Voter Suppression: Then and Now

Following the 2020 presidential election, the ensuing debates over the integrity of the election and the violence of early 2021, voting rights and efforts to ensure fair and safe elections seem as important as ever.

The Brennan Center for Justice’s State Voting Bill Tracker 2021 reports that in just over one month, hundreds of restrictive bills were introduced across the country, some of which have already passed and been signed into law. Georgia, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Michigan’s legislative battles have dominated headlines for many weeks.

As debates rage, many have invoked terminology we thought a distant part of our nation’s troubled history, calling these newly introduced voting bills Jim Crow laws. Looking into our past using resources in our collections can help us better understand the ways laws meant to protect marginalized citizens failed. Politicians cloaked systemic bias into law by utilizing coded language and proxies for race to deny people of color access to the ballot.

Literacy Tests and Poll Taxes

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Gerrymandering & the Attempted Elimination of Macon County, Alabama, 1957

Despite its fundamental political motive–to reshape voting districts in order to benefit the electoral chances of one political party–gerrymandering may be one of the few practices that Republicans and Democrats have in common these days.  Although the effects of Republican-led gerrymandering has arguably received more national attention during recent years, both parties have used this practice to gain political advantages. Districts across Maryland, for example, have been redrawn by both major parties during the last several decades.  Take Baltimore–a longtime resident in southern Baltimore may have lived in as many as three different electoral districts during the last 20 years.

While gerrymandering has been utilized to both maximize and minimize the electoral impact of different groups of voters, its geographic effect typically follows a certain pattern.  The shapes of different districts change every few years as a result of gerrymandering. However, in 1957 in southeast Alabama, the practice of gerrymandering almost led to the complete elimination of one county entirely.  The reason? To severely curtail the voting power of African-American residents.

Despite ever-present resistance from white, pro-segregation factions, including violent intimidation tactics used by white nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, black voter registration in the South rose steadily during the 1950s.  A corresponding trend was also occurring in Macon County, Alabama–located about 40 miles east of Montgomery and home to the historically-black Tuskegee University. Whereas only 30 African-American residents were registered to vote in 1930, over 1,000–or roughly three percent of the total county population–were registered by 1957.  

Of course, this trend also created heightened concern among white southerners who feared that black voters would be able to curtail long-standing segregation laws across the region.  In turn, they worked with state legislators like Alabama senator Sam Engelherdt to develop and implement strategies to stop the growth of black voters.

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Disenfranchisement in Mississippi, 1954

On February 3, 1870, the United States ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  The third and final amendment of the Reconstruction Amendments–enacted in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War to help rebuild the Union and establish a freer society unbound from slavery–prohibits states and the federal government from withholding a citizen’s right to vote based on that person’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  After Iowa ratified the amendment on February 3–becoming the 28th state to do so and fulfilling the three-fourths threshold for amendment ratification–celebrations sprung out across the country.  

At the time, President Ulysses S. Grant claimed that the passage of the Fifthteenth Amendment “completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event” in the nation’s history.  Many other Republicans believed that the amendment would finally guarantee black Americans equal rights under the law. Future president James A. Garfield even declared that the amendment would ensure black Americans control over their collective well-being.  Garfield proclaimed, “It places their fortunes in their own hands.”

Nevertheless, because the federal government failed to strongly enforce the Fifteenth Amendment at the state level after the Reconstruction Era, southern states used alternative methods to restrict the right to vote for black Americans.  For many decades after the ratification of the amendment, the state of Mississippi became one of the more deliberate enablers of disenfranchisement methods. By 1875, only five years after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, members of the Democratic Party in the state developed what came to be known as the Mississippi Plan–a series of measures used to suppress the black vote and keep their party in power.  Eventually, these measures culminated in the passage of a new state constitution in 1890, which explicitly disenfranchised black voters through the implementation of poll taxes and literacy tests.

Disenfranchisement in Mississippi and other Southern states–enforced using voter registration measures like poll taxes as well as violent intimidation tactics organized by racist vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan–persisted throughout the late 1800s and well into the 20th century.  However, by the mid-1950s, events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the emergence of grassroot civil rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference helped spur rejuvenated calls for actions to protect the rights and well-being of African-Americans across the country.     

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Racism as a Political Tool in the Southern Suffrage Movement

In 1870, the 15th Amendment stated that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” This amendment gave many men of color the right to vote, though racist state and local governments almost immediately drafted new laws to disenfranchise them. 

