On a late October day in 1920, forty-seven-year-old homemaker Matilda Wheelock and three other African American women visited the Board of Elections in Phoebus, Virginia, to register to vote. Each filled out an application, signed it, and answered a question about the definition of “a republic.” All four women registered without incident.
Wheelock’s experience was not typical for southern African American women in the first elections after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. The document that testifies to her success—a remarkable field report by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) investigator Addie Hunton—also details the obstructionism that many Black women encountered at registrars’ offices across the South. Wheelock and her neighbors succeeded in registering, but Wheelock’s own daughter did not. That same day, the registrar “quizzed” twenty-three-year-old Lucile Wheelock, a college graduate, for nearly an hour before announcing that she “did not pass.”1