Faculty, Community Leaders Teach History of Representation Struggles in Lowell

Immigrants being sworn in as U.S. citizens at Minute Man National Historical Park in 2007 Image by Higgins&Ross
Immigrants being sworn in as U.S. citizens at Minute Man National Historical Park in 2007.

By Katharine Webster

This year marks milestone anniversaries for voting rights. It’s been 150 years since the passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted Black men the right to vote, and 100 years since the franchise was extended to women through the 19th Amendment.

Yet it’s important to remember that both amendments passed after decades of struggle and organizing, says History Prof. Robert Forrant.

“The passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment was the culmination of a battle that had been going on for almost 80 years. This was a long, protracted fight, and it ties into why voting matters, particularly in a presidential election year,” Forrant says. “The Civil Rights Movement and getting the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 was, again, a long struggle.”

That’s the main message of a new series of six webinars, “Every Voice Counts,” developed by the Tsongas Industrial History Center (TIHC) to educate teachers about the fight for voting rights and equitable representation for all, with a focus on Lowell history.

“We’re examining voting and voice through the lens of Lowell, as a microcosm for Massachusetts and the United States,” says Kristin Gallas, project manager for education development at the TIHC, an educational partnership between Lowell National Historical Park and UMass Lowell’s College of Education. “The series examines how people have been excluded from having a voice and what we can do to gain a voice.”

Speakers include UMass Lowell faculty and community leaders – some of whom are still engaged in the fight for broader representation. Forrant will lead off the series on Oct. 6 with an overview of Massachusetts and U.S. voting rights history. Four webinars will be held before the Nov. 3 election, and two after.

The webinars, which are funded in part by a $7,000 Mass Humanities grant, are accompanied by educational resources for teachers, especially in support of the state’s new civics education standards. The webinars are open to the public, too, Gallas says.

Lowell National Historical Park exhibit on the struggle for voting rights Image by Courtesy
Lowell-born suffragist and architect Florence Luscomb in a Lowell National Historical Park exhibit on the struggle for voting rights.

Lowell National Historical Park Ranger Allison Horrocks, a historian who also co-hosts a popular podcast on American Girl dolls and stories, will talk about the fight to empower women in civic life, from the labor movement started by the “mill girls” in the 1840s to the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Lawrence and Boston had much more active suffrage movements – and more anti-suffrage opposition, too, Horrocks says. But women in Lowell were very politically active in other ways, including in the labor rights and temperance movements and as members of the school committee, she says.

“Nearly 50 years before the passage of universal suffrage, women were able to take part in elections for schools because it was considered appropriate in their role as mothers,” she says. “As soon as suffrage passed, women were running for seats, and women were really mobilizing to register other women as voters.”

Assoc. Prof. of History Elizabeth Herbin-Triant will talk about the struggle for voting rights for Black people, from the passage of the 15th Amendment up to the 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, which dismantled much of the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"The First Vote," an engraving featured on the cover of Harper's Weekly, Nov. 16, 1867 Image by A.R. Waud
"The First Vote," an illustration on the cover of Harper's Weekly from Nov. 16, 1867.

“I’ll talk about voter suppression today and look at it through a historical lens,” says Herbin-Triant, author of the recent book “Threatening Property: Race, Class, and Campaigns to Legislate Jim Crow Neighborhoods.”

Sue Kim, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston, will talk about a 2017 lawsuit over fair representation in Lowell city elections.

In the past, all Lowell city councilors and school committee members were elected “at large” – and under that system, nearly all of those elected have been white, even though 49 percent of city residents are people of color. Kim says that was clearly illegal under previous federal court rulings.

“To me, it was so clear and obvious that there was a stark disparity in representation,” she says.

So Kim volunteered as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, along with 10 other Asian American and Latino residents. They were represented by Sellstrom and attorneys from Ropes & Gray, a Boston firm.

Last year, the two sides reached a consent decree. Now, the city has agreed to adopt a system in which some candidates run at large and others run within a district, including two city council districts and one school committee district where voting-age people of color comprise a majority. The district map, which is being drawn by an independent consultant with input from community organizations, will take effect for the 2021 city elections.

Another webinar will be led by Chiara St. Pierre, lead immigration attorney at the International Institute of New England. She will discuss immigrants' long road to citizenship and the right to vote.

“That journey from immigrant to U.S. citizen is long and time-consuming,” St. Pierre says. “Having that privilege from birth, we don’t always realize what that means.”

Lowell public school teacher Michael Neagle ’10 and Geoff Foster, director of organizing and policy at the United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) in Lowell, will lead the final webinar in the series, which will focus on how youth can organize for change even without the right to vote.

And they will talk about another milestone: Next year marks 50 years since the 26th Amendment passed, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 at a time when 18-year-old men were being drafted to fight in Vietnam.

Neagle won Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year in 2019 for his leadership on the eighth-grade civics curriculum, while Foster played a major role in the unsuccessful push to lower the voting age in Lowell elections to 17.

Throughout the series, teachers should find lots of good ideas and resources that they can incorporate into their history, social studies and civics classes, Forrant says. But most of all, he hopes that educators can help their students go beyond the anniversary celebrations to take the long view of history and social movements that expand rights to more people.

“In the moment we’re in, with an election that’s so fraught and a country that’s so divided, we need to see that these institutions, and voting in particular, give us the power to affect history and to make social change,” he says.