Sunday, November 2, 2008

This vote is for Edmund Rivers

Okay, I know I said I was taking a break from blogging, but I was moved by something I stumbled across yesterday and I wanted to share. Here is what I found:

On July 11, 1867, in precinct six, Talladega, Ala., Edmund Rivers, a black man, registered to vote.

You can see the evidence right here.

Of course, Edmund Rivers was among many men in the former Confederate state to register to vote in 1867:
The Alabama 1867 voter registration records were created as a direct result of a Reconstruction Act passed by the United States Congress on March 23, 1867. The act required the commanding officer in each military district to hold, before September 1, 1867, a registration of all male citizens, 21 years and older, in each county who were also qualified to vote and who had taken the loyalty oath. (See www.legislature.state.al.us/misc/history/constitutions/1868/1868enablinginst.html
for full text of the act.) Each registrant visited the local registration office, took the oath, and was listed in the Voter Registration record. Read more...

Why is Edmund's registration special to me? Well, Edmund is my great-great-grandfather.

I don't know if this ancestor ever had the opportunity to exercise his right as a United States citizen. Anyone who knows their history knows what happened after Reconstruction. From Wikipedia:
The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1870 to protect the suffrage of freedmen after the American Civil War. It prevented any state from denying the right to vote to any citizen on account of his race. Because African Americans were an absolute majority of the population in Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina, and represented over 40% of the population in four other former Confederate states, whites feared they would dominate if they were allowed to continue to vote. During Reconstruction, they elected an overwhelming majority of black representatives to state offices in dominated states such as South Carolina.[1] White supremacist paramilitary organizations, practiced intimidation, violence and assassinations to repress and prevent blacks' exercising their civil and voting rights during the mid-1870s. In most Southern states, black voting decreased markedly under such pressure, and white Democrats regained political control in the 1870s.

In the 1880s, Southern states began devising statutes that created more barriers to voting by blacks and poor whites. After Reconstruction Tennessee had the most "consistently competitive political system in the South".[2] A bitter election battle marked by unmatched corruption and violence in 1888 resulted in white Democrats taking over the state legislature. To consolidate their power, they worked to suppress the black vote. In 1889 they passed three laws: registration 20 days before each election, secret ballot, separate ballot boxes for state and Federal elections, and implemented the poll tax (part of the 1870 constitution), measures which taken together sharply reduced voting by blacks and poor whites. In Texas such restrictions were also barriers to voting by Mexican Americans.

From 1890 to 1908, starting with Mississippi, Southern states created new constitutions with provisions for voter registration that effectively completed disfranchisement of most African Americans and many poor whites. They created a variety of barriers, including requirements for poll taxes, residency requirements, rule variations, literacy and understanding tests, that achieved power through selective application against minorities, or were particularly hard for the poor to fulfill.[3]

and

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) formed in 1865 and quickly became a powerful secret vigilante group, with chapters across the South, during early Reconstruction.
After Congress provided freedmen with full citizenship and suffrage, the Klan was one of several paramilitary organizations that arose as resistance to the results of the war. They tried to keep black citizens from using their new citizenship and voting power. Starting in 1866, the KKK tried to prevent blacks from voting and from participating in new governments. It carried out lynchings, intimidation, and other attacks against blacks and allied whites, and their property.

So, it may be that after marching in to the registration office, taking an oath swearing allegiance to the United States (as all men in the former Confederacy had to), and signing his name (or an "X" if he could not write), my great-great-grandfather, just 21 at the time he registered, never cast a single vote. (Certainly, his wife, Mary, never did.) Or, maybe he was among the men to cast votes during Reconstruction that sent a unprecedented number of black Americans to state and national political offices and positions of power.

This I know for sure: Today, nearly 150 years later, Edmund's great-great-granddaughter (me) has already cast her vote for a self-identified black man, who seems poised to become President of the United States. My brother and sister have already cast their votes, too. And my cousin, E., is in Pennsylvania this weekend, trying to get out the vote for Barack Obama.

This election year, African Americans have too often had to defend their support for Obama. People can't grasp that black voters have evaluated the Senator from Illinois just as rigorously as have his white and Hispanic and Asian supporters. This isn't about black folks just voting for the black guy. Nevertheless, the significance of Obama's rise as part of our country's racial story cannot be denied. This moment has tremendous meaning for every descendant of slaves in this country.

It has been a long road from post-Civil War registration of black voters to today. Seeing my great-great-grandfather's name on 1867 voter rolls reminded me of that.

For the genealogists

I was able to find this information on Edmund Rivers after attending the annual workshop of the Indiana African American Genealogy Group yesterday. If you're into this stuff, it is certainly worth marking your calendar for next year's event. If you're within driving distance to Indianapolis, consider joining the group. I always come away from these gatherings smarter and more energized. It's great just to be in the company of other black folks dedicated to uncovering and preserving our history.

At the workshop, speaker Franzine Taylor of the State of Alabama Department of Archives and History, introduced me to a Web site, where I'm sure to be "living" for the next several months. The Alabama Department of Archives and History Web site is a treasure trove of information for any genealogist with roots in the state. In addition to the 1867 Voter Registration Records Database, which provides access to "one of the first statewide government documents that record African-American males living in Alabama," family history buffs can also find a WWI Gold Star database, a Civil War database and access to indexes of myriad state government records like census records, deeds, etc.

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