Elections

Black constituencies in the South were disappearing faster than the western frontier. Through a variety of legal mechanisms, from the rewriting of state constitutions that began in the 1890s to the implementation of a maze of local and statewide electoral devices that went on the books in earnest between 1889 and 1908—including the poll tax, the grandfather clause, and educational tests—southern white Democrats effectively shut blacks and opposition parties out of the political process.22 Poll taxes, which were widely adopted and hugely successful at excluding blacks, required prospective voters to pay as much as $2 (a considerable sum for most blacks and whites). Additional registration laws required documents many voters did not possess and, to complicate matters, registration was sporadic and often occurred at odd times. Strategies that worked in one state were copied in others. “Each state became in effect a laboratory for testing one device or another. Indeed, the cross-fertilization and coordination between the movements to restrict the suffrage in the Southern states amounted to a public conspiracy.”23 One of the last but most effective devices was the Democratic “white primary” system. By excluding blacks from the process during which party candidates were chosen and strategy was set, the Democratic Party became the de facto government in the South.

Benjamin Tillman/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_tillman_ben-_C_USZ62_104434.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress An ardent segregationist, Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina served 23 years in the U.S. Senate. He once declared, “My Democracy means white supremacy.”
South Carolina Representatives Thomas Miller and George Murray consistently protested the “eight box” law, an 1882 state law requiring multiple ballot boxes. Voters placed their ballots in boxes designated for specific offices. White voters received instructions for navigating the system, whereas black voters received no instruction, and their votes were disqualified if they dropped their ballots in the wrong box. The effect of the law was dramatic: Whereas turnout in southeastern South Carolina on Election Day had been close to 20 percent in 1880, the number of constituents whose votes counted dropped to less than 10 percent in the decade after the law went into effect for the 1882 election.24 “I declare to you and the people of America,” George Murray said on the House Floor in 1883, “that no gambler nor conjurer has ever planned more meaner tricks and schemes to beat his competitor or victimize his companion than has been used by the sworn officers of the law to deceive American citizens …[and] destroy the effectiveness of their votes on election day.”25 When Murray lost his South Carolina seat encompassing the Sea Islands and Charleston in 1894, only 4 percent of the district’s eligible population voted.26

State constitutional conventions—called to rewrite a state's constitution with the intention of eviscerating the remaining eligible black vote—proved the final disfranchising blow in most southern states. To call such a convention required majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Voters had to approve the proposed convention and then select delegates to act as their representatives. The process typically took several years, from the first call for the convention to the ratification of the new constitution. More of these conventions occurred in the 11 former Confederate states in the late 19th century than in any other period in U.S. history.27 The first wave of conventions, which took place just after the Civil War, involved a requirement to rejoin the Union: Under Reconstruction law, former Confederate states were required to redraft their constitutions to incorporate elements of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Throughout the 1870s, a second wave of constitutional conventions swept southern states to restore former Confederates’ political rights. The third wave, between 1890 and 1910, sought to roll back these rights for African Americans.28

Henry Cheatham/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_cheatham_henry_lc.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress In 1889, Representative-elect Henry Cheatham of North Carolina was the only African American sworn in when the 51st Congress convened. John M. Langston of Virginia and Thomas Miller of South Carolina joined him after successfully contesting the elections in their districts.
One of the most notable constitutional conventions took place in South Carolina in 1895. Once the crucible of Reconstruction—owing to the state’s large and politically well-organized black population—Democrats held the majority in the state legislature in the early 1890s. In addition, Democrat Benjamin Tillman, a member of one of the most politically prominent families in the state and a vehement white supremacist, held the governor’s seat, elevated to power by a potent coalition of white farmers hailing from the western portion of the state.29 “My Democracy means white supremacy,” Tillman declared. Indeed, disfranchising laws and reapportionment had severely hampered the black voting population in South Carolina, which numbered about 31,000 more than the white voting population.30 However, Tillman also had a near-hysterical fear that his political rivals within the Democratic Party—primarily elite former planters in the state’s coastal regions—would ally with black voters to defeat him. “If these people want to warm this black snake into life and join forces with it,” Tillman warned in his characteristically colorful language, “we are ready to meet them and give them the worst drubbing they ever had in their lives.”31

