Casting the Bucket and the Ballot: African American Voters in the Booker T. Washington Era 1890-1910
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AbstractAlthough the suppression and disenfranchisement narrative has been well documented, one aspect of the story remains untold, the enfranchised minority. African Americans were not immediately eliminated from the voting booth and remained a presence in Southern politics. Voter suppression and disenfranchisement plagued African American voting during the 19th century’s last decade and the 20th century’s first decade. Mississippi’s 1890 constitutional convention specifically targeted the state’s African American voters instituting new voter registration and voting requirements that included a literacy test, understanding clause, and poll tax. Mississippi revolutionized Southern politics as several Southern states followed Mississippi’s model and drafted new state constitutions or amended existing constitutions to severely impair or remove African Americans from the voting arena. The question that historians have not explored is, how did the African American voting class survive the first voter suppression/disenfranchisement wave and how did Southern whites respond? African American gains in education and landownership positioned them to thwart voting hurdles that Southern legislatures designed based on assumptions pertaining to deficiencies in African American literacy, stability, and wealth accumulation. The continued African American presence in the political arena forced Southern whites to create new ways to maintain and cement their racial supremacy. Literacy test and poll taxes underestimated the African American education and land movements existing within the African American community during slavery and following emancipation. The rise of the rural working and middle class created an independent black proletariat capable of controlling their own financial destinies. Despite state constitutions reflecting anti-fourteenth and fifteenth amendment sentiments, there remained an African American voting class which Southern whites had to contend. Casting the Bucket and the Ballot: African American Voters in the Booker T. Washington Era 1890-1910 presents the African Americans who played a role in dictating late 19th century and early 20th century suffrage politics despite being in non-elected positions through biography and photography. Their continued voting presence exploited the weaknesses in the literacy test, poll tax, understanding clause, and residency requirements which Southern legislatures expended significant political capital justifying and implementing. Rather than providing a historical assessment, this work provides an encyclopedia of African American registered and actual voters during the disenfranchisement era. By demonstrating the quantity of voters, one is able to see the failed efforts of new Southern constitutions to effectively eliminate African American voters and the rebirth of African Americans in local, state, and national politics led to the creation of the white primary as the ultimate disenfranchising measure. Privatizing primary elections which dictated the terms of who could vote was the last, desperate, yet most effective, effort to achieve a white-dominated political system. The white primary represented the “second wave” of voter suppression and disenfranchisement that shaped 20th century suffrage politics culminating with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. To understanding this second wave, history must first address who were the African Americans that survived the first wave and how (in some instances) they defeated Southern racists attempts to strip African Americans of their political agency and citizenship.