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.