Tackling a Century-Current Thriller: Did My Grandmother Vote?
I became as soon as shopping for my grandmother. That intended spending a warmth fall day in a reading room amongst reference books, microfilm reels and acid-free folders.
I had stolen the day from a gathering in Charleston, S.C., to quit over in Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital and residential to its archives. I felt anxious. It wasn’t the time crunch, despite the fact that the doors would shut at 5:30 inviting. I rushed thru the Guilford County voting files, pushed by a absorb to intention my grandmother’s story of the nineteenth Modification. Midway thru the afternoon I knew I had struck out.
As a historian, I atomize silences. I became as soon as writing a historical previous of Gloomy girls and the vote, and spent most days in used files improving their words, their actions and a full social circulate. Usually I work as segment of a community of historians who expose experiences about Gloomy girls’s struggles for energy. Together, we make an actual little bit of noise at any time after we initiating a dusty field, unfold a long-ago creased letter or flip the safe page of a diary.
But this search became as soon as mine on my own. The establish had my grandmother been on Election Day in 1920? When did she come what could vote? These questions gnawed at me. They led me to hours of shopping for clues within the faces of the used family photos that hang on my pickle of enterprise wall.
I moreover scoured census returns, letters, newspapers and interviews nice looking that I’m able to also now not enact my book without first idea her story and the classes my grandmother’s political life could well educate. They weren’t within the historical previous books, and it became as soon as up to me to search out them.
In the fall of 1920, my grandmother Susie Jones became as soon as 29 and residing in St. Louis, on West Belle Field, lawful about a immediate blocks from her oldsters’ dwelling. I had walked that avenue and considered one of the most three-story red brick homes of their time serene standing.
A century ago, these same homes sat along a battle line that could well soon divide Gloomy residents from white. My grandmother became as soon as segment of a “NEGRO invasion” that threatened to upend the supremacy of white property owners in St. Louis. Gloomy residents there were being pushed out by segregation ordinances, restrictive covenants, zoning and redlining. After I visited 3973 West Belle Field, the establish as soon as stood the dwelling of Susie’s oldsters and the parlor in which she married David Jones in 1915, I found completely a vacant lot.
That vacant lot says a massive deal about why Gloomy girls within the metropolis obligatory the vote. My grandparents’ dwelling became as soon as a victim of the metropolis’s early segregation, which began at the polls in 1916. That One year, voters favorite an ordinance marking ingredients of the metropolis off limits to African-People. The Gloomy-owned St. Louis Argus railed: “Prejudice Wins Election. St. Louis Adopts Segregation … Negroes Badly Dissatisfied by Republicans.”
In the fall of 1916, when Gloomy males confirmed up to the polls, police arrested them on fake charges: three,000 never forged ballots and one other 900 votes were never counted, the handiwork of Democratic Social gathering “pollrobbers.”
By 1919, Gloomy girls, in conjunction with Susie’s mother — my enormous-grandmother Fannie Williams — pushed encourage. I found Fannie in a local newspaper yarn that outlined how the Gloomy girls of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA organized to recall the vote. In June 1919, lawful as the nineteenth Modification went out to the states for ratification, they opened a “suffrage college” and prepared one one other to register for the first time.
In the frosty climate of 1920, the Argus praised Gloomy suffragists: “Trail girls will soon turn out to be extremely tremendous, political voters.” When Tennessee ratified the nineteenth Modification in August 1920, giving it the 36 states obligatory for passage, Gloomy girls in St. Louis were ready.
They registered, and in crucial numbers. By October, Gloomy girls were estimated to make up from 10 to twenty % of the metropolis’s contemporary girls voters. Strength at the pollfield could well abet stem the tide of segregation.
Susie’s grandmother — Susan Davis — became as soon as at her dwelling in Danville, Ky., in 1920. I had first sought for her in that metropolis’s Hilldale Cemetery, the establish headstones bearing the names of girls in my family dot the rolling green panorama. I continued my search about a blocks away at the Boyle County Courthouse the establish, in a tangle of wills, deeds of manumission and marriage certificates, I found evidence of Susan’s beginnings as an enslaved lady.
She became as soon as eighty years used when the nineteenth Modification was regulations, and Susan lived long ample to intention how white leaders in Danville feared Gloomy girls’s votes. In mass conferences, Republican Social gathering organizers encouraged the daughters and granddaughters of slaves to vote a straight celebration line. Democratic-leaning editorials warned that girls’s votes were a diagram to amplify the energy of Republicans: Gloomy girls would vote as a bloc, while white girls could well honest now not register the least bit.
Gloomy girls was up by the a full bunch at election offices: “Many households were without cooks this morning,” quipped the editors of Danville’s Recommend-Messenger. On the final tally, the Republican Social gathering’s margin became as soon as a slim 24 votes, and Gloomy girls had mattered: “All white and colored girls registered with completely about a exceptions.” I admire to contemplate that Susan became as soon as amongst them.
