When Dorothy Went to the Polls


OCTOBER 19, 2015 12:27 PM

Several years ago, I interviewed my grandmother, Dorothy, for National Listening Day. I heard about the program on NPR. The instructions were to interview someone the day after Thanksgiving to learn more about his or her life story.

I called my grandmother and asked permission.

“Of course,” she said. “I’ve been interviewed before for an oral history project about Glen Allen, Virginia, and I’ve been interviewed for a publication that the church put out a while back.”

She sounded thrilled to have another person, let alone her granddaughter, ask her to talk about her 90 years of life.

We set it up with the digital recorder, and she shared many stories about childhood, race and her parents, being a mother, grandmother and great grandmother. She talked about the Great Depression, and how her family fared all right, because they grew their own crops and had farm animals for food.

My grandmother shared that she wanted to be a journalist but instead was encouraged to be a nurse or teacher, as many black women were encouraged to do. Far from journalism, she ended up at the Richmond Paper making company.

In addition to working there, she was a domestic worker, and I’ve heard many a story about Ms. Solomon, whose house she cleaned time and time again. She talked about the number of nice things that Ms. Solomon wanted to throw away, as if money was no object to her.

Later in the interview, I asked her about something happening in her lifetime that she didn’t expect. With tears in her eyes, she said, “President Obama getting elected. I never thought I would see a black man become president.”

Dorothy has lived through many election cycles and had been denied the right to vote. She was moved to tears when she recounted that she was able to go to the polls to vote for President Obama and that he became president.

We are experiencing the dismantling of voting rights and civil liberties in our legislature as part of a conservative organizing strategy that is touching us locally and globally.

For some, complacency leads to not choosing to vote. For others, it is the lack of education about the impact of voting. And for a different group, the gerrymandering makes it confusing to understand where and whom to vote for. For many, voter suppression and the restrictions in the Voter ID law make it impossible to vote.

When I witness what is happening in our state, I always think about Dorothy, because she remembers a time when she was denied the right to vote, even when it was legal for her to do so. She remembers my grandfather, Fred, heading to the polls to vote paying poll taxes. She remembers the suffragist movement and how the intersection of racism, sexism and voting rights weren’t acknowledged.

Many have worked hard for her right to vote, for my right to vote and for those who will come after us. It is imperative that we do all that we can to both understand the racism and classism that is inherent in the Voter ID Law and that we organize to maintain our right to vote.

One of the best ways to shift directions, historian and social activist Howard Zinn suggests, is by “turning this spinning top of a world in a different direction.” We should demand our right to vote and understand the impact of how our decisions today will leave a legacy for our children’s children, our earth and humankind.

Michelle Johnson is a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen.


Michelle Johnson