102-year-old voter marks 18th presidential election
By ANDREW SCOTT Pocono Record
EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. — It was 1936, a presidential election year.
In June of that year, while campaigning for his second consecutive term in office, President Franklin Roosevelt named Mary McLeod Bethune the director of the National Youth Administration’s Council of Negro Affairs, making her the first black woman to receive a presidential appointment and the highest-ranking black official in his administration.
This news wasn’t lost on many African-Americans including 21-year-old Christine Adams of North Carolina.
Like many other poor Southerners, Adams had married and started a family at a young age, 15 in her case. A former slave’s granddaughter, she supported her family by doing domestic work in white homes.
Adams’ seventh-grade education gave her a limited understanding of who the president of the United States was and what his duties were, as well as the identity and job of the black woman he had appointed.
What mattered was the date of Aug. 20, 1936. This happened to be just 11 days after Jesse Owens, a black man from Cleveland, Ohio, won four gold medals in track and field at the Olympics in Berlin, Germany, disproving Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s concept of racial inferiority and giving many Americans a sense of national pride.
The date marked Adams’ 22nd birthday, making this the first presidential election in which she was legally old enough to vote. And she wanted to vote for Roosevelt.
“He and his wife stood up for us black people,” said Adams, now 102, sitting in the living room of the Middle Smithfield Township home she has shared with her son, daughter and grandson for almost 23 years.
The 1936 election came 66 years after the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment, which banned federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race, color or previous condition of servitude. Yet, Adams and many other blacks in the South were denied the right to vote because they had no money to pay the poll tax.
This was one way of keeping blacks from the polls 30 years before civil rights legislation abolished such discriminatory practices. Other ways involved violence, terror and intimidation.
It wasn’t surprising, given the active racial segregation and inequality in a time when blacks accused of crimes were often lynched without being tried in courts of law to determine their guilt or innocence.
By age 11, Adams, had seen a black man almost burned alive and then beaten after being accused of stealing a soda.
While walking with friends one morning to the one-room schoolhouse where they were taught in those days, she saw another black man’s remains still lying on railroad tracks. Later, after her teacher told the children to forget what they had seen, she heard talk of whites having murdered the man.
“Those are two of the things I’ve seen that stay with me to this day,” Adams said in her southern drawl, slowly shaking her head.