Columbia City of Women Honoree
The Rollin Sisters
Frances, Charlotte, and Katherine Rollin were among the first and most significant women suffragists in South Carolina during the Reconstruction era. Their home on Senate Street served as the setting for the “Rollin Salon,” which was known as a place of interracial gatherings focused on advancing social causes, including women’s rights.
Frances (b. 1845), Charlotte (b. 1849), and Katherine (b. 1851), were born in antebellum Charleston, South Carolina to free people of color Margarette and William Rollin.i Part of a small and elite group of free blacks in the city, the Rollin sisters received their education in Charleston, Philadelphia, and Boston. After the Civil War, Katherine and Charlotte helped to establish one of South Carolina’s first public schools in Charleston, and Frances taught in the Sea Islands through the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association. Katherine and Charlotte’s advocacy for education policy and resources from the state government led them to Columbia, where they became politically savvy socialites.
When the captain of a ferry boat that traveled in between Charleston and the Sea Islands refused to accept her first class ticket, Frances filed one of the first civil rights cases demanding equity in public transportation in South Carolina. Marvin Delany, an agent with the Freedman’s Bureau, helped her to sue and win her case against the steamer’s captain. It was during this time that Frances agreed to write a biography of Delany’s life. Frances traveled to Boston in 1867 to begin writing Life and Public Services of Major Martin R. Delany. Her finished work was the first biography written and published by an African American. Frances moved back to South Carolina in 1868 and began working for one of the first African American lawyers and South Carolina State Representatives – William J. Whipper. They married in September 1868 and worked together to promote social justice issues. Though a representative of Beaufort, Whipper’s work at the South Carolina State House kept the pair in Columbia often.
As a skilled journalist, Frances wrote articles for several publications and was the editor for the Beaufort Tribune. Frances also collaborated with her sisters to promote political causes and women’s suffrage. The Rollin Sisters played a unique role in the women’s suffrage movement of the late nineteenth century. The ever-changing political and social dynamics of the Reconstruction era enabled African American women, like the Rollin sisters, to publicly advocate for equal voting rights. Charlotte (Lottie) Rollin was instrumental in establishing the South Carolina Woman’s Rights Association (SCWRA), which later became affiliated with the American Woman Suffrage Association. SCWRA was a coalition of black men and women working to enact universal suffrage regardless of gender and race. Attended by local activists and state representatives, these meetings were so prominent that they also included the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor. In 1870, Lottie was elected secretary of the SCWRA and a year later was leading a meeting in Columbia advocating for women’s suffrage. In 1872, she attended the AWSA national meeting, making her the first delegate from South Carolina to attend a national woman suffrage convention. Lottie was an eloquent speaker that inspired enthusiasm for social equity for all. At an 1870 convention in Charleston she proclaimed,
"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. While we concede that woman’s ennobling influence should be confined chiefly to home and society, we claim that public opinion has had a tendency to limit woman’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."
Beyond women’s right to vote, African American suffragists like the Rollin Sisters embraced and advocated for social equality and civil rights for everyone.
Charlotte was also among the first African Americans to lobby for suffrage in the South Carolina State House in 1869. The home she shared with her sister Katherine on Senate Street became central location for political gatherings and discussions as legislators would often visit in between meetings, hearings, and votes. The sisters’ prominence and influence in Columbia demonstrates the malleability of the social structure of South Carolina during the Reconstruction Era. Prior to 1865, the Rollin sisters were not considered citizens of the United States even as free blacks. In less than half a decade, their public advocacy of suffrage, women’s rights, and human rights was embraced by the political and social elite of the state.
The collapse of Reconstruction and the re-emergence of white supremacist political power created a new atmosphere of social constraints for African Americans in the South. Charlotte and their mother Margarette moved to New York in the 1870s, while Frances and her family moved to Washington, D.C. in the 1880s. Frances continued to use her writing skills, working as a freelance journalist, a clerk for Frederick Douglass, and for U.S. governmental agencies. Towards the end of her life, Frances returned to Beaufort, South Carolina. There she died on October 17, 1901.
Frances’ great-granddaughter, Carole Ione, has been at the forefront of celebrating the Rollin Sisters legacies. Her memoir, Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color, documents their extraordinary lives and accomplishments despite the obstacles they faced because of their race and gender. As the nation prepares to celebrate the centennial of the nineteenth amendment, the Rollin Sisters story illustrates the key role that African American women played in the South Carolina suffrage movement.