REPORTING FROM PHILADELPHIA — Louise Elizabeth Peartree sat in the comfortable living room in a home in a suburb of Philadelphia describing the discomfort that faced African-Americans who sought to vote years ago.
Peartree, who recently celebrated her 101st birthday, explained how she had always possessed a deeply instilled desire to vote, even in the midst of strict segregation she encountered in the South. In her earlier years living in Bellhaven, North Carolina, white officials took pains to discourage Black citizens from voting, she said.
“They didn’t want us to vote in those days,” she said, in an interview with BET.com. Although she was born in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Peartree spent many years in Bellhaven, in Eastern North Carolina, which was steeped in deep racial segregation in that era.
“But that didn’t mean nothing to me,” she said. “I’ve been voting since I was 21. They didn’t like it. But I voted anyway. My granddaddy had been a slave and, once he was freed, he didn’t take any mess from anyone, Black or white. He farmed his own land, drank and cursed. He taught me not to let people stop me from what I was supposed to do.”
She added, “Everybody didn’t have the nerve to vote. In some cases, the whites would do things to try to keep you from voting. But that didn’t work on me.”
A spry woman who looks far younger than her 101 years, Peartree spent years cooking in the home of a white family in New York before settling in the Philadelphia area where she lives with her daughter and granddaughter. She still cooks regularly, having just made a bowl of potato salad after going to church and professing a lifelong love of oysters.
“I went as far as the seventh grade,” she said, but left school to care for sick relatives. “I didn’t have a lot of learning in school. But I did learn not to let anyone put anything over on me, either.”
And so, when Peartree, who first cast a ballot when Franklin Roosevelt challenged President Herbert Hoover in 1932, faced the prospect of changing voter laws here in Pennsylvania, she was equally determined not to let any requirement for new identification documents stop her.
Earlier this year, Pennsylvania’s Republican legislature passed a strict new voter identification law requiring many voters to obtain new documents. The move was harshly criticized by civil rights groups, advocacy organizations and a host of elected officials. They contended that the new laws were designed to make it difficult for African-American, elderly and urban voters to cast their ballots.
In fact, one political science expert testified in a court hearing that 1 million registered voters — about 12.7 percent of the state’s registered voters — lacked valid identification to cast ballots under the new law. They maintained that the new laws were a partisan effort to keep Democratic-leaning groups away from the polls. In fact, the Pennsylvania House Leader, Mike Turzai, boasted that the new law would enable his fellow Republican Mitt Romney to win the state against President Obama.
In the end, however, a state judge ordered elections officials not to enact the voter identification requirements.
Nonetheless, Peartree was far from dissuaded during the months of debate and court challenges. “My daughter took me to get a new ID and I’m voting,” she said.
What is difficult to understand, she said, is young African-Americans who choose not to vote. “I just don’t know why some people don’t want to vote. I don’t mean no harm, but young people need to understand that this is important. I know they have a mind of their own, but they need to do what they should do. It’s only right.”
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(Photo: Louise Peartree)
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