We can't look at voting as the end-all be-all, but it is definitely one of the most powerful tools in the tool kit to help us towards where we need to be in this society.
Danita Mason-Hogans is a local historian and a native of Chapel Hill, NC for seven generations on both sides of her family. She is a curriculum specialist and has been an education activist for over thirty years. She serves as Program Manager at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies for the Critical Oral Histories Component. Her current projects involve working with veteran Civil Rights activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in order to document their experiences and transform them into K-12 Civil Rights components. She describes the Critical Oral History methodology in her TEDTalk and uses the methodology for her podcast contributions and work with school systems, universities, activists and historians to document local and national history from the “inside out” and from the “bottom up”. Her current advocation is for a no cost education program and cost-free college tuition for the descendants of the enslaved laborers at UNC.
Dr. Gloria D. Thomas joined the Carolina Women’s Center as director on August 1, 2016. Before then, she served as director of the Center for the Education of Women (CEW) at the University of Michigan for 7 ½ years, where she led the Center in broadening the focus of CEW’s constituency from primarily adult women to women and nontraditional students with a particular focus on students who are underserved at U-M. Under her leadership there, CEW received a grant from the Ford Foundation of more than $380,000 for the Michigan Partners Project aimed at advancing economic security and mobility for Michigan women living in poverty, particularly women of color in Detroit and Flint.
Prior to returning to CEW, Dr. Thomas served in two associate director positions at the American Council on Education (ACE) from 2000-2008, including in the Office of Women in Higher Education, and in the ACE Fellows Program, both where the foci of her professional duties were leadership development and enhancing career success for women in academe. Before ACE, from 1995 – 1999, she worked at CEW during doctoral studies, conducting research and coordinating the Women of Color in the Academy Project, a support network for women of color faculty.
After graduating from college, Dr. Thomas rose to the rank of associate dean of admissions and director of minority student recruitment at Swarthmore College, her alma mater, where she earned a B.A. in English and Black studies from Swarthmore College, an M.A. in English from Villanova University, and a Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Michigan.
“My mom wanted to vote so bad and I remember registering her to vote. She put on her Sunday best, including her high heel shoes, and we went across the street to the community center to vote. I remember how much pride she felt that day, and how proud I was in her, because I knew she could not have done this when she was born, that she couldn’t have done this earlier.”
-Betty Murchison, from the Southern Oral History Program archives
Melody: We are heading quickly into the 2020 presidential election. 2020. Also the Centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote. 2020. Yet voting rights, central to our democracy are still an issue in our nation. Welcome to this special edition of Southern Futures. I'm your host, Melody Hunter-Pillion, with the Center for the Study of the American South. We have two guests for this bonus episode. Dr. Gloria Thomas is the director of the Carolina Women's Center at UNC. Her academic work is in higher education. She advocates for the rights of women, but her advocacy includes more than women and she'll talk about that. Danita Mason-Hogan is program manager for Critical Oral Histories in the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Her current projects involve working with veteran civil rights activists, documenting their experiences and making those narratives accessible in K-12 classrooms. Danita and Gloria, we want to thank you for joining us on Southern Futures for the special election episode. You heard the audio clip when we opened the show--that was the voice of Betty Murchison, a local entrepreneur and activist, in an oral history captured by the Southern Oral History Program. What are your thoughts as you hear her recount the way her mom viewed voting? We know her mother was born at a time when her right to vote was not protected in the South, even though she was a citizen of this country--that right was legally blocked in southern states until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Danita: First of all, thank you so much for inviting us to come on, with two of my favorite people! I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today. What the clip really reminds me of, is the relationship that I have with my mother and the tradition of voting rights that comes out of my family, and also with my daughter, who has been with me organizing since she was about 14 years old and really what a deep tradition Black women and the vote come from, and how it has really been central to our existence in this country, and what it really means to us as Black women...so it was a beautiful question to share with us.
Gloria: I would echo that as well. I have very clear recollections of going to the polls with my mother when I was a kid. It was one of those traditions-- there were eight of us, so she didn't take all 8, but she always took at least one of us with her, so that she could show us that this is something that you want to do, this is something that you want to engage in you.
Danita: You just sparked a memory, a really special memory: my grandmother, who is my daughter's great-grandmother, passed on the Tuesday right after the election and the last thing that she did with my daughter, the last interaction they had, was her sitting my daughter on her lap in a wheelchair rolling into the voting poll, and voting, and talking about how important that election was. That was something that's very special to our family, so thank you so much for even bringing up that memory.
Gloria: I'm not a southerner myself, but my mother was a country girl from Georgia and didn't have that experience growing up. She didn't see Black people voting. It was important that she showed us. She wasn't very educated--she had a 10th grade education--but it was an important thing for her and she made sure that we understood that.
