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.

In 1957, Senator Engelherdt took a unique measure to do just that.  He introduced Act 140, a state voting measure that, if passed, would eliminate Macon County and incorporate its residents into five neighboring counties with more concentrated white populations.  As a result of the proposed amendment, black voters distributed among five different, predominantly white counties would have a much weaker influence on elections and voting measures.

Despite the growing number of registered black voters in Macon County, white voters still outnumbered them approximately two to one in 1957.  As a result, Act 140 passed easily in December 1957. Years later, a state amendment was introduced and passed by Representative Thomas Reed–an African-American representative from Tuskegee and future president of the Alabama NAACP–to nullify Act 140 and reestablish Macon County.  

Nevertheless, the damage caused by the original amendment had already been done.  The Tuskegee Civic Association denounced Act 140, calling it a ploy orchestrated by white segregationists to “maintain an undemocratic system of social relationships, a system which cannot be justified morally or politically.”  Although it was neither the first nor the last time that a state used political measures to reshape voting districts, the events in Macon County in 1957 demonstrate how gerrymandering was–and continues to be–used to facilitate social and racial injustices.  

To learn more about the history and impact of voter disenfranchisement, check out the “Get Out The Vote: Suffrage & Disenfranchisement in America” exhibit from the Special Collections and University Archives.  


David Biel, Candidate for Master of Library & Information Science, University of Maryland.

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.     

The Mississippi State Industrial Union Council, a state affiliate of the CIO, was just one of many grassroots organizations in the South that worked to combat racial discrimination during the Civil Rights Movement.   As illustrated in the CIO handout titled “Your November Vote Could Be Your Last,” the council worked diligently during the 1950s to oppose disenfranchisement measures supported by their state government.  This advertisement was published and distributed in 1954 to encourage eligible voters to vote against a proposed amendment that, according to the opposition, was specifically designed to prohibit African-Americans from voting.  

As written, the “Concurrent Resolution to Amend Section 244 of the [Mississippi] Constitution” would, among other stipulations, require prospective voters to “be able to read and write any section of the Constitution of this state and give a reasonable interpretation thereof to the county registrar.”  The state CIO council and other regional civil rights groups believed that the amendment targeted black voters in several different ways. Not only did the amendment place a substantial heavier burden on prospective black voters, as only about five percent were already registered as opposed to over 60 percent of white voters, but required them to pass an arbitrary test that could be extremely difficult for an electorate that received about 70 percent less educational funding compared to whites.  

Largely due to these purposeful restrictions, as well as the fact that 95 percent of Mississippi’s eligible voters in 1954 were white, the state amendment passed easily that November.  Black voters in Mississippi–along with black voters across the South–would have to wait another 11 years for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to formally abolish literacy tests for voting across the country.       

To learn more about the history and impact of voter disenfranchisement, check out the “Get Out The Vote: Suffrage & Disenfranchisement in America” exhibit from the Special Collections and University Archives.      


David Biel, Candidate for Master of Library & Information Science, University of Maryland.

Temperance as a Tool for Suffrage

Before women’s rights activists campaigned for suffrage, they called for prohibition. In 1852, four years after the Seneca Falls Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the New York State Women’s Temperance Society. They would not found the American Equal Rights Association until 1866. 

Stanton and Anthony fought for statewide prohibition in New York alongside divorce and other Civil Reforms– like the amendment of the Married Woman’s Property Law, which allowed for property ownership, suits in court, shared child custody, and the rights to earnings and inheritance– before they ever explicitly fought for voting rights. 

Beginning in 1866, they fought for Universal Suffrage with the American Equal Rights Association, but split from the organization in 1869 over its prioritization of suffrage for black men over women. From there, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. That same year, the National Prohibition Party was organized. 

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) formed five years later in Cleveland. Its platform encouraged the prohibition of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs in the U.S., driven partially by a desire to protect wives and children from the physical, emotional, and economic consequences of living with men who were dependent on alcohol. Under the leadership of Frances Willard in 1879, the WCTU became one of the most influential women’s organizations in the country. 

At the turn of the century, assumptions about women’s moral superiority increased society’s comfort with their presence in the public sphere. Accordingly, the WCTU  expanded its platform to include progressive reforms such as labor legislation, prison reform, and public health. By 1890, the WCTU sponsored more than thirty-five areas of activity, most of which had little or nothing to do with temperance. It was especially effective because of its decentralized structure; local chapters had a great deal of flexibility to choose which issues their members would pursue. 

