Juno Frankie Pierce: The Untold Story of a Southern Suffragist

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Emily Neis

Juno Frankie Pierce, more well-known as Frankie Pierce, was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1864. She was the daughter of Frank Seay, a freedman, and Nellie Seay, a former slave to Colonel Robert Allen, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.[1] Frankie Pierce attended a Presbyterian mission school and continued her education at Roger Williams University.[2] Pierce became a teacher and taught at a public school for black children in Nashville. She was also a very active member of the First Colored Baptist Church. Her role in the church and her career as a teacher set her on the path to pursue important social justice issues later in life. Frankie Pierce would soon become a well-known activist and leader in Tennessee.

Black and white image of Juno Frankie Pierce.
Juno Frankie Pierce, circa 1920.[3]

Pierce got her first experience with social activism through organized Black church clubs. She founded the Negro Women’s Reconstruction League and the Nashville Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, which focused on advocating for better education, childcare, and housing. In one of her first acts of leadership, Pierce led these organizations to march to the mayor’s office and demanded public restrooms for Black women in downtown Nashville. She proved to be successful when a restroom for Black women was installed in a store after the march.[4] Pierce was also heavily involved in advocating for better schools in Nashville. Pierce’s involvement in education gave her exposure to becoming an activist.

As president of the Negro Women’s Reconstruction League, Pierce made the women’s suffrage movement a key part of the club. By 1919, tension over whether Tennessee would become the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment grew. Although the suffrage movement had been fighting for decades, in the Jim Crow South, this fight often looked much different. The suffrage movement was extremely segregated and usually a woman’s right to vote meant exclusively white women. Even today, when our society looks back at the suffrage movement, it immediately points to prominent figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Even though these individuals were important, many more women helped make suffrage a reality, and many of these women were women of color.

In 1919, Pierce joined forces with white suffragists to lobby the Tennessee legislature for women’s right to vote.[5] The Black women’s clubs had begun to work with white organizations, such as the Tennessee Equal Suffrage League and the Tennessee League of Women Voters, to get out the vote. It was clear there were racial tensions between Black and White suffragists but they knew there was a greater cause at hand. Pierce united with white suffragists, not because of a sisterly bond, but to secure rights and resources for Black women and girls.[6] She arranged a “political alliance” with Catherine Kenny, the chair of both leagues. Together they organized registration campaigns across Tennessee cities that were effective. Black women in Nashville had their own leaders who knew the importance of voting potential. These women, including Pierce, were well-educated, well-connected, and strongly motivated. They had developed a vital network in Nashville for voting mobility.[7] With all of these forces combined, Pierce and Kenny were able to mobilize thousands of women voters in unprecedented numbers. According to newspapers, women made up an estimated fifth to third of those registering to vote in the 1919 elections.[8]

Kenny was impressed with Pierce’s organizational skills and invited her to address the Tennessee League of Women Voters in a convention at the Tennessee Capitol in May 1920. Pierce was the only Black woman allowed to address state officials during the convention. Pierce tackled fears that female suffrage would threaten white supremacy. Pierce discussed how Black women would “stand by the white women,” but they were also asking for a “square deal – the right to continue their racial uplift work in the form of education and child welfare.”[9] She also made it clear that suffrage was a universal right and that Black women were “interested in the same moral uplift of the community in which we live as you are… we want recognitions in all forms of government.”[10] She advocated for a vocational school for “delinquent” Black children because they could not attend white schools and the only alternative was putting them in jail. She also advocated for child welfare programs and expanded state schools at this convention. The League adopted these demands as part of its legislative agenda and lobbied for them. When the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, a Tennessee bill was also passed that created the Tennessee Vocational School for Colored Girls. This is one of Pierce’s greatest accomplishments and she served as the superintendent of this school for over ten years.

The organization and mobilization that occurred in Nashville, Tennessee was a not common occurrence in the South during this era. The alliance between Black and White suffragists in return for certain rights and legislation was a “rare alliance.”[11] This was a mutually beneficial relationship but it still challenged social norms that existed in the Jim Crow South. These women were successful in mobilizing thousands of women voters for the first time. Although there was significant success in registering women voters, Black women in the South would continue to face years of discrimination and obstacles. They faced harassment, threats, and violence. It would take many more years and movements to change this environment. The history of suffrage in the U.S. is complicated and is much more controversial than usually remembered. The story of Frankie Pierce highlights this complexity and also sheds light on important Black figures who fought for universal suffrage.

Pierce was an influential leader who was able to successfully organize many women in Tennessee. She was a “dynamic, persistent, single-minded leader who remained engaged in civil rights and social welfare throughout her life.”[12] Her efforts were substantial and influential as she helped to register thousands of women to vote for the first time in U.S. history. Pierce also battled against discrimination and racism in the complex politics of the South, but utilized important nonviolent forms of protest, organization, and campaigning to create change. She is among many women who are often overlooked in the suffrage movement but made long-lasting impacts. Pierce is a relevant figure who highlights the importance and success of nonviolent tactics in movements for social change.

[1] Carol Lynn Yellin, The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage, (Memphis, Tennessee: Vote 70 press), 2016, p. 3.

[2] Anita Shafer Goodstein, “A Rare Alliance: African American and White Women in the Tennessee Elections of 1919 and 1920,” The Journal of Southern History, 1998, p. 228.

[3] Yellin, The Perfect 36, p. 5.

[4] Ibid. p. 5.

[5] Jessica Wilkerson, “Pointing a Way Forward,” Southern Cultures, 2020, p. 9.

[6] Wilkerson, “Pointing a Way Forward,” p. 10.

[7] Goodstein, “A Rare Alliance,” p. 224.

[8] Ibid, p. 237.

[9] Wilkerson, “Pointing a Way Forward,” p. 10.

[10] Goodstein, “A Rare Alliance,” p. 239.

[11] Ibid, p. 1.

[12] Ibid, p. 228.