I have traced some of my ancestors in the United States as far back as the late 1600s. Most were enslaved until the general emancipation. A lucky few were free well before that. But the first ancestor I have found on a voting roll was one of my great-grandfathers who registered to vote in Los Angeles on August 21,1888. During that period he was in his twenties, and like many blacks in Los Angeles before the twentieth century, he lived in the downtown area now called the historic district. The neighborhood, heavily populated by non-white people, featured a street called Calle de Los Negros, or more immediately pejorative in English, N-word Alley. Some people called it that for decades even well after the name was officially changed to Los Angeles Street in the late 1800s. My great-grandfather worked as a waiter and porter at various venues, including the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The club, founded in 1880, was created to offer a leisure space for "the best young men in the community." Women were welcome only at a few events. Like many public spaces at the time, blacks were entirely barred at the Athletic Club except as workers until the 1960s, and for at least a dozen years after that blacks were rarely admitted. This was the same club where I held a student membership 100 years after my great-grandfather had worked there. I was one of very, very few black members at the club, even then.
I am struck by two things. First, as someone born into a family of Louisiana gens de couleur near the start of the Civil War, my great-grandfather may have been one of the very first people in his family with access to the vote. Members of his family who stayed in Louisiana likely could not vote until after the Voting Rights Act, and even then they may have had difficulty exercising their rights. Sadly, impediments to voting for people of color have never quite gone away, and suppression seems to be on the rise.
Next, with whatever else was going on in my great-grandfather’s life in the summer of 1888, including living in segregated conditions and working at segregated job sites, he managed to register to vote. His willingness to participate in the political process likely helped to shape the opportunities I have today.
Vote. Vote like your life depends on it. Because some of our lives do depend on it.