Tillman first suggested calling a constitutional convention in 1894, clearly with the intention of permanently disfranchising the state’s black population. He was the driving force throughout the convention, controlling the powerful committee on suffrage. One scholar notes that “in no other state was a single public figure identified so vividly and indisputably with disfranchisement.”32 However, six black delegates with vast political experience—including former Representatives Robert Smalls and Thomas Miller—were elected to the convention, primarily via a voter registration drive before the 1894 election that was spearheaded by Representative George Murray as part of his effort to win re-election in his coastal South Carolina congressional seat.33 Though severely outnumbered and hampered by rules that discouraged their participation, the black delegates were eloquent and determinedly opposed to the proceedings. They drew national attention to South Carolina’s convention when they submitted their grievances for publication in the New York World in September 1895.34

The election laws proposed in the new constitution included a residency requirement for a specific length of time in one county, proof of voter registration six months before the election, and a literacy test or proof of land ownership worth more than $300, all of which had to be certified by a white local elections manager. The new provisions were clearly aimed at the migratory, primarily illiterate, poor black communities of South Carolina. Thomas Miller declared that the election laws “make absolutely certain the placing in operation every form of cheatery and fraud at the elections that has ever been conceived by the most fertile imagination of any man who has been engaged in this class of legislation during the last thirteen years. I see no hope, absolutely no hope, for us in South Carolina to ever have fair and honest elections as long as the men in control see imaginary evils coming through the channels of honest elections.”35 The black delegates’ outspokenness prompted Tillman to deliver a scathing speech on October 31, 1895, lobbing personal attacks at them. The convention overwhelmingly (116 to 7) approved the new constitution, including the disfranchising language. Only two white men joined the five black delegates who opposed the new constitution.36

Disfranchisement devices dramatically winnowed the number of voters in southern states, disproportionately affecting African Americans. In three states with majority–black populations in the 1880s—Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana—the total number of votes cast in congressional elections plummeted by 55 to 61 percent between 1890 and 1898. In each of these three states in 1898, at least one district with between 160,000 and 200,000 residents elected the sitting white Representative with less than two percent of the voting base.37 Just three years after Mississippi’s 1890 constitutional convention, which was squarely aimed at disfranchising blacks, fewer than 9,000 blacks out of a total population of nearly 748,000 were registered to vote (6 percent of men over age 21). In 1896—before the enactment of Louisiana’s literacy, poll tax, and property qualifications—there were approximately 130,000 registered black voters in the state, composing the majority in 26 parishes. Only 5,320 voted in 1900. By 1904, there were little more than 1,300 registered blacks statewide, and they constituted a majority in no parish.38 Alabama in 1900 counted more than 181,000 black men of voting age. After the state’s 1901 constitution went into effect, only 3,000 remained registered.39

“Packing” and “Cracking” Black Majority Districts

Langston Campaign Song/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_-john_langston_campaign_song_Fisk.xml Image courtesy of John Mercer Langston Collection, Special Collections, Fisk University Franklin Library A rare example of a campaign song for John M. Langston of Virginia, written by Jesse Lawson and sung to the tune of “Scatter Seeds of Kindness.”
State legislatures with Democratic majorities also attempted to gerrymander congressional districts so as to restrict the election of African Americans. In a process known as “packing,” state legislatures attempted to cluster black and dependably Republican votes into a single district, leaving the remaining districts safely in Democratic hands.40 These conglomerate districts often contained populations that were overwhelmingly black—60 percent or more. When Democrats took power in the South Carolina legislature in the 1876 election, they packed black votes into a single district. This proved much more difficult with the state’s large African-American population, and the new district lines wound haphazardly over county and city boundaries, sometimes leaving “island” pockets of one district enclosed in another.41 The residents of a winding, narrow east-central South Carolina district known as the “shoestring district” elected two black Representatives—Thomas Miller and George Murray—after the Democrats regained the majority in the state government.

