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)

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.

Featured Collections: Fall 2015

Expect the Unexpected

Did you know that we have collections right here on campus to help you learn more about black history and literature?

African American Literature

Black Judgement by Nikki Giovanni

Black Judgement by Nikki Giovanni

The African-American and African pamphlet collection contains literature, poetry and drama produced by and about African-Americans, primarily from the mid-20th century. Represented in this collection are well-known African-American figures such as Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni. Browse the finding aid for specific titles or link directly to the relevant inventories:

Authors and Poets collection

Find primary source material related to major literary figures such as John Updike, William Carlos Williams, and Joyce Carol Oates in our Authors and Poets collection. African-Americans, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, and Claude Brown, are also represented in this collection. Examples of materials within this collection include:

  • Correspondence
  • Manuscripts and notes
  • Proofs and publications
  • Unique printed material; including programs, posters, sheet music and more
  • Serials – many including first appearances of literary works

Discover authors and poets

Literary Firsts

The First Appearances collection consists of over 1,300 periodicals presenting the first public dissemination, of many seminal 20th century literary works. Spanning 1915 to 1977, this collection contains famous pieces such as “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway, “Ulysses” by James Joyce, and “Ship of Fools” by Katherine Anne Porter. Authors well-represented in this collection include Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Langston Hughes, Flannery O’Connor, Gertrude Stein, Amiri Baraka, and more.

Contact us for information about this collection.

Simply Heavenly by Langston Hughes

Simply Heavenly by Langston Hughes

Celebrate Black History Month in Special Collections

Typically during this month we focus on national figures of African descent. But we can also focus on local figures. These represent the front line of any struggle. Dr. King made a magnificent speech on the mall 30 years ago. But suppose no one showed up? The Million Man March focus for many was Minister Farakhan. But the real heroes were the hundreds of thousands who stood all day unified and disciplined.”

Taylor, P. “Passing the Torch.” UMD Black Faculty and Staff Association Newsletter. Vol. 6 No. 1. February 1996. UPUB B5.005, University Archives, Special Collections, University Libraries.

The display case in the Maryland Room features two UMD yearbooks and some items from Leon Washington Condol's papers.

The display case in the Maryland Room features two UMD yearbooks and some items from Leon Washington Condol’s papers.

Delve deeper into history with a monthly display in Hornbake Library’s Maryland Room! This month’s display celebrates Black History Month and recognizes the voices of Leon Washington Condol and his family.

Mr. Condol’s great grandmother, Mary Ann Cord, suffered slavery and separation from her children; the collection records her reunion with her youngest son, and her employment with Samuel Clemens. Louise Washington Condol carried on the history of grandmother Mary Ann Cord and passed this heritage to her son, Leon Washington Condol. He and his wife, Virginia, experienced the racial prejudices of their own times.

The Maryland Room also displays two yearbooks:

  • a 1952 edition of the Terrapin with a photo of Hiram Whittle, the first African-American undergraduate at UMD, and
  • a 1959 edition showing the senior photo of Elaine Johnson, the first female African-American to graduate from UMD.

Hiram Whittle, the first African-American undergraduate at UMD, is photographed with his dormmates (bottom-left photo).

Hiram Whittle, the first African-American undergraduate at UMD, is photographed with his dormmates (bottom-left photo).