Melody: Memory is playing such a role, in particular in the African American community, what a roll memory is playing in the voting rights tradition. I want to ask you, Gloria, why are we still discussing voters’ rights when a hundred years ago women were given the right to vote--but the 19th Amendment left some folks out. Let's talk about that a little bit: who was left out?
Gloria: A whole lot of people were left out. Suppression is real. You alluded to earlier some of the ways enfranchisement is suppressed. When the 19th amendment was passed, you had whole generations of women of color, particularly African American women (that's the experience that I'm most familiar with)...for whatever “reason” (because they couldn't write their name, because they didn't earn a certain amount of of income). There was that way of suppressing that vote, and then of course that they were turned away and and this was one of the reasons, of course there are a lot of reasons, that you have the migration North, but that was one of the reasons: people wanted to participate in governance and the right to vote was a part of it, so many of them did flee to the North, including my grandmother, my grandfather, and many of that generation. My mother then followed them, and all of them went from Georgia to the Philadelphia area, and they were there to really take advantage of that experience of being able to vote, being able to get jobs, a lot of the things that were so suppressed in the South during the 40s, and 50s.
Danita: In addition to the brilliant things that Dr. Thomas just said, for me, when I think about 1920, I also think about the local impact of the women's movement of that time and the impact that had locally. Just three years later in 1923, we had a UNC graduate, his name was Charles Stedman and he was from Pittsboro. What Charles Stedman did three years after white women were enfranchised is that he tried to work with the United Daughters of the Confederacy to erect a Mammy statue that told of the glorious relationship between Black women and the South and how Black women were so happy to be subservient, Black women were so happy for the institution of slavery, and how Black women lived their lives in service to the white community and were very quite happy about that. So for me, this is three years after the 1920 law that enfranchised white women. So when we talk about history and narrative, it's really important to contextualize those things and it's important to think about where we stood as Black women during that time of history, and include that in the larger narrative of women in voting rights.
“I don't believe that you should always complain, and sit back, and then not do about it. I’ve told myself, if you’re opening up your mouth to say that there’s a problem, so I can be a part of the solution.” -Dr. Valerie Johnson, Dean of the School of Arts, Sciences, and Humanities at Shaw University in an oral history interview with the Southern Oral History Program at UNC.
Melody: Gloria and Danita, let's talk about what Dr. Johnson is getting at in that clip from the oral history interview: this idea of folks complaining about the state of what they see, they're having heated discussions about social injustice, we're seeing all these protests...but then, folks are not showing up at the polls? Maybe I just don't know the numbers...are our young people showing up? We know they're protesting, but are they voting?
Gloria: The data will certainly show that they are not showing up at the rates in which they exist, so we do have to urge them to act, to get to the polls and turn some of that protest into action at the polls. It remains to be seen if that's actually going to happen. It helps when they have candidates that they get excited about and that they feel like they want to back. It really helps in that regard, but absent that, they've got to get out there to make change and here's an opportunity to make change--at the local levels, at the state level, and at the national level. I do hope that they will turn out. Now that we're all home , and I’m home with my young adults, it's going to be in an event. We're going to make it a day, we're going to go early, we're going to go October 17th. I’ve put it on their calendar and I’m urging them to tweet and put it on Instagram so that their friends might follow suit. Whatever ways that the young people can be an influence to their peers, I think we've got to take advantage of it. Every week when I send out my Carolina Women's Center e-blast, I’m saying: “what's your voting plan?” It's in there every week. I'm really trying to push and encourage students to do this. I’m really trying to push as much as we can to get the young people out.
Danita: I also think that we as elders need to do a better job of explaining why it is important to vote, and bringing our children up in the tradition. Particularly as Black women, because Black women's voting rights really came out of central issues that we are still dealing with today. I would say that poverty, education, mass incarceration and the police state, healthcare--those are issues that our foremothers were fighting for in the 1800s and we are still fighting on those same issues. This tradition of voting really has a lot to do with power, and I think that's one of the things that we can impart in our young people and if we do that effectively they will see that, yes, it is important to protest police brutality and the way policing happens in this country and it is important to understand that the people that who put the police in office are voted on. These are people that we put in office or we choose not to put in office, so voting really translates to the power--having the power of putting people in office whose values align with yours. I would say in addition to getting upset with the people who are currently in power, and trying to get them to reverse some of these decisions. I think when you contextualize voting from the perspective of it being a “power position” (and the power really should and its inception lie in the people), I think young people may become a little bit more enthusiastic about voting, because we're in very, very critical times. A lot of the decisions being made for our lives have to do with who we put into office. Once that connection is made, I have full confidence in young people that we will rise to the occasion and go to those polls!
Gloria: I listen to Madison in the Morning on Sirius radio, and he's always saying: “what are you going to do about it?” When young people complain, whether it’s my students or my own, I always ask, “what are you going to do about it?” Heres your way of holding yourself accountable. You can do something. You can vote that person out of office if you do not like what they're doing.
