Short History of the American Negro - Benjamin Brawley


94. Negro Suffrage before the Civil War.—At the time of the making of the Constitution, free Negroes could become voters in every one of the thirteen states except South Carolina and Georgia. Delaware, by an act of 1792, was the first one of the other states to discriminate against Negroes in the suffrage. The other middle states gradually followed her example, and even Connecticut in 1814 did likewise. Disqualification had advanced so far at the time of the Civil War that "things had come to the point where Negroes could vote only in five New England states, and (under special restrictions) in New York."

95. The Sequel of Reconstruction.—We have seen how the results of the Civil War were summed up in the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, in the Fourteenth, which conferred citizenship on the former slaves, and in the Fifteenth, which protected them in the right to vote. Whatever may have been the faults of the reconstruction era, such was the lack of opportunity for education that the freedmen had possessed, and such was the complexity of issues raised in the period, that "the speedy breaking up of Negro suffrage practically left little time for any complete proof as to the capacity or discretion of the Negro." Nevertheless the South decided very soon not to try the experiment again if it could keep from doing so. In the decade 1870–80 intimidation; theft, suppression, or exchange of the ballot boxes; removal of the polls to unknown places; false certifications; and illegal arrests on the day before an election were the chief means used by the South to make the Negro vote of little effect. Soon the Republican party in the South declined, and after a while the Democrats refused to admit Negroes to their primaries. Generally after 1871 the Negro vote was in one way or another rendered ineffectual in every state in the South.

96. Changing Opinion.—Such a situation is to be accounted for not only by the shortcomings of the Negro, for it is indeed coming more and more to be recognized that these have been exaggerated, and it is now well known that he did much for the promotion of such good work as that of common school education; the changes in the new era rather find their explanation in the larger forces at work in the general life of the American people. Again might one speak of the "decline of great convictions." After the spiritual elevation of the Civil War, the country, about 1870, descended into a period of industrialism, of opportunism, and even of scandal and dishonesty in high places. It was an age of materialism, not one of high moral principle; and in the stress of commercialism the Negro ceased to be an issue. As for him, indeed, the era was formally signalized by one of the most effective speeches ever delivered in this or any other country, all the more forceful because the orator was a man of unusual nobility of spirit. In 1886 Henry W. Grady, of Georgia, addressed the New England Club in New York on "The New South." He spoke to practical men and he knew his ground. He asked his hearers to bring their "full faith in American fairness and frankness" to judgment upon what he had to say. He pictured in brilliant language the Confederate soldier, "ragged, half-starved, heavy-hearted, who wended his way homeward to find his house in ruins and his farm devastated." He also spoke kindly of the Negro: "Whenever he struck a blow for his own liberty he fought in open battle, and when at last he raised his black and humble hands that the shackles might be struck off, those hands were innocent of wrong against his helpless charges." But Grady also implied that the Negro had received too much attention and sympathy from the North. Said he: "To liberty and enfranchisement is as far as law can carry the Negro. The rest must be left to conscience and common sense." Hence he asked that the South be left alone in the handling of her grave problem. The North, largely assenting to this request, became more indifferent about the whole question of the Negro, and very fast there developed evils which Henry W. Grady, with his large humanity, could certainly never have countenanced.

97. Peonage and Other Evils.—One of the first of these evils to force attention was the peonage that was most frequently an outgrowth of the convict lease system. A noteworthy feature of legislation enacted in the South immediately after the Civil War was severe provision with reference to vagrancy. Negroes were often arrested on the slightest pretexts and their labor as that of convicts leased to land-owners or other business men. When moreover Negroes, dissatisfied with their returns under the developing "share" system of labor, began a movement to the cities where better industrial opportunities were offered, there arose a tendency to make the vagrancy legislation still more harsh, so that more and more a laborer could not stop work without technically committing a crime. The abuses of the convict lease system at length arrested general attention, but meanwhile other evils had developed apace. In the period 1871-73 the number of Negroes lynched in the South is said to have been not more than 11 a year. In the year 1892, however, there were 235 lynchings in the country, and in 1893 200, almost all of these being of Negroes in the South. Altogether within a period of thirty-five years 3,200 Negro men and women were lynched within the boundaries of the United States, an average of just a little less than 100 a year. Moreover, separate and inferior traveling accommodations, especially meager provision for the education of Negro children, inadequate street, lighting, and water facilities in most cities and towns, and the general lack of protection of life and property, especially in the rural districts, made life all the harder for the Negro people. Nevertheless they made rapid progress. By 1900 exactly 20 per cent of those in the Southern states were living in owned homes. In the decade ending with this year moreover they were still a considerable political factor in different communities of the South, as when in North Carolina a fusion of Republicans and Populists sent a Negro, George H. White, to Congress, thus defeating and alarming the Democrats. This incident, however, served only to strengthen the movement for disfranchisement which had already begun.

