Reconstruction-Era Disfranchisement and Present-Day Voter Suppression

By Jasmine Tucker

Blacks exercising the right to vote during Reconstruction

Disfranchisement for African-Americans has been one of the many hurdles that Blacks have had to jump over. As early as the late 1870s, southern Democrats have worked to weaken Black political power. Violence and intimidation scared many Blacks from voting. White landlords would sometimes threaten or bribe Black sharecroppers and renters not to vote or to vote for the landlord’s candidates.

White leaders were concerned that if they forced what were then legally suitable barriers to voting – literacy tests, poll taxes, and property qualifications – they would also disfranchise many White voters. However, in 1882, South Carolina passed the Eight Box Law, a primal literacy test that required voters to deposit separate ballots for separate election races in the proper ballot box. Illiterate voters could not recognize the boxes unless White officials assisted them.

Mississippi made the most triumphant attempt to eliminate Black voters without openly violating the Fifteenth Amendment. In 1889, Black leaders from 40 Mississippi counties protested the “violent and criminal suppression of the black vote.” In response, White men called a constitutional convention to do away with the Black vote.

With 1 Black delegate and 134 White delegates, the convention formulated meticulous voting standards that – without mentioning race – disfranchised Black voters. Voting required proof of residency and payment of all taxes, including a $2 poll tax. A person convicted of arson or petty theft – crimes the delegates linked with Black people – could not vote. However, people convicted of so-called “White crimes” such as murder and rape could vote. The new Mississippi constitution also required voters to be literate, but illiterate men could still meet the criteria to vote by proving that they understood the constitution if it was read to them.

Black voting in South Carolina waned since the end of Reconstruction. Unhappy that even so few voters might decide an election, U.S. Senator Benjamin R. Tillman won support for a constitutional convention in 1895. The convention followed Mississippi’s lead and fashioned an “understanding clause” but not without a protest from Black leaders. Six Black men and 154 White men were elected to the South Carolina Convention including Robert Smalls who had been a delegate to the 1868 constitutional convention. The six Black men protested Black disfranchisement, even though their cries were not considered. White delegates didn’t even pretend that the elections should be fair.

In 1898, Louisiana added a new twist to disfranchisement. Its grandfather clause predetermined that only men who had been eligible to vote before 1867 – or whose father or grandfather had been eligible before that year – would be qualified to vote. Because most Black men had just emerged from slavery, practically none were qualified to vote before 1867, thus the law instantly disfranchised almost all Black voters. Except for Kentucky and West Virginia, each southern state had enacted complicated limitations on voting by the 1890s. As a result, very few Black men continued to vote, and none were elected to office.

In the meantime, Congressional Republicans made a last, ineffective attempt to protect Black- voting rights. In 1890, Massachusetts Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge introduced a bill to necessitate federal supervision of elections in congressional districts where fraud and intimidation were suspected. White southerners were furious and labeled it the “Force bill,” because they wrongly believed that it would force Black rule over White people.

This Federal Elections bill easily passed the House but failed in the Senate after a 33-day Democratic filibuster. That ended the last important congressional attempt to defend Black-voting rights in the South until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This week, Gene Demby of the Huffington Post wrote a truly compelling article that put a major emphasis on the importance of Black participation in the upcoming election season. The National Urban League recently posted a report that acknowledged the importance of black voter turnout in this upcoming election. The report focused on North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio, which are significant swing states during the election period.

According to the report, from 2004 to 2008, the Black voter turnout rate increased from 60% in 2004 to 65% in 2008. The study also revealed that Blacks are more likely to vote if they are registered. About 93% of registered Blacks voted in national elections compared to 90% of Whites and 84% of Hispanics. Young Blacks were the driving force behind the rush of African-Americans at the polls.

Voter ID laws may prevent certain groups of people from voting.

Due to these significant trends, Republican-dominated legislatures have approved voter ID laws that will require voters to present certain forms of official ID in order to vote. Proponents of the laws say they are intended to reduce voter fraud. However, voting rights organizations like the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, pinpointed that voter fraud is extremely uncommon, while others noticed that the demographic populations most affected by the legislation are African-Americans, Latinos, young people, and the poor, who usually vote Democrat.

