Tackling a Century-Used Thriller: Did My Grandmother Vote?

Tackling a Century-Used Thriller: Did My Grandmother Vote?

Had she, in the throes of segregation and suffrage, solid a annoying-won vote? I well-known to clutch.

Credit…Martha S. Jones

I was as soon as buying for my grandmother. That intended spending a warmth tumble day in a reading room amongst reference books, microfilm reels and acid-free folders.

I had stolen the day from a assembly in Charleston, S.C., to terminate over in Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital and home to its archives. I felt anxious. It wasn’t the time crunch, even though the doors would terminate at 5:30 difficult. I rushed thru the Guilford County vote casting records, pushed by a must gaze my grandmother’s story of the nineteenth Amendment. Midway thru the afternoon I knew I had struck out.

As a historian, I damage silences. I was as soon as writing a historical past of Dark women folks and the vote, and spent most days in musty records making improvements to their phrases, their actions and a total social circulate. In most cases I work as section of a neighborhood of historians who repeat tales about Dark women folks’s struggles for energy. Together, we obtain a first rate bit of noise each time we initiating a dusty box, unfold a protracted-in the past creased letter or turn the page of a diary.

However this search was as soon as mine on my own. Where had my grandmother been on Election Day in 1920? When did she at last vote? These questions gnawed at me. They led me to hours of buying for clues in the faces of the musty household photos that dangle on my office wall.

I also scoured census returns, letters, newspapers and interviews luminous that I might possibly perchance no longer create my e-book without first idea her story and the classes my grandmother’s political lifestyles might possibly perchance roar. They weren’t in the historical past books, and it was as soon as as much as me to procure them.

In the tumble of 1920, my grandmother Susie Jones was as soon as 29 and living in St. Louis, on West Belle Home, honest a few short blocks from her of us’ home. I had walked that boulevard and seen seemingly the most three-story crimson brick homes of their time serene standing.

A century in the past, these identical homes sat along a fight line that would soon divide Dark residents from white. My grandmother was as soon as section of a “NEGRO invasion” that threatened to upend the supremacy of white property house owners in St. Louis. Dark residents there had been being pushed out by segregation ordinances, restrictive covenants, zoning and redlining. After I visited 3973 West Belle Home, where as soon as stood the home of Susie’s of us and the parlor wherein she married David Jones in 1915, I stumbled on handiest a vacant lot.

That vacant lot says a immense deal about why Dark women folks in town well-known the vote. My grandparents’ home was as soon as a sufferer of town’s early segregation, which started on the polls in 1916. That year, voters accredited an ordinance marking formulation of town off limits to African-American citizens. The Dark-owned St. Louis Argus railed: “Prejudice Wins Election. St. Louis Adopts Segregation … Negroes Badly Upset by Republicans.”

In the tumble of 1916, when Dark males showed as much as the polls, police arrested them on false prices: three,000 never solid ballots and one more 900 votes had been never counted, the handiwork of Democratic Event “ballotrobbers.”

By 1919, Dark women folks, including Susie’s mother — my immense-grandmother Fannie Williams — pushed encourage. I stumbled on Fannie in a native newspaper file that outlined how the Dark women folks of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA organized to raise the vote. In June 1919, honest because the nineteenth Amendment went out to the states for ratification, they opened a “suffrage school” and ready one one more to register for the first time.

Credit…Martha S. Jones

In the winter of 1920, the Argus praised Dark suffragists: “Crawl women folks will soon turn into highly efficient, political voters.” When Tennessee ratified the nineteenth Amendment in August 1920, giving it the 36 states well-known for passage, Dark women folks in St. Louis had been willing.

They registered, and in well-known numbers. By October, Dark women folks had been estimated to stand up from 10 to twenty p.c of town’s contemporary women folks voters. Energy on the ballotbox might possibly perchance encourage stem the tide of segregation.

Susie’s grandmother — Susan Davis — was as soon as at her home in Danville, Ky., in 1920. I had first looked for her in that city’s Hilldale Cemetery, where headstones bearing the names of ladies folks in my household dot the rolling green landscape. I persisted my search a few blocks away on the Boyle County Courthouse where, in a tangle of wills, deeds of manumission and marriage certificates, I stumbled on proof of Susan’s beginnings as an enslaved lady.

She was as soon as eighty years musty when the nineteenth Amendment grew to turn into regulation, and Susan lived long enough to investigate cross-test how white leaders in Danville feared Dark women folks’s votes. In mass meetings, Republican Event organizers encouraged the daughters and granddaughters of slaves to vote a straight event line. Democratic-leaning editorials warned that girls folks’s votes had been a plot to acquire bigger the energy of Republicans: Dark women folks would vote as a bloc, whereas white women folks might possibly perchance no longer register at all.

Dark women folks grew to turn into up by the a total bunch at election locations of work: “Many families had been without cooks this morning,” quipped the editors of Danville’s Recommend-Messenger. On the last tally, the Republican Event’s margin was as soon as a slim 24 votes, and Dark women folks had mattered: “All white and colored women folks registered with only a few exceptions.” I capture to mediate that Susan was as soon as amongst them.