Melody: Even though the current tactics of voter suppression are somewhat more subtle, they're just as effective, when you talk about voter suppression and gerrymandering. How does storytelling help us to expose these issues and address them?
Gloria: Black people were made to feel ashamed of our lives, of our experiences, and then when you were able to escape from it, you wanted to put that behind you. I remember a phrase my grandmother used to always say when you asked her questions about the past: “don't go digging up dirt!” She didn't want to talk about a lot of her life, and the struggles--especially that experience in Georgia that she decided to flee. She didn't want to remind herself of the experiences that she had when she wasn't able to get an education, wasn't able to go to the polls. She wanted to leave that behind. There’s so much that was suppressed. That became a part of how we function and how we just went through life navigating, without sharing a lot of those stories.
Danita: I’m actually working with 4 young Black women producers who are taking stories from local women and making a trilogy. It’s called, “Mind, Body, and Soul.” The “Mind” focuses on Black women in education locally. “Body” talks about Black women who've been part of the hospitals and who were part of that first vanguard in the 50s when black women were allowed to come to you and see and be a part of the hospital. “Soul” deals with Black women in the civil rights movement and Black women and voting. It's an attempt to take some of those oral histories, some of those stories and translate them into documentaries that young women can look at. It's a very powerful collective to have 4 young Black women want to tell this intergenerational story, and it's headed up by Molly Ruby at the Chapel Hill Public Library who has done a tremendous job of being very inclusive. We’re peeling back layers of the history of Chapel Hill. We had exceptional women like Ida B. Wells, but we were not in large part in charge of the media. We did not have the resources to record and document our history. We were not wealthy landowners who could have boxes of materials in Universities. We carry on those traditions through those songs, through those narratives because we did not have the resources a lot of times to document our history--but they are so important to understanding where we came from. I always say that documenting that history is at least as important, of the history, as the history itself.
Melody: This is our Southern Future's reading corner, so I'm going to ask my guests today to read for us.
Gloria: I have chosen the entirety of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution, which I can read in a minute or less. It has taken almost 50 years for 38 states to ratify the ERA, and now it's in limbo but here it is:
"Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
"Sec. 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
"Sec. 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification."
Melody: Thank you for reading that, especially now as we head to the polls.
Danita: The first in by Anna Julia Cooper: “Let woman's claim be as broad in the concrete as the abstract. We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life, and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favoritism, whether of sex, race, country, or condition. If one link of the chain is broken, the chain is broken.”
And from my other homegirl, Pauli Murray: “Negro women, historically, have carried the dual burden of Jim Crow and Jane Crow. They have not always carried it graciously but they have carried it effectively... In the course of their climb, Negro women have had to fight against the stereotypes of "female dominance" on the one hand and loose morals on the other hand, both growing out of the roles forced upon them during the slavery experience and its aftermath. But out of their struggle for human dignity, they also developed a tradition of independence and self-reliance.”
Melody: Thank you both for those selections! It is close to election time. Stakes are high, and that seems like an understatement and almost too cliche, but it is true. I'd like to wrap up the show with some final thoughts from you guys about voting, about the importance of exercising that right, about understanding the struggles that provide those rights, and how you imagine the future for the American South when you think about voting and voting rights.
Danita: It distresses me when I hear young people say, “this is not your mother’s Civil Rights Movement.” It is our civil rights movement. It is your mother's and her mother’s and her mother's before her, because we have not finished the job that we have to do in order to do better by our communities, educationally, health-wise, mass incarceration. These are the things that we have to continue to fight for. We can't look at voting as the end-all be-all, but it is definitely one of the most powerful tools in the tool kit to help us towards where we need to be in this society. It is very important that young people continue that tradition and that we continue to be the vanguard for our communities, and voting is one of the ways to do that. I look forward to seeing all the young people at the polls. Please get in contact with me if you want to help and find ways that we can engage.
Gloria: I would say continue to build on the right to vote and exercise that right to vote, but then go a little further and imagine yourself as the next governor of North Carolina, or the congressperson from North Carolina. I keep encouraging my own daughter to think big and think about serving in this capacity, and then maybe the opportunity to have a grandchild who will maybe take on this road. I'd like to see the future South represent all of us, at all levels of governance, at all levels of society--that's the future of North Carolina in the South that I see.
Melody: Thank you both for sharing your thoughts with us at a critical time in our nation and in the South. Thanks to our listeners and please join us for our next episode. For executive producer Malinda Maynor Lowery and sound editor Mark Meyer, I'm Melody Hunter-Pillion. Southern Futures is a podcast powered by the southern Futures initiative--a new collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences, UNC libraries, The Center for the Study of the American South, and other units of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Southern Futures: reimagine the American South...and vote!