Across the American South, racist politicians scrambled to restrict Black votes and maintain white supremacy. As soon as the federal government stopped enforcing the 15th Amendment after Reconstruction, Southern states successfully disenfranchised most Black men with Jim Crow laws and violent intimidation tactics. 

However, as the women’s suffrage movement regained popularity, Southern politicians feared not only that the proposed Susan B. Anthony Amendment would enfranchise Black women voters, but that it would re-enfranchise Black male voters as well. As Congress debated the Amendment in 1919, South Carolina Senator Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith argued that “the southern man who votes for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment votes to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment.” 

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Spotlight on Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and acclaimed poet born in Baltimore in 1825. Born to free parents and orphaned at three, Watkins was raised by her maternal uncle Rev. William Watkins, an abolitionist and civil rights activist, and his wife Henrietta. She was educated at her uncle’s school, the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. While she was still very young, Harper worked as a nursemaid and seamstress for a white family that owned a bookshop. There, she discovered her love for books and filled her free time with reading. 

From there, Watkins grew up to become the first African American woman to publish a short story, and she published her first book of poetry, Forest Leaves, at age 20. Harper went on to publish another book of poetry, many short stories, and several novels, including her most popular work Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. Watkins’ writing often addressed issues of race, gender, and their intersections. 

The poem below, “Slave Mother,” highlights the painful relationship between motherhood and Blackness that Harper observed during her lifetime. 

Heard you that shriek? It rose

   So wildly on the air,

It seem’d as if a burden’d heart

   Was breaking in despair.

Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—

   The bowed and feeble head—

The shuddering of that fragile form—

   That look of grief and dread?

Saw you the sad, imploring eye?

   Its every glance was pain,

As if a storm of agony

   Were sweeping through the brain.

She is a mother pale with fear,

   Her boy clings to her side,

And in her kyrtle vainly tries

   His trembling form to hide.

He is not hers, although she bore

   For him a mother’s pains;

He is not hers, although her blood

   Is coursing through his veins!

He is not hers, for cruel hands

   May rudely tear apart

The only wreath of household love

   That binds her breaking heart.

His love has been a joyous light

   That o’er her pathway smiled,

A fountain gushing ever new,

   Amid life’s desert wild.

His lightest word has been a tone

   Of music round her heart,

Their lives a streamlet blent in one—

   Oh, Father! must they part?

They tear him from her circling arms,

   Her last and fond embrace.

Oh! never more may her sad eyes

   Gaze on his mournful face.

No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks

   Disturb the listening air:

She is a mother, and her heart

   Is breaking in despair.

In her discussions of intersectionality, Watkins alienated many white suffragists. She criticized the racism and selfishness of their refusal to support the 15th Amendment. In response, she helped found the American Woman Suffrage Association, which actively supported the 15th Amendment. She was also active in the “Colored Section” of Philadelphia’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. 

Later, Watkins helped organize the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NACW focused on both black and women’s issues such as women’s suffrage, lynching, and Jim Crow laws, and became the most prominent organization of the African American Women’s Suffrage Movement. 


Post by Rigby Philips
History, specializing in women’s history and the history of sexuality
(2021)

New Exhibition Online: Get Out the Vote

We are thrilled to announce the launch of a new virtual exhibition, Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America.

Inspired by our collections of grassroots organizations, we used material from our collection to tell the story of voting rights in America, from the founding of this nation to our current electoral climate.

The ideal of universal suffrage, or “one person, one vote,” has compelled many to advocate for greater equity and inclusion in the electoral process. Over the years, voting rights have expanded and contracted for many marginalized communities. Election laws continue to evolve in America as citizens demand equitable representation in government and access to the ballot.

Despite the importance of suffrage in America, voting rights have not always been ensured for everyone. Barriers to voting have led many to advocate for a more representative electorate and to encourage greater participation in local, state, and national elections. Their efforts are crucial to ensure all ALL citizens have the opportunity to cast their ballot.

Visit the online exhibition, explore our collections, and contact us to learn more.

African-Americans in the Early Labor Movement

DYK that labor unions did not allow African-Americans to become members back in the day? Being a member of a union was important to be able to bargain for workers’ rights and fight against the discrimination that black workers faced. Many skilled black workers sought to join unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) between 1881 and 1915. But, white craft union members, who were primarily affiliated with the AFL, were afraid of the competition and didn’t allow African Americans to join. On the other hand, industrial unions were more accepting of black workers.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) union members pose with locomotive firemen, ca. 1940. AFL-CIO Photographic Print Collection (RG96-001)

Who were early allies?

The Knights of Labor, the AFL until 1915, the United Mine Workers of America, the International Longshoreman’s Union, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Some black workers allowed to join:

The Teamsters, the Cigar Makers, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees, the Carpenters, and the Printers.