Another significant delegation of Black Americans came to Congress from a “packed” North Carolina district known as the “Black Second.” Designed to contain the state’s large coastal black population, the district elected black men to Congress from the mid-1870s to the 1890s. Every black North Carolina Representative in the 19th century—John Hyman, James O’Hara, Henry Cheatham, and George White—served the “Black Second” district in one of its gerrymandered forms. Created in 1870, this salamander-shaped district originally stretched from Warren County, along the northeastern border with Virginia, and hooked around to coastal Craven County. More than one-fifth of the state’s black population resided in this district. Republican Governor Tod R. Caldwell described the “Black Second” district as “extraordinary, inconvenient, and most grotesque.” African-American victories in the “Black Second” district provoked the Democratic Party to wage extreme white supremacy campaigns in the late 1880s. By 1892, the state legislature reversed its policy of consolidating the black vote and “cracked,” or removed, heavily black localities from the “Black Second” district, scattering its traditional voting base.42 Representatives Cheatham and White managed to win the district in 1892, 1896, and 1898, but the reconfigured district required them to capture the ever-dwindling support of white voters to win election.

Fusion

Though the origins of the 20th-century solid South dominated by the Democratic Party began to take shape in the late 19th century, the process was slow. For the last quarter-century after Reconstruction, formidable opposition parties existed in the South—including Republican, Populist, Independent, Greenback, and Readjuster challengers. As one historian notes, despite the efforts of white supremacists allied with Democrats to intimidate blacks and oppositionist whites, this political period in the South was marked by “transition, uncertainty, and fluctuation.” In the 1880s, between one-third and one-half of all southern voters supported opposition parties.43

Black politicians were able to capitalize on this fluctuation and on the rising popularity of the Populists—a growing national alliance of agricultural advocates. This third party gained traction with poor, white farmers in the South, and a sizable percentage abandoned the Democrats in favor of the Populists. Republicans willing to provide economic aid to farmers and local Populists created temporary coalitions, a practice known as “fusion” and the primary method by which George White and Henry Cheatham won election in what remained of North Carolina’s “Black Second” district.44

Black Political Rivalries

The consolidation of black votes into single districts led to increased competition between black candidates. African Americans had faced one another in past contests, the most famous being those between Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina and Samuel Lee throughout the 1870s, between James Rapier and Jeremiah Haralson after the former moved to the latter’s neighboring Alabama district in 1876, and between James O’Hara and Israel Abbott in the North Carolina “Black Second” in 1886. However, the number of repeat contests between two candidates as well as the bitterness of the rivalries intensified with the decrease in the number of black voters. Moreover, tensions between mulatto and dark-skinned candidates escalated as a result.45

John Mercer Langston Campaign Card/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_johnlangston_campaign_card_Fisk.xml Image courtesy of John Mercer Langston Collection, Special Collections, Fisk University Franklin Library In 1890, John M. Langston of Virginia ran an unsuccessful campaign for re-election to the 52nd Congress (1891–1893).
Such racial tension was especially prevalent in South Carolina’s “shoestring district” where Robert Smalls, Thomas Miller, and George Murray continually battled for the Republican nomination throughout the 1890s. Smalls and Miller were both mulatto. Miller was so fair, he was rumored to be the illegitimate child of a white couple, adopted by free black parents.46 In 1892, Murray surprisingly won the GOP nomination for the “shoestring district” over the incumbent, Miller. Murray encouraged the use of the names given the candidates by local newspapers; the name “Black Bold Eagle” or “Blackbird” (both evoked strength) was linked to him, in contrast to Miller’s weak “Canary.”47 Miller returned to challenge Murray in the 1894 campaign, as did Robert Smalls. Murray described the racial animosity between the candidates, noting that Smalls and Miller “seem more desirous of accomplishing my defeat than even [white supremacist Democrat William] Elliott, [and] are doing everything in their power, foul or fair, to accomplish their work.”48 White supremacists enjoyed the rivalry and even supported it. A newspaper endorsing Tillmanite Democrats teased, “by the time the Canary gets through with the Blackbird, the latter will be willing to shed its feathers.” The bitter rivalry came to a head after Murray backed down from contesting South Carolina’s electoral votes while serving in Congress during the 1896 election—the first one held after the 1895 state constitution severely hampered black voters. Miller labeled Murray “a heartless traitor” who “cowardly [deserted] them before the battle was on.” Murray countered Miller’s “malevolent remarks” by calling him a “miserable vampire.” He also defended his decision not to challenge the results because he did not want to disrupt GOP candidate William McKinley’s certification as the winner of the election.49

