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 formally ratified the 19th Amendment about a month prior, officially 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 local election officials’ predictions. One of those women was Ebbie Tolbert, an elderly African American woman who registered to vote in the city’s 7th Ward on September 14, 1920.
Who was Ebbie Tolbert? 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: She’s listed as Phoebe Talbot in the 1900 census, Eva Talbot in the 1910 census, Ibbe Talbot in the 1920 census, Ibbie Talbert on her December 1928 death certificate, and Hattie Talbert in her January 1929 burial notice in the St. Louis Argus. She’s noted in every census as being illiterate, which explains why her name is so inconsistent. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to keep calling her Ebbie Tolbert.
Tolbert was also, seemingly, a woman of a thousand birth dates. The 1900 census lists her as 90, the 1910 census lists her as 104, and the 1920 census somehow has her at only 102. Two newspaper stories written about Tolbert in 1920 and 1922 put her age at 113 and 114, respectively. Her 1928 death certificate lists her as 120 years old.
Despite all the discrepancies in the historical record, there’s one thing that every source seems to agree on: Ebbie Tolbert was born into slavery in North Carolina sometime between 1807 and 1818. Reports written about Tolbert in local papers during the 1920s are consistent in their claims that she was enslaved for more than 50 years and that she had at least five different enslavers across the South. By the 1860s she was in Vicksburg, Mississippi. She ran away from her enslaver before Union troops took that city in 1863 and found her way to St. Louis, where she lived thereafter.
When Congress ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920, Tolbert was living at 313 Gratiot Street, supported by the kindness and charity of neighbors. It’s safe to say that Tolbert 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.
Many newspapers were running stories about women registering to vote for the first time, and 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.”
Even though we don’t know all the details of Tolbert’s life, her story is a powerful one. It reminds us of the many years of struggle that women, particularly Black women, went through to gain the right to vote.
In the Missouri History Museum’s new exhibit, “Beyond the Ballot: St. Louis and Suffrage,” which opened on August 1, visitors can learn more about the fight for women’s suffrage in St. Louis and discover the stories of women who have made an impact in St. Louis before and after gaining the right to vote in 1920. Admission is free, but advance reservations are required. To learn more about the exhibit and to make reservations, visit mohistory.org/beyond-the-ballot.
Adam Kloppe is public historian at the Missouri Historical Society.