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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Adele Clark, February 28, 1964. Interview G-0014-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Voter registration and organizing with African American women

Clark describes voter registration process, paying particular attention to the ways in which white women and African American women faced different kinds of obstacles. According to Clark, special efforts were made to thwart the ability of African American women to register to vote and she explains how she and other leading women in the suffrage movement got together with leading African American women to find ways for them to all work together.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Adele Clark, February 28, 1964. Interview G-0014-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

And registration in Virginia is tricky more than very difficult. Unless the register wishes to ask people questions, it's fairly simple. You have to give your name and age and date of birth and residence and various things of that sort, not much more difficult than registering for a motor vehicle license. But then, if the registrar wants to ask you questions about interpreting the Constitution, he may do so. I don't remember that we had much trouble with that. Our rural women had a lot of trouble running all over the county trying to catch the registrars, who were out plowing or fishing or doing various things. But in the towns we nearly always had registration offices. The colored women had the most trouble with registering. There had been so much of that sort of thing: "If you get the vote, what about the Negro woman?" But we had some wonderful Negro leaders, and there was one in Richmond named Ora Stokes, the wife of a colored clergyman. And she organized the colored women and taught them to register. But the City Hall here in Richmond registered the colored women separately from the white, down in the basement. And they worked out all sorts of things of having their hours shorter than the white women. We white women had a big fight with the electoral board, insisting on their giving the Negro women the same privilege of hours for election. Our newspapers were perfectly terrific about the Negro woman voting. They brought out everything that they could of Reconstruction days, and they wrote outrageous editorials. My very intimate friend Lenora Houston, who was an artist—and she and I had a studio together—decided that we could not let this terrible race condition occur. I've jumped back now to the fall of 1920. Lenora and I decided that we had to do something to meet the colored women, because we were really afraid there'd be riots of sorts. And, as we didn't dare ask them to the Equal Suffrage League—this was before the League of Women Voters was organized—because we would have been accused of trying to get the Negro vote out, we took advantage of being artists (always considered a little erratic). So we had a group of the colored women come to our studio one night to talk over the whole situation with them, and to tell them that the men had been just as much afraid of our voting as they had been of their voting, but we wanted to assure them of our friendship. Ora Stokes and a Mrs. Lillian Payne and several other leading Negro women, whose names we had got from a Mrs. Walter MacNeill, a sister-in-law of Mrs. Valentine's who had done interracial work. She told us who to call, and we had called these colored women, and they came to our studio and we talked over the whole situation with them. And it was decided that on the election day that several of us white women would take automobiles and visit all the Negro registration places to see whether any violence was breaking out. There was a very able woman leader here, a Miss Catherine Halls, who was most active with YWCA work. She lent her car. Mrs. Houston's mother rented a car for us, and I don't remember who else had automobiles at her disposal, but there were about four of us who started off at sunrise on the election day and visited all the Negro polling places just to see if everything was going quietly. And everything went quite quietly; in spite of the fact that there had been threats of bloodshed and riot and everything else, there wasn't any rioting. The Negro women went up quietly and voted, but I think they were very much heartened by the fact that there were four or five white women that went to the polls to give them their backing. And so that went through. But we never had the nerve to enroll the Negro women in the League of Women Voters. I've always regretted it, but we just couldn't bring the middle-of-the-road thinkers to the point of bringing the Negro women in. A number of us, especially Lucy Mason, went to groups—Negro clubs and all—and talked to the Negro women about civic affairs. And we made as much contact with them as possible. But we couldn't do very much about it because we were afraid of being accused of being carpetbaggers, so that we [laughter] had to stay out of it to a certain extent.