I was as soon as serene buying for my believe grandmother, Susie, and adopted her path to Greensboro, N.C., where she settled in 1926. She arrived to initiating up a brand contemporary mission: Her husband, David, had been chosen to lead Bennett School, no longer too long in the past reorganized as a faculty for Dark women folks. Susie was as soon as his accomplice: president’s wife, registrar and confidante to the a total bunch of younger women folks who came there to connect a question to.


Credit…Martha S. Jones

Family lore has it that Susie cried for months after unpacking. Greensboro, a shrimp city, was as soon as a much bawl from cosmopolitan St. Louis, a crossroads of railroads and rivers though-provoking by politics, education, lectures and concerts.

All the pieces about constructing a faculty for Dark women folks in the Jim Crow South demanded political savvy. Local officers and benefactors along with Northern trustees and philanthropists all required tending. Bennett was as soon as premised in a lively recount: that young Dark women folks had been destined to be fleshy voters, and that amongst their duties might possibly perchance be the exercise of political rights, including the vote.

Early on, Susie met Charlotte Hawkins Brown, founding father of the North Carolina Federation of Negro Females’s Golf equipment and director of the internal attain Palmer Memorial Institute, a boarding and day school for Dark college students. Brown educated a harrowing narrative.

In 1920, Democrats had accused Brown of circulating a letter that educated how the nineteenth Amendment had given “all women folks the honest of the ballotdespite color” and then entreated “the total coloured women folks of North Carolina to register and vote on November 2nd, 1920.” It was as soon as a name to motion: “The time for Negroes has arrive.”

White Democrats charged Brown with conspiring to oppose them on the polls. Handiest her white benefactors, who stepped as much as defend Brown, steer clear off a witch hunt. Brown at last deflected: “I create no longer encourage, or endorse, the views” that had been printed, she said. As a club chief, she advocated for Dark women folks’s votes, nonetheless in Greensboro she disavowed them. There, politics demanded a merciless prick worth: the abdication of vote casting rights to be ready to avoid wasting a faculty.

I attempted to bear in mind Susie there. Likely the tears she shed that first year in Greensboro weren’t spilled over missing city lifestyles. Likely she cried out of frustration. She was as soon as constructing a faculty committed to making young women folks into fleshy voters. Silent, in Greensboro, heading to the polls or encouraging others to create the identical might possibly perchance threaten the long speed of Bennett.

What did she create next? In that Raleigh reading room, I scoured vote casting returns starting in 1926, buying for any signal of what came about there on Election Day. I hoped to procure Susie. As a substitute, I stumbled on nothing at all.

In North Carolina, no one preserved the critical points of ladies folks’s first votes. When the polls opened to them in 1920, nothing in the surviving paperwork tells whether or no longer Dark women folks managed to solid ballots. Docket books supposed for that motive went unused. I sat in the direct archives beneath the glare of florescent lights, taking all of it in. I’d never know the fleshy story of my grandmother’s vote casting rights. In my disappointment, the tears she shed when it comes to 100 years in the past welled up in my eyes.

Combing thru the pages of a 1978 interview, I at last heard her command as Susie reflected on the timid direct of Dark women folks’s votes in Greensboro. In 1951, 25 years after she arrived there, a push for Dark vote casting rights was as soon as waged overtly when Bennett college students, working with the native Dark-led Electorate Affiliation, registered voters. Then, in 1960, Bennett college students and college organized an Operation Door Knock. Susie described it: “School and college students went out and knocked on doors and stumbled on out whether or no longer the folks … on this self-discipline had been vote casting, and adopted it up by seeing that they registered and seeing that they voted.”


Credit…Bennett School Archives at Thomas F. Holgate Library

Credit…Bennett School Archives at Thomas F. Holgate Library

It was as soon as how she felt about these scenes that struck me. They had been “thrilling experiences,” she said over and as soon as one more time. There at Bennett, Susie linked an early story about women folks’s votes in 1920 with that of the activism of 1960: “I in most cases bear in mind education and whether or no longer it’s in point of fact filling its procedure as an education for a democracy.” Operation Door Knock, she said, “bought school and college students working collectively and out so eager,” including that it was as soon as “honest a extra or much less thrilling ingredient.”

Searching to procure Susie’s story had required me to confront loss. I’ll never know in what year she at last managed to solid a ballot. And serene, I stumbled on one more resolution to my questions. For my grandmother, the nineteenth Amendment was as soon as handiest a starting space. Her prance to the vote persisted thru a protracted and anxious boulevard that led to the restful civil rights circulate and passage of the 1965 Vote casting Rights Act. Her excitement when Bennett college students organized to register voters was as soon as fueled by a historical past of Dark women folks’s activism that had included 1000’s of others, including her believe mother and grandmother.

At last I headed to Greensboro, where I inhaled the candy, familiar scent of the internal attain magnolia trees from a seat on the porch at Susie’s Gorrell Facet road home, a white clapboard residence where I had spent my childhood summers. It’s now an alumnae middle that bears her name and sits honest where it did in her lifetime, on the Bennett School campus, approach essentially the predominant gate.

In my gaze her, I had taken a few detours, nonetheless ended up in the gap where I had known her perfect, the gap that mattered to her most. For my grandmother, Bennett School had been a suffrage school. And for me, discovering her story of vote casting rights there was as soon as, yes, thrilling.

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