In light of this new information, I could only think back to the many methods that were imposed on African-Americans to prevent them for voting. The ludicrous thing about this circumstance is that it’s preventing Blacks, but young people, the poor, and Latinos from voting for a Black man. I still find it hard to believe that there are still people trying to institutionalize racist acts and policies on people. However this time, it doesn’t only affect African-Americans, but a whole rainbow coalition of people.

The question now is, how do we make it stop? We teach our young children about all the barriers that Blacks had to fight to receive the right to vote. Nonetheless, they are living in a time were these barriers are being recycled into legislations that now require IDs to vote. All I can hope for is that in the midst of this political war of a campaign, someone in Congress will find the heart to deter these acts, so that our children will not have to fight for the same rights our ancestors fought for years before our time.

Jasmine Tucker is a senior sociology major/African-American Studies minor at Howard University. She’s also an educational issues intern at the American Federation of Teachers. Follow Jasmine on Twitter @YourQueen2Bee and friend her on Facebook.

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The Need for a Renewed Black-Operated Freedmen’s Bureau

A Bureau agent stands between armed groups of Southern Whites and freedmen

By Jasmine E. Tucker

New York City is the home to the largest population of African-Americans in the country, however only 1 out of 10 students out of the five boroughs will graduate from college. There are 33,000 abandoned homes in the city of Detroit. Cleveland has the highest unemployment rate for African-Americans in the country. Los Angeles has the highest population of homeless African-Americans in the nation. Sadly in Washington, D.C., almost half of the African-American population is suffering from AIDs.

All of these barefaced statistics are statements that we as a people have been marred by everyday in this generation’s existence. With this epidemic of suffering that is affecting millions of African-Americans; one can only wonder what the future will hold for our race. Relying on one’s faith can only get us so far. Being in America to suffer because of our race has been an underlying theme since the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade.

I can only recall one circumstance where this nation’s government has created a reform program geared specifically towards African-Americans. The establishment of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands – more commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau – is to this day the only reform system that was geared toward the well-being of African-Americans. Even though the Bureau’s goal was to also assist poor Caucasian refugees, their main goal was to give newly- freed slaves a clean slate after emancipation to work and learn.

A renewed Black-operated Freedmen’s Bureau in today’s society may be beneficial in correcting the social injustices plaguing the African-American community. The Bureau of Reconstruction was not able to completely renovate the African-American community; however it made many strides to improve the quality of life for African-Americans after the emancipation.

By the end of the Civil War, the South had been distraught. Many former slaves and White refugees faced starvation and lacked basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. It soon became obvious to the U.S. government that additional aid was required to end the anguish in the South and help Whites and Blacks to restructure their lives. In response to this need, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act in 1865. The agency provided food, clothing, and shelter for hungry and homeless Whites and Blacks. The Bureau was also accountable for supporting former slaves in negotiating fair labor contracts with Whites and building schools to help educate their children and themselves.

General Oliver Otis Howard

One of the first Black colleges created during the Reconstruction era was Howard University, founded in 1867 by General Oliver Otis Howard, who was also the first head of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau established camps for the homeless, fed the hungry, and cared for orphans to the best of its ability. Additionally, the Bureau provided medical care to half a million freedmen and was responsible for implementing the Special Order #15, which we all know as “forty acres and a mule.” Despite all these accomplishments, the Bureau was also very flawed.

Congress never provided adequate funds or personnel to carry out the task of assisting the poor. The allocation of Bureau agents was scarce across the South, with usually one agent representing up to 20,000 people. There were few African-American agents, because only a small number of military officers were Black. Although the bureau’s primary concern was the welfare of former slaves, it actually served more poor Whites than Blacks.

Sharecropping was in fact introduced to the South on a sweeping basis by the Freemen’s Bureau. After emancipation and the abolition of the plantation system, the Freedmen’s Bureau assisted Blacks in negotiating contracts for pay or a share of what they produced for their former masters. Sadly, once President Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the new president, he began to pardon thousands of former Confederates and returned their land to them ending the Special Order #15.

