Short Story on Voting in 1925

I am teaching an online Race and Ethnicity course, and I asked my students to do the following:

Do some research into the history of legalized segregation in the U.S. (Here’s one story that discusses DuBois’ failed attempt in 1905 to stay in a Whites-only hotel while he was – wait for it – forming what would become the NAACP.)

Write a few sentences in the first person as an African American in 1920 or so who lives a racially segregated life. Be realistic.

Certainly because I am a benevolent teacher and not because I simply love writing short stories and making students read them (ahem), I penned a rather lengthy example for them. Because it contained some interesting information about voting rights for Black Americans in the 1920s, I decided to share it with you all. You're welcome. 

Oh and yes, I know it's problematic for a White woman to put voice to Black experiences, but in my defense, I am making this assignment first-person to get my (mostly-White) students to relate to historical, institutionalized racism as something more than an abstract notion. 


All that said, below is my brief story about trying to vote as a young, African American woman in the South in 1920.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


1925, Birmingham, Alabama [my father was really born here, albeit in the 40s]

As a smart, well-read, colored woman in the Deep South, I felt determined to vote in the next election. I knew the hurdles. I'd heard about the poll taxes, about the literacy test that asked us for information nobody, even White college kids, knew. I had studied in preparation and saved up from my job as a waitress at a colored-only restaurant in the colored part of town. 

Determined, I walked a few miles to register to vote. My hands shook, but I endured the White proctor's sneers and took the voting registration test. It asked ridiculous questions like "A President elected at the general election in November takes office the following year on what date?" and "If a law passed by a state is contrary to provisions of the U.S. Constitution, which law prevails?" (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/voting_literacy.html) Do White people have to know all this to vote?! Thank goodness I studied!

I passed the test. The White man grading it hesitated before admitting with a grimace I'd answered everything correctly. Victory! I'd heard of some Black folks being told they missed one question when they knew they didn't. The White proctor then asked me for a dollar. (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/01/23/anti-poll-tax-amendment-is-50-years-old-today/) It may not seem like a lot to rich folks, but every penny is precious to me. I had saved up, though, so I paid it. I was registered! 

Maybe I'd be president someday.

Right before the elections, rumors started circulating that the police would show up to the polls to harass colored voters. I hadn't read anything about it in the paper, though, so perhaps that was just another scare tactic to keep us Black folks from exercising our rights. I hoped, anyway. 

When the elections finally came around, I snatched my reticule, donned my walking shoes, and trod several miles to my voting location. Thank goodness I was young and spry! How could an older person do that? Once I got there, my heart fluttered to find several police, including the sheriff, standing outside the polling location. I was the only Black person on the entire block. Everyone turned to look at me. 

"Good mornin'," the sheriff said. I wished him a good morning as well. Or at least I think I did; my heart throbbed so loudly in my ears, I could scarcely hear. "This is a tough place for a colored woman to be alone," he said politely. "I would hate for anything to happen to you. You know how rough it can get when some folks see your kind trying to vote."

The sheriff smiled at me and carefully rubbed his hanky over the barrel of his revolver. It looked so heavy in his hands. Several police officers behind him sneered at me. One gestured lewdly. 

"I wasn't voting," I heard myself say. "I was merely walking to that... store a few blocks away."

"Oh, glad to hear it," the sheriff said warmly. "I was mighty worried about your safety, young lady."

Not president any time soon.


**Note to students: This was how "well" voting worked for non-White voters in the South. This kind of blatant discrimination and obstructionism ended (for the most part) in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.** 

Sources: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/voting_literacy.html, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/01/23/anti-poll-tax-amendment-is-50-years-old-today/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_Rights_Act_of_1965

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