New England. You can find these women and more in the transcribed voter registrations from Boston’s Ward 6 and Ward 13!

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Anna Boyles is a fourth year undergraduate history student at Simmons University.

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