The political competition between brothers-in-law Henry Cheatham and George White in the North Carolina “Black Second” district also had a “sharp, unpleasant character.” Cheatham was refined and quiet and often courted the district’s white Republicans, whereas White tended to be outspoken, blunt, and less receptive to his white constituents. After White moved to the district while Cheatham served in Congress in the mid-1890s, the latter observed that White intended to “give me trouble purely on personal grounds.”50 In 1894, both laid claim to the GOP nomination after the district convention “broke up in a row.” After local Republican leaders pleaded with the two men to withdraw from the contest so as not to split the GOP vote, Cheatham asked his brother-in-law to “stop his foolishness.” A committee of national GOP officials eventually ruled that Cheatham deserved the nomination, though a North Carolina newspaper endorsed White, noting, “Cheatham is said to be a man of excellent character; but we need a man of energy and ability to represent us in Congress.”51 Disgusted with GOP bickering over the two black candidates, the Populists decided to run their own candidate, siphoning off Republican votes. Democrat Frederick Woodard carried the contest; the GOP loss was blamed on the “White–;Cheatham mess.”52 Woodard’s victory effectively sank Cheatham’s political career, though Cheatham eventually supported White’s candidacy in the late 1890s.

Contested Elections

The number of contested elections in the House increased dramatically in the late 19th century; the majority originated in the former Confederacy. Several factors accounted for this exponential increase. The United States was nearly evenly divided between the two traditional political parties; congressional majorities flip-flopped five times between 1870 and 1900. One scholar speculates that the partisan competition and southern disfranchisement directly influenced the increased number of contested elections, particularly during GOP-controlled Congresses. When a Republican majority could influence the outcome, the party encouraged its candidates to contest, viewing contested elections as an “institutional equalizer” for electing southern GOP Representatives to the House and maintaining a majority.53 As loyal Republicans, African-American candidates enjoyed greater success in contesting their Democratic opponents’ victories before a GOP-controlled House during this period. John Langston and Thomas Miller won their seats to the 51st Congress by contesting their elections. George Murray successfully contested his opponent’s victory in the 54th Congress (1895–1897).54 However, contesting elections was time–consuming. Murray spent the entire third session of the 53rd Congress (1893–1895) preparing to contest his opponent’s election before the House, leaving him little time to legislate as he gathered and submitted a massive amount of testimony to prove election fraud; the paperwork was reported to be nearly a foot thick.55

Next Section

Footnotes

22J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880–1910 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974): 238–240; see especially the chart on page 239.

23Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: 46–53; quotation on pages 39–40. See also Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: 83–86.

24For population statistics and election results, see Stanley B. Parsons et al., United States Congressional Districts, 1843–1883 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986): 213; Stanley B. Parsons et al., United States Congressional Districts, 1883–1913 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990): 143, 279, 281; Michael J. Dubin et al., U.S. Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998): 254, 262, 269, 276, 284, 292, 301, 310.

25Congressional Record, House, 53rd Cong., 1st sess. (5 October 1893): 2159.

26Dubin et al., U.S. Congressional Elections, 1788–1997: 319.

