Minden Press-Herald

Thursday
Oct 02nd

The African-American vote in Webster

Voting is one of the most precious rights we have as citizens of the United States.

In fact, I consider it the most important right because as we long as we have that right, we can control the elected officials who make our laws and run our nation.

However, for much of our history not everyone who resided here was allowed to exercise that right.

This week’s Echo of our Past will look back at some political events in a curious era of our history, the years between 1867 and 1898 when the newly freed male slaves functioned in elections as full participants, before the Jim Crow Laws removed their ability to take part in government for nearly 70 years.

I am a child of the Civil Rights Era. In 1958, when I was born there were fewer than 120 registered African-American voters in Webster Parish out of a population nearly identical to ours of today. (Today there are approximately 8000 African-American voters in our parish.)

So, when I first learned of the full African-American participation in government in the post-Civil War era, I was amazed.  
Today’s column is a brief overview of how African-American voter participation peaked in Webster Parish and then rapidly vanished after the adoption of the Louisiana Constitution of 1898.

In the years after the Civil War, a few political assumptions can be made, even though party registration was not recorded in the official records.

Few, if any, African-American residents of the south voted Democratic of their own free will in those years. In fact, by the end of the era, African-American membership in the Democratic Party would be banned.

In addition, very few white Southerners voted for the Republican Party. In our parish, there were two brief Fusions movement where many whites backed the Greenback Labor Party in the 1879 statewide election and the Populist Party in 1892 and 1896, but even in those years white votes for Republicans were almost all cast by those residents not native to the south.

Election returns for local elections are mostly gone forever, unless preserved in newspaper records, so for this article I’m using the vote totals from the statewide elections as recorded by the Secretary of State, along with the voter registration reports.

Webster Parish was formed in February of 1871, so the first election in which our parish voted was the bitter gubernatorial election of 1872.

In that contest, Democrat John McEnery ran against William Pitt Kellogg of the Republicans.

The Republican Party in Louisiana had split into two factions, the Custom House Ring that backed Kellogg and the faction headed by sitting governor Henry Clay Warmoth, which actually backed McEnery.

As a measure of Republican control in Webster Parish our voters favored Kellogg by a vote of 824 to 577. The outcome of that election probably ranks as the most contested in our history. Both sides attempted to fix the election results.

First Warmoth attempted to throw the election to McEnery, through manipulation of the infamous Returning Board. This led to Warmoth being impeached and Lt. Gov. P. B. S. Pinchback assuming the office of governor for a month and becoming Louisiana’s only African-American governor that has yet served.

For a period of time Louisiana had two legislatures and two governors, but eventually President Grant, whose brother-in-law was a key supporter of Kellogg, stepped in and used Federal troops to install the Kellogg administration, leading to some of the worst civic violence in Louisiana history over the next two years, including the Coushatta Massacre, the Colfax Riot and the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans.

Four years later in the last election of Reconstruction, the Louisiana Democrats nominated “what was left” of Francis T. Nicholls for Governor. (Nicholls had lost his left arm and his left foot while serving as a Confederate General during the Civil War.)

The unified Republicans nominated Stephen B. Packard. In that campaign, Webster Parish voted for the Democrat, but by the narrow vote of 896 to 858.

The final result of that election, just as in 1872, seemed in doubt. However, the Compromise of 1877, which elected Rutherford B. Hayes as president and ended Reconstruction also assured victory for Nicholls and in the language of the day, Louisiana and the South were “Redeemed.”

The first official report I was able to find for registration totals reports that in 1878 Webster Parish had a total of 1631 voters, 871 African-American and 760 white – a narrow majority for those African-American voters who little more than a decade before had not even been counted as people by Louisiana law.

This delicate balance is reflected in the vote totals for the 1879 gubernatorial election (the election was moved up a year when the Constitutional Convention of 1879 moved against Governor Nicholls by shortening his term by a year) when Democrat Louis Wiltz carried Webster Parish by a vote of only 588 to 574 over Republican candidate Taylor Beattie. Wiltz’s victory was by a much larger percentage statewide.

By the next year, 1880, there were 1814 registered voters in Webster Parish with a slight majority, 963 to 851, now being white.

Another interesting aspect of elections in those years is that the Republican voters seemed to only turn out for the state elections, not the national campaigns.

In the Presidential election of 1880 Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock (a former Union general) defeated Republican James Garfield (also a former Union general) by a total of 861 to 188 in Webster Parish – little more than a year after nearly 600 Republican votes were cast in the governor’s race.

In the governor’s race of 1883, Webster actually gave a solid majority to the Republican candidate John Stevenson over Democrat Samuel McEnery, 840 to 588, even though McEnery more than doubled Stevenson’s total in the overall state vote.

That election marked the high point for Republican voting turnout in Webster Parish.

In 1887, Democrat Francis T. Nicholls, running for another term as governor, destroyed former Carpetbagger Governor Henry Clay Warmoth of the Republicans by a total of 1506 to 325 in Webster.

Our parish would never again support a Republican candidate for governor until the latter part of the twentieth century. Still African-American voters remained a sizeable part of the electorate in our community for more than a decade.

Registration reports for 1890 indicated 2390 voters in Webster Parish with a majority, 1291, being African-American voters.  

As late as 1897, when there were 2941 voters in Webster Parish the white majority was small, 1561 to 1380. This was on the eve of a seismic change in Louisiana politics, the adoption of the Constitution of 1898.

The convention called to write a new constitution in 1898 had a specific charge. They were to rewrite the election laws to assure that African-American participation would be held to a minimum if not eliminated altogether.

