By Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio
Adele Logan Alexander did not see herself becoming a historian and author. But when she was 46 years old, inspired by the fascinating role her grandmothers played in the suffrage movement, she shifted course and enrolled at Howard University to pursue graduate degrees in history — and to learn more about her own ancestral past.
Alexander’s grandmothers, including Adella Logan, for whom Ms. Alexander was named, were both light-skinned
Black suffragists who passed as white and so they attended white suffrage conferences in the South. They would then share the information with the Black community. Ms. Alexander’s book, “Princess of the Hither Isles,” focuses on the work of one of her grandmothers.
I caught up with Alexander, who is featured in a collection of stories marking the 100th anniversary (this summer) of the suffrage movement, to talk about her family’s roots, how she became a historian and what her ancestors would think of today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
GM: Can you tell me about your family’s background?
AA: My grandparents’ generation of Logans went to Tuskegee University shortly after it opened. My grandfather, Warren Logan, had known Booker T. from their days at Hampton Institute in the 1870s, and he became VP and treasurer at TI almost from its inception, until his retirement in the 1920s. Warren had been born into slavery in 1858 and remained enslaved through the Civil War.
My paternal grandmother, Adella Hunt, was born free, a very rare circumstance in Georgia, during the Civil War. I think the Hunts were an intact family — at least her mother had eight children over almost 20 years by the same white man — and members of her family were definitely among the more privileged African-Americans.
GM: How did you find out about your paternal grandmother’s work as a suffragist?
AA: In the late 70s, a young historian by the name of Rosalyn Terborg Penn was working on her history dissertation at Howard University about Black women in the suffrage movement. She knew that I was related to Adella Hunt Logan, and shared her information with me, including my grandmother’s published writings that she’d found through her research.
Then, I asked my mother and she told me about how her mother and Adella Hunt would go to white suffrage conventions together because both of them could pass for white. Then they’d come back to the community and share
the information and the lessons that they had learned from the suffragists.
GM: Do you see any similarities between what your predecessors were trying to achieve during the suffragist movement and the demands for equality of today?
AA: The suffrage movement was for women and the Black Lives Matter movement and other contemporary movements are movements for racial equality and racial empowerment. Those are not necessarily the same things, although they are both, and I think that all of my antecedents were very committed to the idea of equality for everybody and empowerment for everybody.
GM: What about Adella’s suffrage work set you in an academic direction?
AA: I asked myself, “Why in a place and time, when everybody seemed to believe that she wasn’t worthy of the vote both because she wasn’t white, and also because she wasn’t male, did she pursue that path?” I have some good hunches which I’ve pursued and put forth in several books, but I think that three factors were pre-eminent. First, that she was born free when the vast majority of others were not, second that she had a strong interracial family that supported her, and third, that she got a very good education. She was smart, hardworking, and very lucky.
Hearing these stories about her really raised my curiosity to know more about her. She lived in a society where the message that you got from virtually everybody and from societal conditions was that you weren’t equal and you weren’t deserving, both because you weren’t white and because you weren’t male. I think that’s what guided all of my research since then.
My ___ Was a Suffragist
On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. Eight days later, ratification was certified by the secretary of state. The right to vote for women across the United States was officially enshrined in the Constitution.
The codification of suffrage was the result of nearly a century of activism, which began even before the Seneca Falls convention in 1848. From those early years to the formation of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890 to the Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington in 1913, generations of American women and men devoted their lives to fighting for the vote. The movement was a decades-long game of democratic Telephone: Of the 68 women who gathered in that town in upstate New York and declared what was then a radical notion — that all men and women were created equal — only one, Charlotte Woodward Pierce, would live to see their dream become a reality.
And their struggle did not end with the amendment. Well after 1920, there were many women in the United States, including Native Americans and Chinese immigrants, who were not able to vote and many more, particularly African-Americans, for whom it was extremely difficult. One hundred years later, the country is continuing to grapple with many of the same questions the suffragists raised, not only who gets to vote but also what it means to be a citizen and how to ensure that all Americans are equal in the eyes of the law. And as we mark this centennial, the generation that came after the suffragists, and the ones that have come after that, are still in the fight.
Moments of Joy
We can all agree that it’s been a tough year of bleak news. And so we wanted to share the ways in which we are finding joy these days. Please tell us what you’ve been doing to find happiness and comfort, and we may use your responses in an upcoming newsletter.
From Fahima Haque, digital storytelling and training editor at The New York Times:
Anyone who knows me, knows I struggle in my relationship with my mother. It’s a fraught, unstable one. I value, respect and love her, but we view the world fundamentally differently.
My parents emigrated from Bangladesh to Queens, N.Y., in the 1970s and it was a painful time for them. Despite being about 8,000 miles from home, they clung to their homeland in many ways, especially when it came to food. Thankfully, the kitchen has consistently been a refuge for my mother and me despite our iciest moments.
My favorite breakfast is a mughlai paratha, a popular street food found in Bangladesh that traces back to the Mughal Empire. It’s a pan fried crisp paratha stuffed with fluffy eggs, fiery chilies and crisp vegetables gently spiced with earthy turmeric. It’s addictive in its contrasting textures, and it’s super savory.
I recently watched my mom make it. She was uncharacteristically patient and clearly at ease making something she had spent her entire life making. She was so happy to share her recipe with me. I cook and bake a lot, reading and watching about food traditions I didn’t previously know, but I could only learn how to make this classic Bengali dish from my mother.
I’m now testing the recipe for The New York Times’ Cooking department — and I’m hyped about it. I spent a lot of time being ashamed of where I came from when I was younger. Now, I take great pride in being able to share something that has such history and helps remind me that feeding someone is love even if they don’t know how to verbalize it the way you want them to — and that can be enough.