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Election Season: Annie Brown Kennedy, Black Voting Rights and Black Elected Officials

Headshot of Annie Brown Kennedy

…[W]e have not acquired full freedom.  The movement continues…even though at this point it appears that we have access to a few more opportunities, we are not yet full citizens in terms of our definition of what a full citizen is or should be.  Sometimes it is not only upsetting but it angers some of us that we should have to strive and work in a manner that we do.  As soon as we think maybe we are maybe making a little progress then it seems that racism and prejudice become very much apparent again.  I guess for some of us who are older and have something to compare us to, and have a long time in the struggle, it can anger us.  It can cause us to become so disgusted that we feel like we want to become sometimes, should I say, rebellious.

– Annie Brown Kennedy (1995 SOHP interview, around 29 mins)

In many locations around the US, municipalities held local primary elections at the beginning of October and general elections will take place in early November.  This year there is an increased interest in local politics.  A wave of younger candidates, including many Black people, women and LGBTQ people, are running for office.  This wave of underrepresented candidates builds on the contentious history of Black voting rights, and Black elected officials from the Reconstruction era, from after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and up to to the present.  Historically, the issue of Black voting rights has been tied up with Black political power, Black landownership, and the possibilities for Black communities.  Black elected officials have played key roles in shaping Black communities both in all-Black towns and cities and in multi-racial and white-dominated locations.  The upcoming Black Communities Conference, sponsored by the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) and several other entities at UNC, will examine these and other issues.

Many interviews related to Black voting rights and Black elected officials are available in the SOHP archive .  Here, we highlight an interview with Annie Brown Kennedy, the first Black woman to serve in the North Carolina General Assembly.

Spelman Athletics Council, 1943. Spelman College Archives. In 1943, Annie Brown Kennedy was a student at Spellman, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta.  Throughout her political career, Kennedy fought for funding for public HBCUs and for women’s issues.

Annie Brown Kennedy was a pioneer in North Carolina law and politics.  Kennedy was born in Atlanta, GA, on Oct. 13,1924, and attended the public (segregated) schools there.  She earned an AB in economics from Spelman College in 1945, and later her JD from Howard University School of Law in 1951.  She moved with her husband to his hometown, Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1953, and thereafter was active both professionally as lawyer and in local Democratic Party politics.  She was only the second African American woman ever licensed to practice law in the state (1954) and the first ever to serve in the NC General Assembly.

Kennedy  was a founding member of the interracial Democratic Women of Forsyth Co. and later the group’s president in 1970-71. Having been heavily involved in local political affairs through the 1970s, she was selected by the local Executive Committee of the Democratic Party of Forsyth Co. in Oct. 1979 to fill the vacated term of a local member of the NC House, and subsequently appointed to that position by Gov. Jim Hunt. Kennedy unsuccessfully sought election to the seat in the Nov. 1980 general election. In 1982, however, she won the first of six consecutive terms in the House, where her focus was the status and welfare of families, women, and African Americans, among other issues. Kennedy chose not to seek reelection in 1994 and returned to the practice of law in a family-run practice with her husband and two sons.

Shirley Chisolm, who ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1972.  Annie Brown Kennedy supported her and therefore was not allowed to serve as an NC delegate to the Democratic National Convention by the NC Democratic Party.

The SOHP interview with Annie Brown Kennedy was conducted as part of a series of interviews in 1995-1996 called  “The North Carolina Politics Project” with the generous support of the Walter Royal Davis Oral History Fund.  In the course of the interview, Kennedy discusses her personal biography; the evolution of North Carolina black political activity post-1965; and her service in the NC House. She also touches on the evolution of women’s political activity in NC, her support for Shirley Chisolm’s presidential bid and the conflict that caused with white NC Democrats), the effect of racism on mental health), how she came to run and win a General Assembly seat after a loss , a parental leave bill, a midwifery bill, the successful fight to save the nursing program at Winston-Salem State University, and fighting for funding for HBCU’s.

  • Listen to the interview with Annie Brown Kennedy in the SOHP archive
  • Browse the SOHP collection for other relevant interviews including the projects on Southern Politics; the Long Civil Rights Movement; Notable North Carolinians: Women in Politics; Southern Women: Black and White Women in Atlanta Public Life; Listening for A Change: African Americans in Georgia; Black High School Principals, and more.
  • For those in North Carolina – check out Common Cause and Democracy NC non-partisan voter guides and election date information for North Carolina’s general election on November 7th, 2017.