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College of Arts and Sciences

How the Rollin Sisters started the women's suffrage movement in South Carolina

By Bryan Gentry | August 14, 2020

Shortly after the Civil War, five African American sisters began the women's suffrage movement in South Carolina. But the Rollin Sisters' role is often lost to history, as most histories written about the movement begin in the 1890s. This omission denies the rich legacy that the women of color left to their state.

Valinda Littlefield, a history professor at the University of South Carolina, is working to remedy that omission with the help of other historians. On August 10, 2020, she presented "Sins of Omission: The Rollin Sisters and the SC Suffrage Movement" in a webinar to highlight what researchers have found so far.

The Rollin Sisters were born into a wealthy, free Black family in Charleston, South Carolina, and later moved to Columbia. The talk details how the Rollin Sisters testified before the state legislature, organized events, and founded the first South Carolina branch of the American Women's Suffrage Association. While very few records are left about the Rollin Sisters, Littlefield demonstrated how the sisters applied their education to make a case for the right to vote.

"We ask suffrage not as a favor, not as a privilege, but as a right based on the ground that we are human beings, and, as such, entitled to all human rights," Charlotte Rollin said in a quote cited by Littlefield. "We claim that public opinion has had a tendency to limit women's sphere to too small a circle, and until a woman has the right of representation, this will last, and other rights will be held by an insecure tenure."

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