We all know what landmark decision was passed in 1920, right? Does the 19th amendment ring any bells? Well, it should! The 19th amendment was passed by Congress in 1919 and ratified in 1920, granting women the right to vote. In St. Louis, women across the city were gathering, organizing, and protesting for their right to vote long before 1919, and one organization in particular continued in their fight for social justice long after suffrage.
Ever heard of the National League of Women Voters? They were a group of bad-ass women dedicated progressivism, self-education, and nonpartisan persuasion in order to effect change.
Basically, they were seeking justice and opportunity for all. Here is some cheese:
But seriously! The League was formed in February of 1919 at a Chicago convention, and the St. Louis chapter was formed just a month later.
Buckle up! I’m about to give you the fastest history of the League ever:
(Most effective if you read this out loud really, really fast.)
1920s: College-educated women joined the League to volunteer and become “more informed citizens” and they investigated political issues and local candidates through their production of voter guides.
1930s: Focus on efforts concerning St. Louis public housing and schools.
1940s: During the World War II era, most of the League’s efforts centered on the war effort. (Like good citizens, duh.)
1950s: This is where the League gets really busy. They have efforts focused on economics, foreign relations, international trade, housing and urban planning, and public schooling. One particular focus of the League was “Missouri Problems” (We had some issues, y'all). Many of these "problems" concerned equality, school districting, equal access to education and libraries, the establishment of a Human Rights Commission, and . . . (this is the best part!) . . . abolition of segregation in state-supported schools and universities.
PAY ATTENTION! Equality and inclusion were concerns very important to the St. Louis League and were topics that set them quite apart from other National League divisions.
*1 billion flexing arm emojis*
The St. Louis League division was an integrated chapter, while most other divisions had separate Leagues segregated by race. While not all member of the League supported desegregation efforts, as a majority, the St. Louis League sought to protect its African American members, even refusing to meet in segregated spaces, or at sites of experienced discrimination.
Here is a cool thing to look at…
In 1954 the League designed a pamphlet they circulated amongst their members and local political officials in order to gain support in their effort to begin organizing a Human Rights Commission. At a cause owed to this pamphlet and the women behind the effort, a Human Rights Commission of Missouri was eventually established in 1957. VICTORY!!!
One active member of the League was Frankie Freeman, a lawyer fighting for equal treatment in the eyes of the law right here in St. Louis.
Born in 1916 in Danville, Virginia, Frankie Freeman was dedicated to civil rights causes and became committed to reform in St. Louis. In 1948, Freeman served as a junior attorney in a case against the St. Louis Board of Education accusing them of providing racially unequal access to curriculum programs.
Continuing with her streak of bad-assery, in 1954 Freeman served as the leading attorney of the NAACP case, Davis et al v. the St. Louis Housing Authority, which resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that disbanded the enforcement of segregation in housing.
Yes, you read correctly—this nation-wide, landmark ruling resulted from a case that began in St. Louis!
Here is a St. Louis Argus clipping announcing Freeman’s appointment to the Housing Authority, one of her many accomplishments:
Quick run-down of a few of her major accomplishments:
(Most abridged list ever)
In 1955, she became the first associate general counsel of the St. Louis Housing Authority and Land Clearance Authority.
In 1958, Freeman became the first black women to be named a charter member of the Missouri advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and in 1964 she was nominated by President Johnson to serve as a member on the commission.
In 1982, Freeman helped found the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights.
In 2007, Freeman was honored in with an induction into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in Atlanta.
In 2015, President Obama invited Freeman to serve as a Member of the Commission on Presidential Scholars.
Oh, and did I mention that she lives in St. Louis and is still a practicing attorney? May I remind you that she is 99?
That’s it. Everyone get up and go make a difference today.
Wanna Know More?
Check out this book on The League of Women Voters by Avis Carlson: The League of Women Voters in St. Louis: The First Forty Years 1919-1959. St. Louis, 1959.
Or visit the State Historical Society’s seriously extensive collection of the Leagues archives. Much work is to be done here!
Of course Katharine Corbett talks the League and Freeman in In Her Place: A Guide to St. Louis Women's History. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1999. (Can you tell the Renegades love this book??)
A few online articles have been written about Freeman, such as: Rick Desloge’s “St. Louis Character: Frankie Freeman” from the St. Louis Business Journal on July 2, 2006 and The History Makers website, “Hon. Frankie Freeman.”
Freeman wrote an autobiography of her life and career with the help of Candace Connor: A Song of Faith and Hope: The Life of Frankie Muse Freeman.