Tackling a Century-Old Mystery: Did My Grandmother Vote?


In 1920, Democrats had accused Brown of circulating a letter that advised how the 19th Amendment had given “all women the right of the ballot regardless of color” and then urged “all the colored women of North Carolina to register and vote on November 2nd, 1920.” It was a call to action: “The time for Negroes has come.”

White Democrats charged Brown with conspiring to oppose them at the polls. Only her white benefactors, who stepped up to defend Brown, prevented a witch hunt. Brown eventually deflected: “I do not hold, or endorse, the views” that had been published, she said. As a club leader, she advocated for Black women’s votes, but in Greensboro she disavowed them. There, politics demanded a cruel bargain: the abdication of voting rights in an effort to save a school.

I tried to imagine Susie there. Perhaps the tears she shed that first year in Greensboro were not spilled over missing city life. Perhaps she cried out of frustration. She was building a school committed to making young women into full citizens. Still, in Greensboro, heading to the polls or encouraging others to do the same might threaten the future of Bennett.

What did she do next? In that Raleigh reading room, I scoured voting returns starting in 1926, looking for any sign of what happened there on Election Day. I was hoping to find Susie. Instead, I found nothing at all.

In North Carolina, no one preserved the details of women’s first votes. When the polls opened to them in 1920, nothing in the surviving documents tells whether Black women managed to cast ballots. Docket books intended for that purpose went unused. I sat in the state archives under the glare of florescent lights, taking it all in. I would never know the full story of my grandmother’s voting rights. In my disappointment, the tears she shed nearly 100 years ago welled up in my eyes.

Combing through the pages of a 1978 interview, I finally heard her voice as Susie reflected on the vexed state of Black women’s votes in Greensboro. In 1951, 25 years after she arrived there, a push for Black voting rights was waged openly when Bennett students, working with the local Black-led Citizens Association, registered voters. Then, in 1960, Bennett students and faculty organized an Operation Door Knock. Susie described it: “Faculty and students went out and knocked on doors and found out whether the people … in this area were voting, and followed it up by seeing that they registered and seeing that they voted.”


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