Saturday, November 14, 2020

Nothing New Under the Sun: My West Feliciana Parish Family’s confrontation with Voter Suppression

Ecclesiastes 1:9 – “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

In recent months, we’ve seen an uptick in votersuppression tactics that make Americans question whether their civil liberties are under attack. However, the right to vote for African Americans has always been a source of contention for the American majority.  For us, there is nothing new under the sun.

I offer the article entitled “In a Word: The Racist Origins of ‘Bulldozer’” by Andy Hollandbeck of the Saturday Evening Post as highly recommended reading material. Hollandbeck provides the historical origins of the word (originally “bulldoser”) meaning “a dose of the bull(whip).” Bulldozing was one of many forms of physical violence used to enforce voter suppression against formerly enslaved black people. He recounts the events surrounding the Election of 1876, an important election that would shape the South for generations. The two Presidential candidates: Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat, Samuel Tilden.

The Civil War, which ended in defeat for the South in 1865 ushered in the era of Reconstruction in which the newly freed African slaves who overwhelmingly registered Republican, would be granted, first, their humanity, and second, full U.S. citizenship and all rights associated with it.  One of those rights included the right to vote—the most powerful tool available to them to reshape their lives and future, both politically and economically. That right posed great threat to the Southern Confederate Democrat. They felt that the Federal Government, who recently re-admitted them to the union, was infringing on their long-standing establishment by overtaxing them and crippling their communities economically.  Hollandbeck describes the outcome of this disputed election:

Going into the election, in five states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina — a majority of registered voters were African American. One would expect, in a fair election, that the Republican candidate would easily take these states. But after the votes were tallied, Tilden had won the popular vote in Alabama and Mississippi.

The results in the other three states were even more unexpected. After counting had finished, both parties claimed victory in those states. On election night, Tilden was the presumed winner with 184 electoral votes, 19 votes ahead of Hayes and 1 vote away from holding a majority.

The 20 electoral votes of these states (plus Oregon) remained undecided for months as first the two parties and then the two houses of Congress launched separate investigations. Democrats and the Democratic-controlled House committee accused the Republicans of ballot stuffing and coercion. Republicans and the Republican-controlled Senate committee accused the Democrats of the same.

In the end, the presidential election was decided behind closed doors. In what came to be called the Compromise of 1877, the Democrats conceded the remaining electoral votes to the Republicans, making Rutherford Hayes our 19th president, but in return, federal troops were to be removed from the South, essentially ending Reconstruction and returning power to the same men who had controlled the South during the Civil War.

Though violent intimidation at the polls certainly continued, Southern officials found new ways to suppress the Black vote, including Jim Crow laws and grandfather clauses. Bulldosing took on the wider meaning of “to coerce or restrain by use of force,” and it was ripe for a more literal use when large, seemingly unstoppable machines came on the scene.

Thanks to the excellent sleuthing of my cousin Shawn Taylor, I was able to find evidence that these intimidation tactics hit home. On Nov 11, 2020, Shawn alerted me of the following gem she found on GenealogyBank.com that mentions our 3rd & 4th great-grandfathers, Sheppard and Bob Williams, respectively, as well as Jim Lee, Bob’s son-in-law. They were witnesses to a large group of men, known as “Regulators” and “White Leaguers” hunting down a man named Henry Temple (also believed to be a relative), a member of the police jury in Laurel Hill, Louisiana (West Feliciana Parish).

Article mentioning ancestors
Image 1 - New Orleans Republican article dated 13 Sep 1876

In the state of Louisiana, parishes are synonymous with counties in other states.  Police juries are the legislative and executive governing bodies of the parish which are elected by the voters. Additionally, police jurors elect a president of the police jury who serves as the head of the parish government. Police Juries can range in size, depending on the population size. They are common in rural areas and operate as commissions or councils that govern the areas. Obviously, the newly freed people were becoming aware of their rights as citizens of the United States, thus, they organized to improve their living conditions and take control of their communities. A police jury’s duties include, but are not limited to:

  • Enacting ordinances and setting policies
  • Overseeing budgets and improvement programs
  • Holding monthly meetings to address issues and concerns in the community

Why the vitriol and violence?  What did Henry Temple do?  It turns out that since the police jury was under republican control as early as 1872, they began to levy taxes upon the local white citizens who rebuffed the judgements; they even went as far as calling them “illegal” and “fraudulent.” However, in the not-so-distant past, this police jury, when controlled by white democrats, levied similar taxes as this newspaper article from the New Orleans Republic illustrates:

Article showing the hypocrisy of whites
Image 2

These “Non-taxpaying Unionist” created an organization known as the “Taxpayers Protective Union” designed to fight these judgements, but their methods show that their organization was really a front for the White Leaguers to actively engage in violence, voter intimidation tactics, and use local government issues to justify their actions. Consequently, their tactics worked--forcing all the black police jurors to resign, so the White Leaguers could appoint their own.

