Before she cast her very first vote in 1939, 18-year-old Rosanell Eaton had to correctly recite the entire Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. And then she had to take a literacy test. Much to everyone’s surprise but hers, she did both.
White voters could simply show up, sign in and cast their vote. But not black people like Rosanell. They had to prove their fitness to vote by taking math, government and logic tests that were designed to fail.
But Rosanell, like a handful of other black voters, passed and she became the first black female voter in her county in North Carolina.
Rosanell understood that in the United States, the right to vote is the power to create change, and if she wanted to change the Jim Crow laws that allowed racist governmental structures to exist, she had to help other black people vote as well.
Over the course of her lifetime, Rosanell single-handedly registered over 4,000 black voters before she lost count. So when voting restrictions began passing in North Carolina again in 2013, Rosanell recognized them for exactly what they were. Because after voting religiously for over 70 years, she too was being denied the privilege all over again.
North Carolina’s new voting laws required identification that, as the granddaughter of a slave, she simply didn’t have. Because records, especially those on black people, were kept much more loosely back then, Rosanell had 3 different forms of government ID, each with a slightly different name. In 2015, she started her journey to reconcile her past. 11 trips to state agencies, 200 miles and 20 hours later, she was official.
And then she fought back and became the lead plaintiff in the historic North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory Supreme Court case, challenging the state’s restrictive voting laws as violations of the Voting Rights Act.
Having seen firsthand that the fight she thought she left behind is not yet won, the now 95-year-old Rosanell is back to work for the civil rights of the citizens of North Carolina as a speaker, activist, registrar, and of course, an inspiration.