Richmond Story: The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia

X.2019.16.122, Who Represents Her?, Flyer, circa 1917, The Valentine

On November 27, 1909, a group of prominent white women met in a Richmond home to establish a statewide suffrage organization. Named the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, they elected Lila Meade Valentine as their president. Their mission was to “educate” Virginians and Virginia’s legislators on the merits of women’s suffrage. Like all good educators, they were strategic, creative and tireless in their methods. For easy access to the halls of power and the public, they established headquarters at 802 East Broad Street—just blocks from both the Capitol and the busiest commercial district in the city. From there, audiences were easy to capture.

Out in the streets, they distributed flyers both serious and humorous. To reach people in their homes, artistic members such as Nora Houston designed postcards. The writers—Ellen Glasgow and Mary Johnston—wrote editorials. Adele Clark, another artist, even used trickery to spread the message. With a paintbrush in hand, she’d set up her easel on Broad Street. After an unwitting crowd formed to watch her paint, she turn from her canvas and begin to canvass for the cause. The Equal Suffrage League became hard to ignore as they traveled to schools, took over street corners, haunted legislative sessions, attended union meetings, marched in parades and even set up booths at the state fair. By 1914, the League had grown to 45 local chapters. By 1916, they reported 115 local chapters statewide.

As a state-focused organization, the League aimed to gain suffrage through changes in the state constitution. But despite their multi-faceted efforts, the Virginia legislature rejected suffrage resolutions three times between 1912 and 1916. Some League members became frustrated and shifted their efforts to national organizations that lobbied the U.S. Congress for a Constitutional amendment. Others continued to press on at the state level, where they confronted the anti-suffragists’ escalating war of words. In Virginia, and across the South in general, many feared the unintended consequences of enfranchising Black women. With Black men and Black women at the polls, they argued, whites might lose power. In response, the League sought to allay those fears by embracing racist laws, positions and rhetoric. They printed more “educational” flyers, such as the one below, which assured nervous whites that white supremacy would, in fact, be strengthened by female suffrage.

V.89.25, Equal Suffrage and the Negro Vote, Flyer, circa 1910, The Valentine

Of course, the suffragists eventually won at the national level. When the Constitutional amendment passed Congress in 1919, the 32,000-member League poured their energies into the campaign for ratification. The amendment failed in both houses of the state legislature, however, by a large majority. It would not pass for more than 30 years. Only in 1952 did the General Assembly formally, perhaps begrudgingly, ratify the 19th Amendment. But none of this mattered much once enough states signed on by August of 1920. Within two months, and in time for the 1920 Presidential election, more than 10,000 white women and nearly 2,500 Black women had registered to vote in Virginia.

Learn more about the complicated, nuanced and problematic struggle for suffrage in Richmond when you visit our exhibition #BallotBattle: Richmond’s Social Struggle for Suffrage, which reimagines early suffrage debates through the lens of modern social media platforms.

Richmond Story: Fan Free Clinic

In the early 1980s, news outlets began to report about a mysterious new “gay cancer” in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Little was known about the disease, other than its main demographic. At first, the threat seemed far away to many Americans, with risk limited to the urban gay community. But soon, the epidemic spread to smaller cities and the demographic picture blurred. By 1990, the estimated number of people diagnosed worldwide with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was between eight and 10 million. With little information and with no known treatments, fear largely motivated responses in Richmond and around the word. People with AIDS were shunned. Hospitals posted huge warning signs outside patients’ rooms. Medical personnel wore hazmat suits and left food trays in the halls. Funeral homes refused to bury those who died of the disease. Here in Richmond, amidst this turmoil, a clinic initially founded to serve “hippies” stepped in to become the area’s leader in AIDS diagnosis, treatment, outreach and prevention.

V.89.192.320 Third annual AIDS candlelight vigil, sponsored by the Fan Free Clinic May 30, 1988 Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine Photo: Bruce Parker

The first free clinic in Virginia, two doctors, a nurse and a minister founded Fan Free Clinic in 1970. A large population of young, poor students and runaways had moved into the Fan District during the 1960s. Free love, communal living, recreational drug use and protests became the dominant lifestyle of the neighborhood. Skeptical of the judgment of the medical establishment, these young people tended to avoid doctors. When the Fan Free Clinic opened, it provided a revolutionary model for healthcare for a revolutionary generation. Without judgment and only using first names, the staff treated STDs, provided birth control, handled overdoses and treated a wide variety of injuries. They also provided counseling to young people entering into adulthood during this uncertain time.

A decade into operation, Fan Free Clinic had gained the trust of a skeptical community that had often avoided medical treatment. Soon, the staff began to notice that their young, mostly white counterculture patients had a lot in common with another medically elusive demographic: the broader population of urban poor, many of whom were Black. However, these individuals didn’t avoid medical care as an act of rebellion. Instead, many Black Richmonders couldn’t get time off work, struggled to find sustainable housing, couldn’t find childcare or simply couldn’t afford the care they needed. The Fan Free Clinic expanded to meet their needs as well, offering evening doctor appointments and advertising their services in homeless shelters.

When the AIDS epidemic hit Richmond in the 1980s, the Fan Free Clinic was poised to address the new healthcare threat. As hospitals balked at this mysterious new disease, as the media spread fear and misinformation and as scandalized citizens either moralized or refused to talk at all about the raging epidemic, Fan Free Clinic rose to the challenge. They formed Richmond’s frontline for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. In 1983, they set up an AIDS hotline and established Richmond AIDS Information Network (RAIN) with a network of volunteers. Through its AIDS hotline, volunteers answered questions about virus transmission and advocated for safer sex and the use of clean drug needles. Misinformation about how the disease spread terrified the American public, making education vitally important. Perhaps just as important, they fought the AIDS epidemic with compassion. RAIN provided services and companionship to those affected by the disease. They offered comfort to the dying, raised money for medical treatments and staged funerals. When other cemeteries around Richmond refused to bury AIDS victims, the Fan Free Clinic established their own burial ground.

The Fan Free Clinic, renamed Health Brigade, in still in operation today. Its mission remains unchanged: to provide medical treatment, health education and social services to Richmonders with limited access to care. Though its mission remains the same, the clinic’s reach has expanded in order to serve Richmond’s transgender community. As before, they are on the frontlines, combatting the healthcare challenges of a pandemic which has had a disparate impact on communities of color. Currently, Health Brigade is providing free testing and accurate COVID-19 information to a clientele that desperately need this vital lifeline of care.

To learn more about the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Virginia and the ongoin impact in 2020, we invite you to experience Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic, our exhibition that uses first-person oral histories and powerful black-and-white portraits to offer a nuanced look at the ongoing epidemic through the stories of survivors, caregivers, activists and health care workers on the front lines.