In Webster Parish, the election of 1895 for governor had not been close. Democrat Murphy J. Foster had trounced the Populist Candidate John Pharr by 1553 to 550.

However, statewide the election had been too close for comfort in the eyes of the Bourbon Democrats.

They feared a continued cooperation between poor whites and African-Americans might lead to a Democratic loss in the near future. Assured by the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that no Federal interference in Southerners furthering segregation would take place, the Constitutional Convention moved ahead and rewrote the voting requirements for Louisiana.

Under the Constitution of 1898 in Louisiana voters were required to have the following qualifications beyond simply being a male over 21:

“[Article 197] Sec. 3. He [the elector] shall be able to read and write, and shall demonstrate his ability to do so when he applies for registration, by making, under oath administered by the registration officer or his deputy, written application therefor, in the English language, or his mother tongue, which application shall contain the essential facts necessary to show that he is entitled to register and vote, and shall be entirely written, dated and signed by him, in the presence of the registration officer or his deputy, without assistance or suggestion from any person or any memorandum whatever, except the form of application. . . .

“Sec. 4. If he be not able to read and write, as provided by Section three . . . then he shall be entitled to register and vote if he shall, at the time he offers to register, be the bona fide owner of property assessed to him in this State at a valuation of not less than three hundred dollars . . . and on which, if such property be personal only, all taxes due shall have been paid. . . .

“Sec. 5. No male person who was on January 1st, 1867, or at any date prior thereto, entitled to vote under the Constitution or statutes of any State of the United States, wherein he then resided, and no son or grandson of any such person not less than twenty—one years of age at the date of the adoption of this Constitution, and no male person of foreign birth, who was naturalized prior to the first day of January, 1898, shall be denied the right to register and vote in this State by reason of his failure to possess the educational or property qualifications prescribed by this Constitution; provided, he shall have resided in this State for five years next preceding the date at which he shall apply for registration, and shall have registered in accordance with the terms of this article prior to September 1, 1898, and no person shall be entitled to register under this section after said date. . . .”

Under the strict terms of Section Three regarding literacy it has been estimated that the number of eligible voters in Louisiana would have been reduced by nearly 60 percent.

Few poor whites and almost no poor African-Americans in Louisiana could read and write and many economically better-off voters of both races would have trouble qualifying under that standard.

In order to prevent the mass disenfranchisement of white voters, Section 4 and 5 were added. Section four restored property as a qualification for voting in Louisiana for the first time since the Constitution of 1845 had eliminated such requirements.

Of course the new property requirements were intended as a loophole for illiterate white voters who owned property whereas in the past they had been used to eliminate poorer voters.

That brings us to Section 5, the infamous Grandfather Clause.

In Louisiana prior to the enforcement of the 14th Amendment with the Louisiana Constitution of 1868, African-Americans had been unable to vote. So, in an effort to preserve the right to vote for poor whites who could not read or write this clause was added to the Constitution.

If a voter had voted in 1867 or was a direct descendant of a voter who cast a Louisiana ballot in 1867, he was “grandfathered” in as a qualified elector.

Clearly few African-American persons could qualify to vote under Section 5, only the rare child of a slave owner who had been recognized by that father.

The effect on voter registration of both races was drastic. While white voters who qualified flocked to the voter registrar to prove their family ties, those poor whites that had come to Louisiana after 1867 were left without the right to vote.

Interestingly, it became somewhat of a badge of pride among white Louisianians to claim their “birthright” and many who could qualify either through literacy or property ownership opted instead to register as “Section Five” voters.

So many that one of the most useful genealogy tools for Louisiana in the 1890s is that registration book for voters under Section Five, which allows you to find a connection between adults of 1898, and their forbearers of the 1860s.

The immediate effect in Webster Parish was stunning. Those 2941 voters in Webster in 1897 dropped to 1276 in 1898.

White registration fell from 1561 to 903 while African-American voters numbered only 373 in 1898, down from 1380 the previous year.

As time went by, other changes made an even deeper impact on African-American and poor white participation.

In 1900, Louisiana implemented the poll tax, a tax that was required to be paid during the winter, a season when most Louisiana farmers were very short of cash.

Soon it became clear to many African-American voters that with the drastically reduced African-American electorate it was really a waste of their money to pay the poll tax.

By 1904, the African-American voter was almost extinct in many parts of Louisiana, including Webster Parish. That year, there were only 1024 registered voters in Webster Parish.

Among these were 1021 white voters and only three African-American voters. This in a parish that only 14 years earlier had a majority African-American voting population.

Interestingly enough, among the white voters over half, 632, were voting strictly on the registration papers of their pre-1867 ancestor.

The chilling impact of the Constitution of 1898 on African-American voting in Louisiana would last for nearly three-quarters of a century.

When African-American registration began to slowly rise in the years after World War II, the White Citizens Council emerged to pick up the fight against African-American voting.

That fight led to the intervention of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.

Those officers and FBI agents became regular visitors to Webster Parish as we were under direct Federal supervision.
The final end to organized and government supported African-American disenfranchisement in our area came in the summer of 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Interestingly, noted Civil Rights leader James Farmer came directly from attending the signing ceremony as a guest of President Johnson to Minden, to take part in a march on City Hall by striking sanitation workers the next morning.
So remember that exercising the right to vote has not always been so easy for some of our citizens.  

Thankfully those bad times are now just an Echo of Our Past.

John Agan is a local historian, an instructor at Bossier Parish Community College and a published author. His column appears Fridays in the Minden Press-Herald.

Last Updated ( April 22, 2011 )  

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