40 acres and a mule

As stated previously, America needs a new Black-operated Freedmen’s Bureau. This bureau, which was a part of the Department of War, was created to not only assist poor White refugees, but mostly to assist the approximately four million newly freed slaves. Yet Congress and its White agents manipulated their power and misappropriated funds that could have helped the poor.

In today’s society, we are not physically enslaved like our ancestors were; however we are suffering from hunger, poverty, inadequate education, unemployment, and a lack of health coverage. Maybe a new federal program that is anchored specifically towards the African-American community will usher in improvements for the well being of our people and our children in the generations to come.

If the theory of the Dubois’ Talented Tenth can be applied, I’m sure the leaders in our community can create a movement of social change. We do not only owe it to ourselves, but we owe it to our children who are going to be in this world with skin that will forever hinder them. If it could be done in 1865, I believe our brothers and sisters can bring it into fruition now.

Jasmine Tucker is a senior sociology major and African-American studies minor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She’s also currently an Educational Issues Intern at the American Federation of Teachers. 

Celebrating the Foundations of the Future: Florida Avenue Baptist Church’s 100-Year Anniversary

“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” –Isaiah 58:12

This week, the historic Florida Avenue Baptist Church of Washington, D.C. celebrates its centennial anniversary. During my summer stay in the District, I’ve had the privilege of visiting the church and being a part of the momentous occasion under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Earl Trent, Jr. Many institutions observe anniversaries, but very few can say they’ve been around for 100 years, especially those established by the hands, heads and hearts of African Americans.

FABC was founded approximately four decades after Reconstruction, a time of illicit racism and segregation all over the United States. Already facing the problem of the “color line” in addition to scores of other challenges, the faith of the founders and members allowed the holy institution to thrive in the midst of those trials.

The 1919 Red Summer gruesomely afflicted Blacks across the country, including the nation’s capital. An exorbitant number of Blacks were violently attacked and killed at the heels of arguably America’s bloodiest race riots circa post-World War I. Despite the riots and the youth of the newly founded establishment, FABC survived the unrest.

In the late 1960s, FABC would also survive the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination. Some of the church’s congregants would faithfully serve and bravely fight in each of America’s conflicts overseas. Through all of the major events–positive and negative—in America’s history, FABC is still standing strong.

It’s a blessing to see three and four generations of families congregating the pews and completing the Lord’s work at FABC. Members rearing their children and their children’s children in the church teaches them to love Jesus and live righteous lives, but it also maintains the church’s rich legacy.

As the Rev. Jeremiah Wright noted when he delivered the centennial Sunday service message on July 8, African Americans are the only group of people that doesn’t document its history or revolution, which is detrimental to our livelihood.

“Failure to write down your revolution means it will die when we die.”

One of the key points Wright had for the FABC family was that people have to teach their history to the youth, because they don’t know it. This isn’t necessarily the church’s history, but Black history in general. Unfortunately, Black children learn distorted and destroyed history from their oppressor; HIStory instead of OUR story. In turn, this disempowers Black children and negatively affects their perceptions of themselves.

With teaching the youth our story, both the good and the bad must be taught. Wright calls this repentance. Despite our achievements, there are many things that we are ashamed of as a people. On many occasions, we’ve turned our backs on our African past, but we have to tell all sides of our story.

Most importantly, the 100-year anniversary is a moment of celebration. It’s a time for the church to rejoice at its wealthy history and the faith that has brought it this far as it optimistically looks toward the future.  The centennial also serves as a reminder that much work remains to be done, and more laborers are needed now more than ever to spread the Gospel and tackle the many issues facing Washington, D.C.’s Black community.

Congratulations to Florida Avenue Baptist Church on achieving 100 years of stewardship, evangelism, missions, social justice and education. You’ve come this far by faith feeling no ways tired. And with that steadfast faith, there’s no limit to where you can go. I wish you 100 more years of continued blessings and success.