You can read a version of this story and more in the Summer 2021 issue of The TRiiBE Guide: Heritage Edition. Visit to find a copy of The TRiiBE Guide near you. Cover photo features Kannon Purnell, the 5th great-grandson of 19th century Chicago abolitionists John Jones and Mary Richardson Jones.

We can’t talk about abolition today without talking about the Black women integral to the movement. In Chicago, Ida B. Wells was essential to building political power for Black women. As an investigative journalist, teacher, anti-lynching crusader and mother of six, Wells was already influential to the national political arena before making an impression on Chicago politics. 

Before Wells’ arrival near the turn of the twentieth century, Black people in the Chicago area and across Illinois were already engaged in a long fight to abolish slavery and end racial discrimination. In 1871, Chicagoan John Jones became the first Black elected official in Illinois. Jones led the charge to repeal the Black Codes, a set of discriminatory laws against Black people.

Along with his wife Mary Richardson Jones, the Joneses were crucial to the abolition of slavery and emancipation. Richardson Jones helped found a club dedicated to Black political action and directing aid to former enslaved people, called the Chicago Colored Ladies Freedmen’s Aid Society. Together, she and her husband opened their doors to runaway slaves making their way north on the Underground Railroad and created a space for abolitionists to meet and organize.

After John Jones’ passing in 1879, his estate —left to Mary — was worth more than $70,000 (that’s $1.8 million today). Mary contributed to the Hull House, the Phyllis Wheatley Club and Provident Hospital, while also dedicating herself to the suffrage movement, becoming one of the first Black women to lead the fight before her passing in 1910.

American journalist and civil rights activist, Ida B. Wells (1862 – 1931), 1920. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

By that point, the women’s suffrage movement had gained momentum, but also garnered criticism for excluding Black women. In 1896, Wells helped establish the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC), a merger of several organizations advocating for Black women’s suffrage and civil rights. The NACWC opened the doors for many Black women leaders, including Chicagoan Dr. Mary Fitzbutler Waring, who later became NACWC’s 10th president during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

As president, Waring raised awareness on anti-lynching bills and worked tirelessly to make segregation illegal. She was also known for her leadership in the medical profession and paving the way for more Black female physicians. The NACWC went on to become one of the most influential organizations for Black women’s suffrage and has since continued to pave the way for community service and activism. 

Aside from the NACWC, Wells also created the first and one of the most important organizations dedicated to Black women’s suffrage in Illinois: the Alpha Suffrage Club. Her goal was to expand the women’s suffrage movement to include Black women and to build their political power. She was widely criticized by other leaders of the larger women’s suffrage movement whose primary intent was to win voting rights for white women only. 

Wells was keen on expanding Black women’s suffrage nationally, and in 1914 she tapped Chicagoan Mary C. Byron to create a suffrage organization for Black women in Missouri. Byron was also a member of Negro Women’s Civic League in Chicago’s Sixth Ward, focusing on the political struggles of Black women in Chicago. In 1914, Oscar DePriest was elected as the first Black alderman of Chicago’s City Council, a feat largely attributed to the Alpha Suffrage Club.

Byron went on to leave a long-lasting impression in Illinois politics, later becoming the first Black woman to run for a seat in the Illinois General Assembly. Her platform included a standard wage for domestic workers, protection of women in industry work, and a state school board. Despite losing her election, Byron continued to run for office including once for Cook County Commissioner, but unfortunately never won a seat.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.