A Smith Family Legacy of Voting Remembered

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By Bonnyclaire Smith Stewart

My paternal grandfather, Jesse Alfonzo Smith (1889-1975), was born in Buford, S.C. and enrolled at Tuskegee University in 1897. His excelled ability placed him as a sophomore and graduated in the Class of 1900, having studied under Professors George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. He remained in Alabama, first working in the Flat Creek Coal Mine in Jasper because those were the kinds of jobs available to “colored” college graduates. He met and married my grandmother, Ida M. Jones, bore my father James and his sister Minnie, then moved to the metropolis of Birmingham. There, he worked as an Expressman for the L&N Railroad and devoted his adult life as a voter registration volunteer until age 94. He knew the power, the privilege and the pressing need to vote because he lived under voter suppression that ignored the 15th Amendment. For generations, my family has “preached” education and voting. My grandfather’s brother, Victor Claude Smith, was the first African-American to obtain 3 degrees from MIT, including the first to earn a doctorate, and believed to be the first chemical engineer of color in the U.S. Education and voting were important on my mom’s side, too. One of my favorite keepsakes is my paternal grandfather John P. Gilbreath’s voter registration card from 1960, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As a young adult, I voted as soon as I could. As a young mother, I took my babies and my children into the voting booths with me. And my children have done so with their children. Discussions about candidates and qualifications were topics, and they were then given the opportunity to cast a mock vote.  This year, in the midterm election, on Sunday, October 28, three generations voted together. My youngest granddaughter, Kaitlyn, turned eighteen on October 26. She registered to vote last year. Kaitlyn, my youngest daughter, Lisa and myself went to vote together, celebrating Kaitlyn’s participation in the democratic process.

Four million-plus enslaved never had the opportunity to cast a ballot and thousands of “free” and “freed” were prevented from exercising  their right as citizens of this great country. Thank you Grandpa Smith for teaching us and leaving such a powerful legacy!

Kaitlyn Stewart, Lisa Stewart, Bonnyclaire Smith Stewart, Jesse A. Smith