Very few black workers allowed to join:

The Pressmen, the Lithographers, the Photo-Engravers, the Iron Steel and Tin Workers, the Molders, the Pattern Makers, the Glass Workers, the Boot and Shoe Workers, and the Wood Workers

For more information about the relationship of the civil rights movement and the labor movement, visit our exhibit “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America” in person or online or email us at askhornbake@umd.edu.


Jen Eidson is a Special Collections Processing Archivist in the University of Maryland Libraries.

Africa’s Maryland: Manumission and Emigration of Maryland’s Freed People, ca. 1836

Maryland Avenue.  South Baltimore Street.  Water Street.  Are these streets in Maryland? (1)

The answer is “yes” if you’re thinking of Maryland County in Africa.  Located at the southeastern tip of Liberia, “Maryland County” takes its current name for the independent settlement and later republic, which began in the 1830s under the direction of the Maryland State Colonization Society.  That organization’s mission was to manage the removal of recently-manumitted African-Americans to Africa or elsewhere.  Between 1831 and 1851, the society oversaw the state-enforced emigration of 1,025 Maryland-born individuals of color. (2)

Fifteen of those individuals comprised a single unit – the family of Thomas and Frances Davenport (ages 46 and 44, respectively), who had thirteen children and grandchildren.  An extract from a Frederick County court record, available at the University of Maryland Special Collections, indicates that the Davenport family was freed by their master Adam Wever on June 24, 1836.  But only on “the express Condition that the above named negroes, & each, + every of them shall within a reasonable time from the date of said manumission proceed to the Colony of Cape Palmas in Maryland, in Liberia on the Coast of Africa, + there continue to reside” (http://digital.lib.umd.edu/image?pid=umd:89408).

Indeed, under two weeks after obtaining their freedom from bondage, the Davenport family were nearly compelled to board the brig Financier in Baltimore harbor, along with two other emancipated African-Americans, and sailed for Africa. Thomas Davenport, a farmer and carpenter, lived in the new colony on the west coast of Africa until his death of dropsy in 1843. Indeed, life was precious there. By 1852, only eight of the original fifteen family members – Frances Davenport, six of her children, and one granddaughter – were known to reside in the Maryland colony. (3)

The nation of Liberia and its “Maryland County” deserves recognition within the history of Maryland, which in its broadest sense ought to include mention of the places outside of Maryland which natives of the state have shaped. In particular, the passage by the Maryland legislature of “An act relating to the People of Color in this state” on March 12, 1832, contributed directly to the creation of African-American settlements in Africa. The act empowered a three-person Board of Managers, chosen from among members of the Maryland State Colonization Society, to act on the state’s behalf and with the state’s money to not only encourage slaveholders to free their slaves, but to police the free black community. In the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia, the politicians who had been elected to represent the state of Maryland passed this measure largely in order to prevent the further growth of the free African-American population, which numbered over 50,000 in the state in 1830. (4)

colonization-money-facsimile_final

(A facsimile of the fifty-cent and one dollar paper currency issued by the Board of Managers beginning in October 1837. Also issued were bills equivalent to five, ten, and twenty-five cents. For use by the Maryland emigrants to Liberia at the “Government Store” in Harper, only the equivalent of eight hundred dollars was printed during the first run. (John H.B. Latrobe, “Maryland in Liberia”: a history of the colony planted by the Maryland State Colonization Society under the auspices of the State of Maryland, U.S., at Cape Palmas on the south-west coast of Africa, 1833-1853 (John Murphy & Co.: Baltimore, 1885), p. 57-59, between 134-135). Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries). 

One of the measures within the 1832 law involved county clerks and registers of wills, who were deputized into reporting the number and details of the individuals who had been manumitted. Thus, the author of the aforementioned extract, Henry Schley, clerk of the Circuit Court in Frederick County since 1835, when he took over the job from his father, was just following orders when he reported the names and ages of Thomas and Frances Davenport and their offspring to the “Board of Managers.” (4) Schley would have been penalized ten dollars every time he failed to hand-copy this type of record and send it to the authorities in question. The Board of Managers were then supposed to “notify the American Colonization Society, or the Maryland State Colonization Society thereof, and to propose to such society that they shall engage, at the expense of such society, to remove said slave or slaves so manumitted to Liberia.” If the newly emancipated individuals expressed a desire to remain within North America’s Maryland, the board was to alert the sheriff, who would escort them out of the state. To remain in the state, the manumitted could, however, “renounce, in open court, the benefit of said deed or will, and to continue a slave.” Another portion of the law allowed the Board of Managers to hire out (or temporarily purchase) slaves intended to be manumitted. The income accrued from the slave’s labor would help pay for the expenses of removal to Africa. (5)