98. Progress of Disfranchisement.—However suppressed the Negro's vote may have been in actual practice, not until 1890 was he disfranchised in any state by direct legislation. In this year the Constitution of Mississippi was so amended as to exclude from the suffrage any person who had not paid his poll-tax or who was unable to read any section of the Constitution, or understand it when read to him, or to give a reasonable interpretation of it. The effect of the administration of this provision was the exclusion of the great majority of the Negroes. South Carolina amended her constitution with similar effect in 1895. In 1898 Louisiana passed an amendment inventing the so-called "grandfather clause." This excused from the operation of her disfranchising act all descendants of men who had voted before the Civil War, thus admitting to the suffrage all white men who were illiterate and without property. North Carolina in 1900, Virginia and Alabama in 1901, Georgia in 1907, and Oklahoma in 1910 in one way or another practically disfranchised the Negro, care being taken in every instance to avoid any flagrant violation of the Fifteenth Amendment. In Maryland there have been three distinct efforts to disfranchise the Negro by constitutional amendments, one in 1905, another in 1909, and the last in 1911, all failing by large majorities.

99. Summary of the Legislation.—However much they may have differed in detail, the disfranchising acts "had three points in common: (a) Some device enabling all the white voters to evade the force of the disfranchising clauses; (b) The limiting clauses themselves which deprive a majority of the colored voters of their franchise; (c) The reservation of sufficient discretionary power in boards of registrars to enable them to give full effect to the acknowledged purpose of the framers of the [new or amended] constitutions."

In six of the disfranchising states—Louisiana, North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia, and Oklahoma—the suffrage limitations are more narrowly restricted by the "grandfather clause," which gives exemption from the restrictions to soldiers and their sons and grandsons (Louisiana); to persons who had a right to vote prior to 1867 and to their lineal descendants (North Carolina); to soldiers and their lawful descendants (Alabama); to soldiers and sailors who served in time of war prior to 1902 and to their sons (Virginia); to soldiers and their descendants (Georgia). The word soldier has of course practical reference to those who fought in the Confederate army in the Civil War. Only those who should register prior to December 31, 1898, in Louisiana; to December 1, 1908, in North Carolina; to January 1, 1903, in Alabama; to December 31, 1903, in Virginia; and to the year 1911 in Georgia, and who had paid their poll-taxes regularly could claim the benefit of exemption.

"Under the permanent registration provisions, educational qualifications are fixed for those without property, and property qualifications are prescribed in the case of illiterates. Thus the Alabama constitution admitted to the suffrage those owning at least forty acres of land, or real and personal property assessed at a valuation of at least $300." The disfranchising amendment to the constitution of the state of Georgia is fairly typical of some of the more specific provisions of the disfranchising acts. In this state any male person of legal age who has paid his poll-tax may register and vote if he can read accurately or write accurately a paragraph of the state constitution that may be read to him. Any person owning or paying taxes on $500 worth of property may register and vote whether literate or illiterate. The provision that really eliminates the Negro is the one so common in the disfranchising amendments to the effect that the registrars may use their discretion in admitting any candidate for registration who is of good character and who understands the duties of citizenship.

100. Supreme Court Decision.—Naturally all such legislation as that just outlined had ultimately to be brought before the highest tribunal in the country. The test came over the following section from the Oklahoma law: "No person shall be registered as an elector of this state or be allowed to vote in any election herein unless he shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma; but no person who was on January 1, 1866, or at any time prior thereto, entitled to vote under any form of government, or who at any time resided in some foreign nation, and no lineal descendant of such person shall be denied the right to register and vote because of his inability to so read and write sections of such Constitution." This enactment the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 1915. The decision exerted no great and immediate effect on political conditions in the South; nevertheless as the official recognition by the nation of the fact that the Negro was not accorded his full political rights, even though this recognition was greatly delayed, it was destined ultimately to have far-reaching effect on the whole political fabric of the South.

101. The Negro as a Political Force.—When the era of disfranchisement began it was of course in large measure expected by the South that with the practical elimination of the Negro from politics this section would become wider in its outlook and divide on national issues. Such has not proved to be the case. The South remains just as "solid" as it was thirty-five years ago, largely of course because the Negro, through education and the acquisition of property, is becoming more and more a potential factor in politics. Meanwhile it is to be observed that the Negro is not wholly without the vote, even in the South. In the North moreover—especially in Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York he has power that on some occasions has even proved the deciding factor in political affairs. Even when not voting, however, he involuntarily wields tremendous influence on the destinies of the nation, for even though men may be disfranchised, all are nevertheless counted in the allotment of congressmen to Southern states. In the presidential election of 1912 Massachusetts sent 18 electors to the electoral college and South Carolina 9; but for her 18 Massachusetts cast 488,156 votes, and for her 9 South Carolina cast 50,348. In 1914 Kansas and Mississippi each elected eight members of the House of Representatives, but Kansas had to cast 483,683 votes for her members, while Mississippi cast only 37,185 for hers, less than one-twelfth as many. For the remedying of this situation by the enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment to the effect that the basis of representation shall be reduced in the proportion that the voting of adult male citizens is reduced, bills have frequently been presented in Congress; but so far no definite action has been taken.