Elections

Disenfranchisement

In the decades after Reconstruction, black constituencies in the South disappeared faster than the western frontier. And by the turn of the century, southern white Democrats had effectively shut African Americans and opposition parties out of the political process using a toxic mix of varying legal mechanisms and extralegal violence. They rewrote state constitutions to codify segregation and implemented a maze of local and statewide electoral devices between 1889 and 1908—including the poll tax, the grandfather clause, and literacy tests.21 Poll taxes, which were widely adopted and hugely successful at excluding black voters, required prospective voters to pay as much as $2 (a considerable sum at the time). So-called grandfather clauses based on an individual’s family voting history were legal mechanisms enshrined in southern state laws, which were designed to disenfranchise African Americans while simultaneously preserving the right to vote for white Southerners. While each varied by state, grandfather clauses were effective in limiting black voting rights by linking an individual’s right to vote to the voting rights or registration status of their descendants. Finally, literacy tests went beyond evaluating whether or not a potential voter could read—they also asked a range of questions related to arcane knowledge of state and federal laws among other subjects.

Additional laws required documents many voters did not possess and, to further restrict access, voter registration was sporadic and often occurred at inconvenient times. Strategies that worked in one state were copied in others. “Each state became in effect a laboratory for testing one device or another,” wrote a historian of the era. “Indeed, the cross-fertilization and coordination between the movements to restrict the suffrage in the Southern states amounted to a public conspiracy.” One of the last but most effective devices was the Democratic “white primary” system in which black voters and back candidates were not allowed to participate. By excluding African Americans from the process during which the parties selected candidates and set their strategies, the Democratic Party became the de facto government in the South.22

South Carolina Representatives Thomas Miller and George Murray, for example, 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: Turnout in southeastern South Carolina on Election Day in 1880 had been close to 20 percent, but after the “eight box” law went into effect in 1882, turnout fell to less than 10 percent in the decade after.23 “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.”24 When Murray lost his South Carolina seat encompassing the Sea Islands and Charleston in 1894, only 4 percent of the district’s eligible population had voted.25

Benjamin Tillman/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_tillman_ben-_C_USZ62_104434.xml Image courtesy of the 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.”
State constitutional conventions—called to rewrite a state’s charter with the intention of eviscerating the remaining eligible black vote—proved to be the final disenfranchising 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 ratification process typically took several years, but 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.26 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 Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which outlawed slavery and guaranteed the right to vote. A second wave of constitutional conventions occurred in the 1870s and restored the political rights of former Confederates. The third wave, between 1890 and 1910, rolled back political rights for African Americans.27

One of the most notorious constitutional conventions took place in South Carolina in 1895. Because of its large and politically active black population, South Carolina had once been the crucible of Republican hopes for Reconstruction. Within 20 years, however, by the early 1890s, Democrats dominated the state legislature. 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.28 “My Democracy means white supremacy,” Tillman declared. Indeed, disenfranchising laws and reapportionment had severely hampered the black voting population in South Carolina, which outnumbered the white voting population by about 31,000.29 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 lurid language, “we are ready to meet them and give them the worst drubbing they ever had in their lives.”30

Tillman first suggested calling a constitutional convention in 1894, clearly with the intention of permanently stripping the state’s black population of the right to vote. 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 disenfranchisement.”31

Virtually alone in their advocacy for black South Carolinians, six black delegates with vast political experience—including former Representatives Robert Smalls and Thomas Miller—had been elected to the convention, primarily via a voter registration drive before the 1894 election. Representative George Murray had spearheaded that effort as part of his re-election campaign in his coastal South Carolina congressional district.32 Though severely outnumbered and hampered by rules that discouraged their participation, the black delegates eloquently and determinedly opposed the proceedings. They drew national attention to South Carolina’s convention when they submitted their objections for publication in the New York World in September 1895.33

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 local white elections manager. The new provisions were clearly aimed at South Carolina’s primarily illiterate, landless, poor black citizens who often had to travel to find work. 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.”34 The black delegates’ outspokenness prompted Tillman to deliver a scathing speech on October 31, 1895, lobbing personal attacks at them. The convention overwhelmingly approved the new constitution (116 to 7), including the disfranchising language. Only two white men joined the five black delegates who opposed the new constitution.35

Similar disenfranchisement tactics 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 population.36 Just three years after Mississippi’s 1890 constitutional convention, which was squarely aimed at disfranchising black voters, fewer than 9,000 African Americans 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 test, 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 black voters statewide, and they constituted a majority in no parish.37 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 to vote.38

“Packing” and “Cracking” Black Majority Districts

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 voters into a single district, leaving the remaining districts safely in Democratic hands.39 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 voters into a single district. Because of the state’s large African-American population, the new district lines wound haphazardly over county and city boundaries, sometimes leaving “island” pockets of one district enclosed in another.40 The residents of a narrow district that wound around east-central South Carolina known as the “shoestring district” elected two black Representatives—Thomas Miller and George Murray—after the Democrats regained the majority in the state government.

Henry Cheatham/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_cheatham_henry_lc.xml Image courtesy of the 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.
Another significant delegation of African 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 African-American 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” provoked the Democratic Party to wage extreme white supremacy campaigns in the district in the late 1880s. By 1892, the state legislature reversed its policy of consolidating black voters and “cracked,” or removed, heavily black localities from the “Black Second,” scattering its traditional voting base.41 Representative White managed to win the district in 1896 and 1898, but with fewer black voters in the district he had to capture the ever-dwindling support of white voters to win election.

