The Suffrage and Civil Rights Organizer Who Guided Women to the Polls

A gathering of the California State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in Oakland, which took place July 27-29, 1915. Myra Virginia Simmons would undoubtedly have been in attendance.

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he schism was glaring. In 1915, San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition heralded itself as a showcase of modernity and progress. But for the duration of its nearly yearlong run, the world’s fair sold tickets to games and presentations so blatantly racist they sparked a Black-led demonstration that reverberated across the Bay area.

In the amusement section of the fair—known as the Joy Zone—booths like The African Dip, Soa Kum and Dixieland used enormous racist effigies on their exteriors to attract visitors. The Dixieland booth even peddled old lies about "the antebellum days in the South," when "the slaves were about the happiest and carefree beings on earth.’’ Nearby, in the Palace of Food Products, at the Sperry Flour Booth, Black women sold pancakes while dressed in full “mammy” attire.

After four months of witnessing these displays, Black communities from around the Bay Area converged on San Francisco’s Ferry Building and formed a parade. The turnout was enormous; the Oakland Sunshine reported, “Everybody shut up shop and [got] themselves across the channel.” A jubilant demonstration of flower-covered floats, choirs, flag-waving schoolchildren, streetcars full of Black women’s clubs and everyday workers moved down Market Street and, at Van Ness, entered the Joy Zone. The parade then proudly marched across the entire fair.

This was Alameda County Day: an event intricately organized not just to dispel the stereotypes on show at the fair, but to illustrate Black people’s contributions to the city, county and state. Leaving race out of the event’s title was a very specific decision—organizers had scrapped plans for a “Negro Day” just months earlier. Participants had no interest in being tokenized. This wasn’t merely about skin tone; it was a demand to be seen and treated as fellow, equal citizens.

At the time, the San Francisco Chronicle called the event “a revelation.” Journalist Delilah L. Beasley wrote in the Oakland Sunshine: “The mere fact that colored children marched through the streets of San Francisco, carrying the Stars and Stripes, showed a decided advance and change of feeling toward the colored race in these parts.”

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The chairman of the committee that organized Alameda County Day wasn’t a man at all. She was a Black woman by the name of Myra Virginia Simmons. Her day jobs might have been decidedly low-key—the 35-year-old Oakland resident sold newspapers and worked as a domestic cook. But, to women and people of color around the Bay Area, she was a formidable campaigner and community leader.

A postcard commemorating the Panama–Pacific International Exposition. Its nickname, Jewel City, was the invention of a young girl named Virginia Stephens who had won a competition held by PPIE officials, to name the fair. Only when she participated in Alameda County Day did they find out she was Black.
A postcard commemorating the Panama–Pacific International Exposition. Its nickname, Jewel City, was the invention of a young girl named Virginia Stephens who had won a competition held by PPIE officials, to name the fair. Only when she participated in Alameda County Day did they find out she was Black.

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immons had already served in an impressive number of capacities by the time Alameda County Day occurred on June 10, 1915. She was chair of the Women’s Civic and Progressive League in Oakland; president of the Colored American Equal Suffrage League; a sometimes speaker before the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union; a leader of the Alameda County Colored Americans; and president of the Civic Center Auxiliary, a Black women’s club.

Prior to Alameda County Day, the Civic Center Auxiliary had also taken the lead in a large protest against the conditions in San Quentin for inmates of color. Later it led protests alongside the NAACP against the glorification of the KKK and vilification of Black men in the 1916 movie The Birth of a Nation. But the majority of Simmons’ activist energy was spent on gaining voting rights for women.

After California women narrowly earned the right to vote in 1911—by a margin of just 3,587 votes!—Simmons only worked harder. A Nov. 23, 1911 edition of the San Francisco Call newspaper reported that she was actively educating women about their voting rights and encouraging them to be politically active. She even went on to serve as a precinct captain during the first California election open to women.

The national battle for women’s suffrage, however, was still to be won, and women’s clubs were of vital importance, both socially and politically, in achieving this. Black women’s clubs, like Simmons’ Civic Center Auxiliary, and Oakland’s Fannie Jackson Coppin Club (named after the first Black woman to become a school principal) were focused on both civil and voting rights. Other women’s clubs, like San Francisco’s Votes For Women (led by the Pacific coast’s first female lawyer, Clara Shortridge Foltz) were more singular in their focus. San Jose’s interracial Suffrage Amendment League was one of several examples of women working together across racial boundaries.

The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 was made possible by the dogged work of these women’s organizational and outreach efforts. Simmons herself was such an active campaigner that her name regularly showed up in newspapers around the Bay, as she led high-profile planning meetings with her peers. (On just one page of the March 29, 1915 issue of the Oakland Sunshine, she is mentioned in three separate stories.)

Many thousands of women fought for suffrage in the first decades of the 20th century, but Simmons went above and beyond; she was a natural born leader for whom no civic challenge was too great. She spent much of her later life in San Francisco, and lived to see the passage of 1964’s Civil Rights Act.

Myra Virginia Simmons died one year later at the age of 84. As is so often the case with suffragists of the period, photos of her remain elusive. Yet it seems highly likely she would have been present for the Oakland gathering of the California Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in July 1915, as pictured at the top of this article. Though we cannot know which woman she is in the photo, in many ways she is all of them: determined, proud and poised to make a change.

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