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

I was looking for my grandmother. That meant spending a warm fall day in a reading room among reference books, microfilm reels and acid-free folders.

I had stolen the day from a meeting in Charleston, S.C., to stop over in Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital and home to its archives. I felt anxious. It wasn’t the time crunch, though the doors would close at 5:30 sharp. I rushed through the Guilford County voting records, driven by a need to discover my grandmother’s story of the 19th Amendment. Halfway through the afternoon I knew I had struck out.

As a historian, I break silences. I was writing a history of Black women and the vote, and spent most days in old records recovering their words, their actions and an entire social movement. Usually I work as part of a community of historians who tell stories about Black women’s struggles for power. Together, we make a good bit of noise every time we open a dusty box, unfold a long-ago creased letter or turn the page of a diary.

But this search was mine alone. Where had my grandmother been on Election Day in 1920? When did she finally vote? These questions gnawed at me. They led me to hours of looking for clues in the faces of the old family photos that hang on my office wall.

I also scoured census returns, letters, newspapers and interviews knowing that I could not finish my book without first understanding her story and the lessons my grandmother’s political life could teach. They were not in the history books, and it was up to me to find them.

In the fall of 1920, my grandmother Susie Jones was 29 and living in St. Louis, on West Belle Place, just a few short blocks from her parents’ home. I had walked that street and seen some of the three-story red brick homes of their time still standing.

A century ago, these same houses sat along a battle line that would soon divide Black residents from white. My grandmother was part of a “NEGRO invasion” that threatened to upend the supremacy of white property owners in St. Louis. Black residents there were being pushed out by segregation ordinances, restrictive covenants, zoning and redlining. When I visited 3973 West Belle Place, where once stood the home of Susie’s parents and the parlor in which she married David Jones in 1915, I found only a vacant lot.

That empty lot says a great deal about why Black women in the city needed the vote. My grandparents’ home was a victim of the city’s early segregation, which began at the polls in 1916. That year, voters approved an ordinance marking parts of the city off limits to African-Americans. The Black-owned St. Louis Argus railed: “Prejudice Wins Election. St. Louis Adopts Segregation … Negroes Badly Disappointed by Republicans.”

In the fall of 1916, when Black men showed up to the polls, police arrested them on false charges: 3,000 never cast ballots and another 900 votes were never counted, the handiwork of Democratic Party “ballot robbers.”

By 1919, Black women, including Susie’s mother — my great-grandmother Fannie Williams — pushed back. I found Fannie in a local newspaper report that explained how the Black women of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA organized to win the vote. In June 1919, just as the 19th Amendment went out to the states for ratification, they opened a “suffrage school” and prepared one another to register for the first time.

In the winter of 1920, the Argus praised Black suffragists: “Race women will soon become powerful, political voters.” When Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment in August 1920, giving it the 36 states needed for passage, Black women in St. Louis were ready.

They registered, and in important numbers. By October, Black women were estimated to make up from 10 to 20 percent of the city’s new women voters. Strength at the ballot box might help stem the tide of segregation.

Susie’s grandmother — Susan Davis — was 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 women in my family dot the rolling green landscape. I continued my search a few blocks away at the Boyle County Courthouse where, in a tangle of wills, deeds of manumission and marriage certificates, I found evidence of Susan’s beginnings as an enslaved girl.

She was 80 years old when the 19th Amendment became law, and Susan lived long enough to see how white leaders in Danville feared Black women’s votes. In mass meetings, Republican Party organizers encouraged the daughters and granddaughters of slaves to vote a straight party line. Democratic-leaning editorials warned that women’s votes were a scheme to increase the power of Republicans: Black women would vote as a bloc, while white women might not register at all.

Black women turned up by the hundreds at election offices: “Many families were without cooks this morning,” quipped the editors of Danville’s Advocate-Messenger. At the final tally, the Republican Party’s margin was a slim 24 votes, and Black women had mattered: “All white and colored women registered with very few exceptions.” I like to think that Susan was among them.

I was still looking for my own grandmother, Susie, and followed her trail to Greensboro, N.C., where she settled in 1926. She arrived to begin a new venture: Her husband, David, had been chosen to lead Bennett College, recently reorganized as a college for Black women. Susie was his partner: president’s wife, registrar and confidante to the hundreds of young women who came there to study.

Family lore has it that Susie cried for months after unpacking. Greensboro, a small city, was a far cry from cosmopolitan St. Louis, a crossroads of railroads and rivers animated by politics, education, lectures and concerts.

Everything about building a college for Black women in the Jim Crow South demanded political savvy. Local officials and benefactors along with Northern trustees and philanthropists all required tending. Bennett was premised in a provocative claim: that young Black women were destined to be full citizens, and that among their duties would be the exercise of political rights, including the vote.

Early on, Susie met Charlotte Hawkins Brown, founder of the North Carolina Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs and director of the nearby Palmer Memorial Institute, a boarding and day school for Black students. Brown told a harrowing tale.

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.”

It was how she felt about those scenes that struck me. They were “thrilling experiences,” she said again and again. There at Bennett, Susie linked an early story about women’s votes in 1920 with that of the activism of 1960: “I often think about education and whether it’s really filling its function as an education for a democracy.” Operation Door Knock, she said, “got faculty and students working together and out so eager,” adding that it was “just a kind of thrilling thing.”

Searching for Susie’s story had required me to confront loss. I’ll never know in what year she finally managed to cast a ballot. And still, I discovered another answer to my questions. For my grandmother, the 19th Amendment was only a starting place. Her journey to the vote continued by way of a long and troubled road that led to the modern civil rights movement and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Her excitement when Bennett students organized to register voters was fueled by a history of Black women’s activism that had included thousands of others, including her own mother and grandmother.

Finally I headed to Greensboro, where I inhaled the sweet, familiar scent of the nearby magnolia trees from a seat on the porch at Susie’s Gorrell Street home, a white clapboard house where I had spent my childhood summers. It is now an alumnae center that bears her name and sits just where it did in her lifetime, on the Bennett College campus, near the main gate.

In my search for her, I had taken a few detours, but ended up in the place where I had known her best, the place that mattered to her most. For my grandmother, Bennett College had been a suffrage school. And for me, finding her story of voting rights there was, yes, thrilling.