Beginning in 1881, WCTU members argued that women’s suffrage, also known as the “Home Protection Vote,” would cure America’s moral ills. A decade later in 1891, Frances Willard argued that “an organized movement of women will best conserve the highest good of the family and the State.” 

A National Prohibition Party postcard that exemplifies the temperance movement’s emphasis on domestic values and morality.

Beginning around the 1880s, Black women became active in the WCTU’s “Department for Work among Negros.” Most local branches were segregated, especially in the South. In 1883, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black poet and activist, became head of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia WCTU. Harper often worked closely with the National WCTU, because she saw the organization as the most effective way to expand women’s federal power and earn the vote. However, she also believed that Black reformers should be able to set their own priorities and implemented programs across the country meant to specifically benefit Black communities. Harper split with Frances Willard over issues like federal support for an anti-lynching law and the abolition of the convict lease system. The National Association of Colored Women (founded in 1896) grew out of this split. 

Though controversial, the WCTU’s efforts were crucial to the passage of the 19th amendment. Membership decreased sharply following Prohibition, but the WCTU remains active today as the oldest continuous women’s organization in the world. 

SCUA holds the Maryland Temperance Collection, which contains several WCTU materials. View the 1889 Annual Report from Union Bridge, Maryland, below.


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

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.” 

Senator Pat Harrison of Mississippi proposed limiting the franchise to white women, while others argued that the 19th Amendment would be useless because Southern states would inevitably void it, as they had with the 15th Amendment, by mandating poll taxes and literacy tests. Some Southern politicians went as far as calling for the repeal of the 15th Amendment as the women’s suffrage movement grew. 

Thus, white women decided that the only way to get the Susan B. Anthony Amendment through congress would be to focus on white women’s enfranchisement. Suffrage leaders acknowledged that Black women in the South would be disenfranchised by the same means as their husbands. While some accepted this fact as an unfortunate truth, others welcomed it. Carrie Chapman Catt famously noted that “If the South really wants White Supremacy, it will urge the enfranchisement of women.”

While most white women in the South fought for suffrage along the same lines as those in the North– gender equality and progressive reform legislation– one group of Southern suffragists used different methods. The Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference (SSWSC), headed by Kate Gordon of Louisiana, pressured state legislatures to enfranchise white women but rejected the notion of a federal amendment. Its motto was “Make the Southern States White.” SSWSC actively opposed Black enfranchisement and advertised state-level suffrage laws as a way to ensure a majority-white electorate in the South. 

Gordon was one of the most blatantly racist of all the suffrage leaders, evidenced by this claim:

“The question of white supremacy is one that will only be decided by giving the right of the ballot to the educated, intelligent white women of the South. Their vote will eliminate the question of the negro vote in politics, and it will be a glad, free day for the South when the ballot is placed in the hands of its intelligent, cultured, pure and noble womanhood.”

Despite these views, she held high status in NAWSA–the preeminent American suffrage organization– for several years until she dismissed it as a pawn of the Republican Party and created SSWSC. Though a controversial figure even then, Gordon’s influence demonstrates, at best, a tolerance for racism in the suffrage movement; at worst, it demonstrates an endorsement of white supremacy.

The upcoming UMD Libraries’ exhibition Get Out the Vote: Disenfranchisement and Suffrage in America explores the long and turbulent history of voting rights expansion in the United States, featuring items that illustrate the struggles and successes in the battle for equitable and full suffrage over the past 250 years. Learn more by exploring the exhibition


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

Women’s Suffrage: Lucy Stone

On May 1, 1855 in West Brookfield, Massachusetts, Henry Browne Blackwell wed Lucy Stone.  Blackwell and Stone’s marriage defied conventional social norms in several ways. For starters, Stone refused to take her husband’s surname–an almost unheard of break from social conventions of the period.  Blackwell and Stone took on what was perhaps an even more radical measure by formulating and agreeing to a series of protests that actively defied traditional ideas about marriage and gender. Among the stipulations, Blackwell and Stone agreed that they would openly resist any laws that exclusively gave the husband “control and guardianship of their children” and “sole ownership of her personal and use of her real estate.”  Needless to say, Blackwell and Stone’s marriage immediately drew ridicule and confusion across Massachusetts.   