27The Confederacy included South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

28Michael Perman, Road to Redemption: Southern Politics 1869–1879 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984): 193–220; Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: 139–181.

29See Stephen Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

30Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 96.

31Ibid.

32Ibid., 93.

33George Brown Tindall, South Carolina Negroes, 1877–1900 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003; reprint of 1952 edition): 78.

34Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 96.

35“South Carolina’s Plan,” 4 November 1895, New York Times: 7.

36Tindall, South Carolina Negroes: 88.

37Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 225–226.

38Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: 85; Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 313.

39John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 8th edition (New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 2000): 288. Additionally,as southern states legally disfranchised hundreds of thousands of Black Americans, violence wracked southern cities. On November 10, 1898, in the coastal town of Wilmington, North Carolina, local whites violently evicted elected city officials including the white mayor and sheriff—who were part of a “fusion” Populist government that had the support of a thriving and politically active African-American community. Former U.S. Representative Alfred M. Waddell of North Carolina (1871–1879), a newspaper editor and an ex-Confederate cavalry colonel, led a mob of whites who ransacked black neighborhoods in the city and the offices of the local black newspaper. Eleven African Americans were killed, and the black community’s leaders were sent into exile. For more on this topic, see the extensive report of the Wilmington Race Riot Commission, published in 2006: http://www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/1898-wrrc/default.htm (accessed 1 December 2007); contemporary newspaper accounts include “Negro Rule Ended,” 11 November 1898, Washington Post: 1. For more on Waddell, see “Waddell, Alfred Moore,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present, available at http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=W000002.

40For more on “packing” and “cracking” as gerrymandering strategies, see Bernard Grofman, Political Gerrymandering and the Courts (New York: Algora Publishing, 1990): especially pages 178–179.

41See, for example, the borders between the South Carolina’s 1st and 7th districts from 1893 to 1895 in Parsons et al., United States Congressional Districts, 1883–1913: 275.

42Eric Anderson, Race and Politics in North Carolina, 1872–1901 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981): 3–4, 141; Parsons et al., United States Congressional Districts, 1843–1883: 201; Parsons et al., United States Congressional Districts, 1883–1913: 255–257.

43Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: 11, 13–14, 261.

44For more on this phenomenon see, Helen G. Edmonds, The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina (New York: Russell and Russell, 1951; reprint 1972).

45Thomas Holt explains the origins of the tensions between mulatto and dark skinned candidates. See Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977): 59–64.

46Quoted in William C. Hine, ‘Miller, Thomas Ezekiel,” American National Biography 15(New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 518–520 (hereinafter referred to as ANB).

47John F. Marszalek, A Black Congressman in the Age of Jim Crow: South Carolina’s George Washington Murray (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006): 37.

48Quoted in Tindall, South Carolina Negroes, 1877–1900: 58.

49Marszalek, A Black Congressman in the Age of Jim Crow: 109.

50Anderson, Race and Politics: 208–209.

51Ibid., 213.

52Justesen, George Henry White: 199.

53Jeffrey A. Jenkins, “Partisanship and Contested Election Cases in the House of Representatives, 1789–1902,” Studies in American Political Development 18 (Fall 2004): 113.

54Chester H. Rowell, A Historical and Legal Digest of All the Contested Election Cases (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1901). Though Rowell is one of the most comprehensive sources on the activities of the Committee on Elections for this era, his data are incomplete. At least six contested elections cases involving black men are missing from his volume.

55William J. Gaboury, “George Washington Murray and the Fight for Political Democracy in South Carolina,” Journal of Negro History 62 (July 1977): 266. The demands placed a considerable burden on members of the Committee on Elections, which was charged with investigating disputed results and reporting its findings back to the full House. In the 54th Congress (1895–1897), facing 38 contested election cases (28 of which originated in the South), the Committee on Elections split into three separate panels named Elections #1, Elections #2, and Elections #3. The three committees remained until the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 combined them under the jurisdiction of the Committee on House Administration.