Without the compliance of county clerks like Schley, the counting and emigration of manumitted African-Americans across the entire state of Maryland would have been more difficult.  Over 160 documents in the Maryland Manuscripts Collection at the University of Maryland (http://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/1716) – quite a few in the hand of Frederick County’s clerk Henry Schley – record the manumission, as well as the sale, of slaves to the Board of Managers working on behalf of the Maryland State Colonization Society’s goal of creating Maryland in Africa. Given that only 1,025 individuals left for Liberia out of some 5,571 recorded manumissions in the state between 1831 and 1851, the success of the colonial project – if not the success of the colony – remains debatable. (6)


 

Dr. Eric C. Stoykovich is the Historical Manuscripts Project Archivist in the University of Maryland’s Special Collections and University Archives in Hornbake Library, where he works under the Curator on collections which tell the story of political officials and civic groups in the state of Maryland. He received his MLS from UMD’s iSchool and a PhD in American history from the University of Virginia. His interests include archival history, political development, and institutional change.

(1) (n.d.). [Maryland, Liberia]. Retrieved February 15, 2017, from https://goo.gl/h6mKq9
(2) “Maryland State Colonization Society Overview” (fn. 17), Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, Maryland, available at: http://slavery.msa.maryland.gov/html/casestudies/mscs_overview.pdf#search=manumission%20chapter%20281
(3) Richard L. Hall, On Afric’s Shore: A History of Maryland in Liberia, 1834-1857 (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2003), 454-455.
(4) “Maryland State Colonization Society Overview” (fn. 18), Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, Maryland, available at: http://slavery.msa.maryland.gov/html/casestudies/mscs_overview.pdf#search=manumission%20chapter%20281
(5) The Schley Family Papers. Frederick County Historical Society, Frederick, Maryland. Finding aid available at: https://hsfrederickco.wordpress.com/finding-aids-2/ms0008-the-schley-family-papers/
(6) Maryland General Assembly. 1831-1832 Session laws, Chapter 281, “An act relating to the People of Color in this state.” http://www.msa.md.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc2900/sc2908/000001/000213/html/am213–343.html
(7) “Maryland State Colonization Society Overview” (fn. 17), Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, Maryland, available at: http://slavery.msa.maryland.gov/html/casestudies/mscs_overview.pdf#search=manumission%20chapter%20281

Frederick Douglass Exhibit Coming Soon to Hornbake Library

The new exhibit Frederick Douglass & Wye House: Archaeology and African American Culture in Maryland will be opening soon in the Maryland Room exhibit gallery in Hornbake Library.

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Thousands of African and African American families were enslaved in Maryland for almost 250 years. Little evidence of their daily lives was preserved which leaves many questions about how they created a vital and distinct culture.

The University of Maryland seeks to answer questions about the origins of the nation including the contributions of African Americans. In the Department of Anthropology, archaeologists investigate Maryland’s landscapes to collect historical evidence and reveal new knowledge about the African American experience. At Wye House plantation, researchers utilized the words and work of Frederick Douglass to help answer the questions of today’s descendants of enslaved people.

By understanding past relationships to the natural environment and religions, University of Maryland archaeologists are discovering how African and European traditions creatively merged over four centuries to form a unique Maryland culture.

Visit Hornbake Library September 2016-July 2017 to explore this fascinating exhibit and learn more about the life and times of Frederick Douglass.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Speech to AFL-CIO

In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and leader of the civil rights movement, spoke at the AFL-CIO’s Fourth Constitutional Convention. Though the early labor movement had a complicated history with race relations, by the 1960s the AFL-CIO and the civil rights movement had fully embraced each other in solidarity. President George Meany introduced King as “a courageous fighter for human rights” and “a fine example of American citizenry.”

mlk

In his speech, King commented on the similarities between the labor movement and the civil rights movement:

“Negroes in the United States read this history of labor and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us.”

“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs, decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

Dr. King also drew attention to the need for solidarity between the two movements: “The duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed.”

King asked two things of the AFL-CIO in his speech: root out racial discrimination in labor unions and provide financial assistance to the civil rights movement. King’s message did not fall on deaf ears: he received a standing ovation from the delegates.

Read Dr. King’s full speech online

Watch a clip from Dr. King’s speech (starts at 15:33)

Read more about the labor movement’s relationship with the civil rights movement