Fusion

By the 20th century, the Democratic Party so dominated southern politics that the region was known as the “solid South.” That transformation unfolded gradually over the late 19th century. In the decades after Reconstruction, formidable opposition parties existed in the South—including Republican, Populist, Independent, Greenback, and Readjuster challengers. In fact, in the 1880s between one-third and one-half of all southern voters supported opposition parties. As one historian notes, despite the efforts of white supremacists allied with Democrats to intimidate African Americans and white opposition voters, this political period in the South was marked by “transition, uncertainty, and fluctuation.”42

Black politicians capitalized on this instability and on the rising popularity of the Populist Party—a growing national alliance of agricultural advocates that had gained traction with poor, white farmers in the South who traditionally voted for Democrats. In a practice known as “fusion,” Republicans willing to provide economic aid to farmers created temporary coalitions with local Populists. These fusion tickets were the primary method by which George White and Henry Cheatham won election in what remained of North Carolina’s “Black Second” district.43

Black Political Rivalries

The consolidation of black voters 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, James Rapier and Jeremiah Haralson after the former moved to the latter’s neighboring Alabama district in 1876, and James O’Hara and Israel Abbott in the North Carolina “Black Second” in 1886. But as southern Democrats stripped black citizens of their right to vote and packed them into isolated districts, rivalries between black candidates intensified. Moreover, tensions between mixed-race and darkskinned candidates escalated as well.44

Such tensions were especially prevalent in South Carolina’s “shoestring district” where Robert Smalls, Thomas Miller, and George Murray battled for the Republican nomination throughout the 1890s. Smalls and Miller were both mixed-race; Miller’s complexion was so fair he was rumored to be the illegitimate child of a white couple, adopted by free black parents.45 In 1892 Murray defeated Miller, the incumbent, for the GOP nomination in the “shoestring district.” During the campaign, local newspapers gave the two candidates nicknames, none-too-subtle references to their complexion. Newspapers dubbed Murray, the “Black Bold Eagle” or “Blackbird.” Miller, on the other hand, was called the “Canary.”46

Miller returned to challenge Murray in the 1894 campaign, as did Robert Smalls. Murray described the 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.”47 White supremacists, meanwhile, looked to drive a wedge between the candidates even further. A newspaper endorsing Democrats in the mold of Ben Tillman 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.48

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.”
Brothers-in-law Henry Cheatham and George White waged an intense political competition for the North Carolina “Black Second” district. Cheatham was refined and quiet and often courted the district’s white Republicans; White tended to be outspoken, blunt, and more attuned to the needs of the African-American majority in the district. After White moved to the district while Cheatham served in Congress in the mid-1890s, Cheatham observed that White intended to “give me trouble purely on personal grounds.”49 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.” Although 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,” a committee of national Republican officials eventually ruled that Cheatham deserved the nomination.50 Frustrated by the discord among Republicans, Populists in the district ran their own candidate, siphoning off GOP votes in the process. As a result, Democrat Frederick Woodard carried the contest; the GOP loss was blamed on the “White–Cheatham mess.”51 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 of these election cases originated in the former Confederacy because of several variables. At the time, the United States was nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Elections were so close that congressional majorities flipped five times between 1870 and 1900. Contested elections featured prominently during Republican-controlled Congresses. One scholar speculates that when Republicans held the majority in the House they encouraged their candidates to challenge elections ostensibly won by Democrats because southern states universally disenfranchised black voters. As the majority, Republicans in the House would oversee each contested election case, and they viewed those cases as an “institutional equalizer,” helping to send southern GOP Representatives to the House to strengthen their majority.52

As loyal Republicans, African-American candidates frequently and successfully contested their Democratic opponents’ victories before a GOP-controlled House during this period. John Langston and Thomas Miller won their seats in the 51st Congress (1889–1891) by contesting their elections. George Murray successfully contested his opponent’s victory in the 54th Congress (1895–1897).53 Contesting elections, however, 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.54

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Footnotes

21J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880–1910 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974): 238–240; see especially the chart on page 239.

22Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: 46–53; quotation on pages 39–40. See also Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: 83–86.

23For 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.

24Congressional Record, House, 53rd Cong., 1st sess. (5 October 1893): 2159.

25Dubin et al., U.S. Congressional Elections, 1788–1997: 319.

26The Confederacy included South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

27Michael 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.

28See Stephen Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

29Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 96.

30Ibid.

31Ibid., 93.

32George Brown Tindall, South Carolina Negroes, 1877–1900 (1952; repr., Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003): 78.

33Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 96.

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

35Tindall, South Carolina Negroes: 88.

36Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 225–226.

37Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: 85; Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 313.

38John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 8th ed. (New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 2000): 288. Additionally, as southern states legally disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of African 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 “Alfred Moore Waddell,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present.

39For 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.

40See, 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.

41Eric 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.

42Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: 11, 13–14, 261.

43For more on this phenomenon see, Helen G. Edmonds, The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina (1951; repr., New York: Russell and Russell, 1972).

44For an explanation of the origins of the tensions over skin tone, see Thomas Holt, Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977): 59–64.

45Quoted in William C. Hine, “Miller, Thomas Ezekiel,” American National Biography 15 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 518–520.

46John F. Marszalek, A Black Congressman in the Age of Jim Crow: South Carolina’s George Washington Murray (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006): 37.

47Quoted in Tindall, South Carolina Negroes, 1877–1900: 58.

48Marszalek, A Black Congressman in the Age of Jim Crow: 109.

49Anderson, Race and Politics: 208–209.

50Ibid., 213.

51Justesen, George Henry White: 199.

52Jeffrey A. Jenkins, “Partisanship and Contested Election Cases in the House of Representatives, 1789–1902,” Studies in American Political Development 18 (Fall 2004): 113.

53Chester 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.

54William 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.