In many ways, Lucy Stone’s defiant and unconventional marriage typified her enormous legacy and many contributions to the women’s rights movements of the 19th century, including the growing fight for suffrage.  Raised in a family of nine children in rural Massachusetts, Stone spent her adolescence and early adult years exposing herself to progressive ideas of gender and race, as well as actively defying social expectations of a woman’s role in society by fighting for greater rights and privileges.  A district teacher at only 16 years old, Stone protested her school’s committee to increase her salary of $1 a day, which was far less than her male counterparts. Stone ultimately enrolled at Oberlin College–the first American college to admit both women and African-Americans–where she continued to protest for equal wages after receiving lower pay as a female instructor.  And while Oberlin was perhaps the most socially progressive higher education institution of its time, Stone was even more forward-thinking. She even refused to accept an invitation to write a commencement speech in 1847 because the college would only allow a man to recite it.

Despite the constant backlash and resistance she faced in even the more open-minded settings, Stone worked tirelessly and courageously throughout the mid-19th century to advocate for the rights of women and African-Americans.  For years, Stone worked with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society, including writing speeches advocating for the abolishment of slavery and protection of basic rights to African-Americans and women and delivering them to often-combative audiences.

Today, Stone is perhaps best known for organizing the first national Women’s Rights Convention in 1850.  Held in different cities in the following years, the Women’s Rights Convention allowed women across the country to meet and organize campaigns for an array of women’s rights issues and hear from powerful and influential figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  Stone continued to tour the country and advocate for suffrage and other essential rights for women and African-Americans throughout her later life, until she passed away in 1892 at the age of 75.

Stone and Blackwell had one daughter together–Alice–who spent her life preserving and promoting her mother’s work and continuing her legacy to fight for the rights and freedoms of women across the country.       

To learn more about women’s suffrage, check out the “Get Out The Vote: Suffrage & Disenfranchisement in America” exhibition from the Special Collections and University Archives.  


David Biel, Candidate for Master of Library & Information Science, University of Maryland.

Why did some women oppose the suffrage movement?

When most Americans consider the history and legacy of the women’s suffrage movement, they think of larger-than-life historical figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells, as well as momentous and impactful events like the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.  In other words, people understand the suffrage movement based on the contributions made by people who actively advocated for the expansion of voting rights to women and who believed that, as equals, women should be able to help shape the institutions and policies that shaped their own lives.

On the other hand, fewer Americans today may know much about the communities of women who did not believe that women should have the right to vote.  Many today may not know that this group even existed in the first place. After all, why would women oppose the expansion of their own basic rights and privileges?

Typically made up of women from more privileged social and economic backgrounds, the communities of women who opposed suffrage were called several different names, including “anti-suffragettes,” “antis” and “remonstrants.”  One of the anti-suffrage groups who helped popularize the term “remonstrant” was the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women.     

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The Trial of Susan B. Anthony, 1873

On November 1, 1872–four days before Ulysses S. Grant was re-elected as President of the United States–Susan B. Anthony and her three sisters walked into a voter registration office in Rochester, New York.  After a local inspector contacted a legal professional and required them to take an oath of registry, all four women obliged and walked out of the office as registered voters. This was a surprising result, to put it lightly, as the state of New York would not allow women to vote for another 45 years, and nationwide suffrage for women would not be legalized for another 48 years.

Susan B. Anthony on the cover of the February 26, 1916 issue of The Suffragist
Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage newsletter collection

While this event was not the first time women attempted to cast ballots without the legal right, the developments that occurred afterwards generated unprecedented national attention and helped generate new interest in the growing women’s suffrage movement.  After Anthony, her three sisters and about a dozen other women successfully voted after completing the standard oath of registry, they were all arrested less than two weeks later on charges of illegal voting. The arrests were an unexpected and dispiriting turn of events, but Anthony–always a gifted publicist as well as a strong leader–managed to use the upcoming trial as an opportunity to expose the injustices of the current voting regulations and cultivate further support for her movement.

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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.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)’s Radical Activism

In April of 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) emerged as an organization for young Black activists, particularly those who were participating in student-led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters across the Southeast. 

Its founder Ella Baker, formerly employed with the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), believed that SCLC did not allow enough space for Black women and was out of touch with younger, more radical Black activists. Baker intended the Committee as a way to implement direct-action challenges to segregation and voter suppression in the U.S., and it eventually grew to be one of the most radical branches of the civil rights movement (its members were known within the civil rights movement as the “shock troops of the revolution”). Her work for the NAACP in the 1940s provided SNCC with a network of activists, including Bob Moses and Amzie Moore. With help from Moses and Moore, SNCC organized its first Voter Registration Project in the summer of 1960. 

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