Ten months later, the New Orleans Republic publishes a report from the New Orleans Democrat detailing the names of the black victims terrorized by the White Leaguers in West Feliciana Parish:

Article about the victims of violence, pg. 1
Image 3


Article about the victims of violence, pg. 2
Image 4

Article about the victims of violence, pg. 3
Image 5 - Louis Morgan, brother of my 3rd great-grandmother,
Martha Morgan Taylor

Article about the victims of violence, pg. 4
Image 6

Article about the victims of violence, pg. 5
Image 7

As Shawn and I continued to search these historical newspaper articles throughout the night, my curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to check the “Report of Committees of the Senate of the United States for the 2nd Session of the 44th Congress, 1876-77” on Google Books. I told Shawn that there must be court testimonies of these events because the newspaper articles referenced them. Report No. 701 on Louisiana in 1876 (Vol. 3) entitled the “Reportof the Sub-Committee of the Committee on Privileges and Elections of the UnitedStates Senate,” contains hundreds of testimonies from individuals within the community familiar with the events in question.  I found several references to my family members and even their personal accounts.  It is not only evident that many African Americans in the parish were intimidated into switching their votes to the democratic ticket, but also that witness tampering and intimation occurred. Many of the black citizens were scared to tell the truth about what they witnessed, heard and experienced; many of their testimonies conflicted with one another and many of them denied observing any acts of violence or intimidation. In some cases, some of them stated they, and everyone they knew, voted the democratic ticket of their own free will which was clearly not true. 

There were others who seemed to have little to no fear about telling the truth such as my 3rd great-grandmother’s brother, James Morgan who provided testimony in New Orleans on January 13, 1877.  His testimony really gave me a sense of the pressure these black citizens were under, and the sentiment of those who, although they were loyal to the “party that gave them their liberty,” realized that survival was the highest priority:

 

Image 8 - Testimony of James Morgan
Image 8 - Testimony of James Morgan

Image 9 - Testimony of James Morgan
Image 9 - Testimony of James Morgan

Image 10 - Testimony of James Morgan
Image 10 - Testimony of James Morgan

Image 11 - Testimony of James Morgan
Image 11 - Testimony of James Morgan


There are some that may find the facts presented in this article as offensive and that is OK—you are entitled to your opinion, as our democracy allegedly guarantees that entitlement. As a result, this article may not appeal to you.  This article is written for those seeking the truth about the pillars of this democracy; whether those pillars are reinforced to be self-evident, or if the assumptions about democracy have not guaranteed a path to the desire conclusion. With the voter suppression tactics of today and yesteryear, it begs the question “IS your right to choose guaranteed, let alone, valued and respected?”  This article is written for those who are not afraid to put their country to the test and entertain that question.

I’m just a guy telling his family’s true story of how democracy showed up in their lives--generation after generation. From Reconstruction to Jim Crow, to the Voting Rights Act 100 years later which finally guaranteed the right to vote for African Americans, to now--nothing is new under the sun, but when there is, I think we all, regardless of skin color, will enjoy the warmth of it shining on our face.

Sources:
Nicquel Terry Ellis, “Guns, lies and ballots set on fire: This is voter suppression in 2020,” USA Today, (29 Oct 2020); (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/10/29/2020-election-voter-suppression-looks-like-guns-lies-and-fires/6044702002/): accessed 14 Nov 2020
Andy Hollandbeck, “In a Word: The Racist Origins of ‘Bulldozer,” Saturday Evening Post, (8 Oct 2020); (https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2020/10/in-a-word-the-racist-origins-of-bulldozer/): accessed 13 Nov 2020

“Making Another Convert,” New Orleans Republican, (13 Sep 1876); Image: GenealogyBank (https://www.genealogybank.com/nbshare/AC01130211041949032851605409307): accessed 13 Nov 2020

“West Feliciana Affairs,” New Orleans Republican, (5 Dec 1875); Image: GenealogyBank (https://www.genealogybank.com/nbshare/AC01130211041949032851605409490): accessed 13 Nov 2020

“Shall the Republicans Cry to the Nation for Protection in Vain?,” New Orleans Republican, (2 Sep 1876); Image: GenealogyBank (https://www.genealogybank.com/nbshare/AC01130211041949032851605408599): accessed 13 Nov 2020

“Report of Committees of the Senate of the United States for the 2nd Session of the 44th Congress, 1876-77,” Washington Government Printing Office (1877); Google Books: (https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=g7AFAAAAQAAJ&pg=GBS.PA1971); Images 395 & 396: accessed 13 Nov 2020

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