If you’re looking to dive a little deeper into Women’s History Month in March, a visit to the Panoramas of the City exhibit at the Missouri History Museum will yield some interesting personal stories.
St. Louis changed forever in mid-September 1920 as thousands of women lined up at polling places all around the city to ensure they could finally make their voices heard on Election Day. Congress had ratified the 19th Amendment, giving women the voting rights they had pushed for since 1848. Over the span of five days, more than 125,000 women registered, far exceeding predictions.
A panorama showing the September 13, 1920, rally and parade held by the League of Women Voters to celebrate victory in the fight for women’s suffrage is featured in the exhibit. One remarkable story that accompanies it involves a flyer that declares “A Woman Living Here Has Registered to Vote Thereby Assuming the Responsibility of Citizenship.” Many St. Louis women displayed such flyers in their windows.
What makes this flyer extra special is that the woman who owned it wrote down everything she did on September 13, 1920—the first day women could register to vote in the city. She registered, of course, but she also played a game of golf and some blackjack (where she won $2.10). Her notations pull you into the life of a woman who was registering to vote for the very first time and didn’t want to forget a thing about that important day. You can see the flyer itself in the large panorama in the exhibit, a powerful reminder that these were real people who were rallying, registering, and voting to make their world a better place.
Ebbie Tolbert, an elderly African American woman, also registered to vote in St. Louis. Who was she? We have no pictures of her, so we don’t know what she looked like. She was also a woman of, seemingly, a thousand names and a thousand birthdates: She’s listed in various census records as Phoebe Talbot, Eva Talbot, Ibbe Talbot, and as Hattie Talbert in her burial notice. The 1900 census lists her as 90, the 1910 census says 104, and the 1920 census somehow has her at only 102. Two newspaper stories in 1920 and 1922 put her age at 113 and 114, respectively. Her death certificate lists her as 120 years old.
But every source seems to agree that Ebbie Tolbert was born a slave in North Carolina between 1807 and 1818, that she was a slave for more than 50 years, and that she had at least five different owners. She ran away from her owner in Vicksburg, MS before Union troops took the city in 1863, and found her way to St. Louis, where she lived from then on.
When Congress ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920, Tolbert was relying on the kindness and charity of neighbors for her support. It’s safe to say that she had lived a hard life, but she wasn’t about to waste the opportunity to make her voice heard. On September 14 she walked herself down to her polling place and entered her name into the lists as a registered voter.
The St. Louis Star and Times ran a piece on Tolbert on September 15. The story makes clear that she cherished the right to vote and believed that women had the political power to make things right. She told the reporter, “The world isn’t like it used to be, and it may take the women to make things better.”
Ebbie Tolbert’s story is a powerful one that reminds us of the many years of struggle that women, particularly black women, went through to gain the right to vote.
Admission to Panoramas of the City at the Missouri History Museum is free. The exhibit is open through March 24.
Featured upper photo: Portion of a panorama showing the September 13, 1920, rally and parade held by the League of Women Voters. Missouri Historical Society Collections.