I became as soon as serene shopping for my rating grandmother, Susie, and followed her path to Greensboro, N.C., the establish she settled in 1926. She arrived to begin up a brand contemporary challenge: Her husband, David, had been chosen to lead Bennett College, now not too long ago reorganized as a university for Gloomy girls. Susie became as soon as his partner: president’s wife, registrar and confidante to the a full bunch of younger women who came there to intention.
Household lore has it that Susie cried for months after unpacking. Greensboro, a little metropolis, became as soon as a far assert from cosmopolitan St. Louis, a crossroads of railroads and rivers bright by politics, training, lectures and concert events.
All the pieces about constructing a university for Gloomy girls within the Jim Crow South demanded political savvy. Local officers and benefactors along with Northern trustees and philanthropists all required tending. Bennett became as soon as premised in a titillating claim: that younger Gloomy girls were destined to be fleshy electorate, and that amongst their responsibilities could well per chance be the mutter of political rights, in conjunction with the vote.
Early on, Susie met Charlotte Hawkins Brown, founding father of the North Carolina Federation of Negro Females’s Clubs and director of the nearby Palmer Memorial Institute, a boarding and day college for Gloomy college students. Brown urged a harrowing story.
In 1920, Democrats had accused Brown of circulating a letter that urged how the nineteenth Modification had given “all girls the superior of the pollno matter coloration” and then urged “the total colored girls of North Carolina to register and vote on November 2nd, 1920.” It became as soon as a call to circulate: “The time for Negroes has reach.”
White Democrats charged Brown with conspiring to oppose them at the polls. Supreme her white benefactors, who stepped up to defend Brown, averted a witch hunt. Brown come what could deflected: “I enact now not preserve, or endorse, the views” that had been printed, she mentioned. As a membership leader, she advocated for Gloomy girls’s votes, but in Greensboro she disavowed them. There, politics demanded a cruel good buy: the abdication of voting rights so as to put a university.
I attempted to imagine Susie there. Perchance the tears she shed that first One year in Greensboro weren’t spilled over lacking metropolis life. Perchance she cried out of frustration. She became as soon as constructing a university dedicated to making younger girls into fleshy electorate. Mute, in Greensboro, heading to the polls or encouraging others to enact the identical could well threaten the formulation ahead for Bennett.
What did she enact subsequent? In that Raleigh reading room, I scoured voting returns starting in 1926, shopping for any signal of what took place there on Election Day. I became as soon as hoping to search out Susie. As an different, I found nothing the least bit.
In North Carolina, no one preserved the crucial facets of girls’s first votes. When the polls opened to them in 1920, nothing within the surviving documents tells whether Gloomy girls managed to forged ballots. Docket books intended for that function went unused. I sat within the advise archives below the glare of florescent lights, taking it all in. I’d never know the fleshy story of my grandmother’s voting rights. In my disappointment, the tears she shed nearly one hundred years ago welled up in my eyes.
Combing thru the pages of a 1978 interview, I come what could heard her speak as Susie mirrored on the unnerved advise of Gloomy girls’s votes in Greensboro. In 1951, 25 years after she arrived there, a push for Gloomy voting rights became as soon as waged openly when Bennett college students, working with the local Gloomy-led Electorate Association, registered voters. Then, in 1960, Bennett college students and college organized an Operation Door Knock. Susie described it: “College and college students went out and knocked on doors and figured out whether the of us … on this pickle were voting, and followed it up by seeing that they registered and seeing that they voted.”
It became as soon as how she felt about these scenes that struck me. They were “thrilling experiences,” she mentioned all every other time and all every other time. There at Bennett, Susie linked an early story about girls’s votes in 1920 with that of the activism of 1960: “I in total take into legend training and whether it’s genuinely filling its characteristic as an training for a democracy.” Operation Door Knock, she mentioned, “got faculty and college students working collectively and out so eager,” adding that it became as soon as “lawful a form of thrilling thing.”
Browsing for Susie’s story had required me to confront loss. I’ll never know in what One year she come what could managed to forged a ballot. And serene, I found one other answer to my questions. For my grandmother, the nineteenth Modification became as soon as completely a starting pickle. Her stride to the vote continued by scheme of a long and afraid avenue that led to the contemporary civil rights circulate and passage of the 1965 Vote casting Rights Act. Her excitement when Bennett college students organized to register voters became as soon as fueled by a historical previous of Gloomy girls’s activism that had included 1000’s of others, in conjunction with her rating mother and grandmother.
By some means I headed to Greensboro, the establish I inhaled the candy, familiar scent of the nearby magnolia bushes from a seat on the porch at Susie’s Gorrell Avenue dwelling, a white clapboard dwelling the establish I had spent my childhood summers. It’s miles now an alumnae center that bears her name and sits lawful the establish it did in her lifetime, on the Bennett College campus, reach the predominant gate.
In my uncover for her, I had taken about a detours, but ended up within the pickle the establish I had known her most inviting, the pickle that mattered to her most. For my grandmother, Bennett College had been a suffrage college. And for me, discovering her story of voting rights there became as soon as, yes, thrilling.