voting rights

The obituary of Robert D. Haskins, voting rights warrior.

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the passing of Robert D. Haskins, the named plaintiff in a landmark 1982 civil rights lawsuit filed against Wilson County over its at-large system for electing county commissioner.

Wilson Daily Times, 31 October 1986.

Attorneys G.K. Butterfield Jr. (now a U.S. Congressman) and Milton “Toby” Fitch Jr. (now a North Carolina State Senator) with Robert D. Haskins. In the early 1980s, on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, photographer Jim Peppler documented Black Wilson County citizens’ efforts to secure representation on the county’s Board of County Commissioners. The series of photographs are housed at Alabama Department of Archives and History

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In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Robert Haskins, 37, insurance agent; wife Gertrude, 28; and children Mandy, 14; Elizabeth, 12; Estelle, 10; Robert, 7; Lossie, 5; Laurence, 4, and Thomas, 11.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Robert Haskins, 44, insurance agent; wife Gertrude, 39; and children Mandy, 22, private family cook; Elizabeth, 20; Estell, 18; Robert, 17; Lossie, 14; Larence, 12, and Tommie, 11.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Robert Haskins, 55, drug company salesman; wife Gertrude, 48; and children Mandy, 36; Elizabeth, 33, cook; Estelle, 29, beauty shop cleaner; Robert D. Jr., 29, hotel kitchen worker; Lossie, 24, N.Y.A. stenographer; and Thomas, 20, barbershop shoeblack; plus granddaughter Delores Haskins, 15, and lodger Henry Whitehead, 21.

In 1940, Robert Douglas Haskins registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 1 June 1913 in Wilson; lived at 1300 Atlantic Street, Wilson; his contact was father Robert Haskins; and he worked for Robert Haskins as a salesman.

Hat tip to LaMonique Hamilton for the link to these photos.

This is why.

Karole Turner Campbell shared this photograph of her maternal grandparents, Wesley and Martha Taylor Jones, sitting on the stoop of their Stantonsburg Street house in Wilson. In 1954, when she was nine years old, Turner Campbell spent the summer with them. It was her first “sleep-away camp,” and her grandfather Wesley gave her a job. She was to help her grandmother Martha, then 64 years old, learn to read so she could register to vote for the first time in her life. This was the Jim Crow era, and North Carolina still imposed literacy tests and poll taxes to disenfranchise its Black citizens. Martha Taylor had achieved only a third grade education when she had to leave school and go to work. Writes Turner Campbell, “I CANNOT EXPLAIN HOW THAT EXPERIENCE TOUCHED, MOVED AND INSPIRED ME! Nine years old, and I helped teach my grandma to read and vote. This is one reason I became an educator. This is why I ALWAYS vote.” 

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I woke up this morning disappointed and apprehensive and angry. But, ever inspired by those whose shoulders I stand on, resolute. 

Many thanks to Karole Turner Campbell and to the many political pioneers of Wilson County’s Jones family.

Iredell County Chronicles, no. 2.

Harriet Nicholson Tomlin Hart (1861-1924).

Me: How did she work that? How did Harriet get to be the first black woman to vote [in Statesville, North Carolina]?

Margaret Colvert Allen, my maternal grandmother: Well, because her husband [Thomas Alonzo Hart] was a lawyer.

Me: Right.

Grandma: He was a, whatchacall – a real estate lawyer. And he taught her how to read and write and do everything after he married her. Or while he was marrying her. Or something. And when time came for women to vote, she was the first black – he carried her down to the polls, and she was the first black woman to vote. And then at that time, you know, they gave you a quiz.

Me: Right. Right. Right. For black people to vote. Yeah. ‘Cause did your parents – well, did your father [Lon W. Colvert] vote?

Lon Walker Colvert (1875-1930).

Grandma: Oh, yeah. Papa voted. He voted. And the people in my home, Lisa, fought in the streets. It was dange – I mean, we could not go outside the house on election night. The people — “Who’d you vote for?” “I’m a Democrat.” “I’m a Republican.” Pam-a-lam-a-lam! [Swings fists, and I break into laughter.] People acted like they were crazy! Papa didn’t allow us out the house. “You better be getting on home!” ‘Cause they were terrible.

Me: And now you got to drag people out to vote. And then you hear people going: “I’m not gon vote now. What’s the point? I blah-blah-blah.”

Grandma: Yeah. When I came here [Newport News, Virginia] you had to pay poll tax.

Me: Yeah.

Grandma: It wasn’t a whole lot, but it was ridiculous.

Me: Yep.

[Harriet Hart was my great-great-grandmother. My grandmother cast her last ballot for Barack Obama in 2008 — at age 100.]

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Interview of Margaret C. Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.

Poll holders, 1882.

For more than 30 years after gaining the right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment, African-American men in Wilson County exercised the franchise widely, holding key positions in the local Republican Party and serving as poll holders in voting districts in nearly every township.

Wilson Advance, 6 October 1882.

  • Orren Best — born enslaved about 1849 in Greene County, N.C.
  • Noel Jones — born free about 1845 in Oldfields township, Wilson County [then Nash County.]
  • Hilliard Ellis — born enslaved about 1827, probably in Taylor township, Wilson County [then Nash County.]
  • Alfred Woodard — born enslaved about 1830.
  • A. Bynum — perhaps Amos Bynum, born enslaved about 1840.

VOTE.

Black Wide-Awake‘s temporal cut-off is generally 1949, but 2020 calls for flexibility. If you are of voting age, but are not registered to vote, I don’t know what will stir you. Here’s a story for you though.

This receipt acknowledged the seven dollars my grandmother paid dentist George K. Butterfield for services on 17 September 1955. I’m not sure why she saved it, but perhaps the times felt historic. Just a few months before this office visit, Dr. Butterfield had thwarted the city’s voter suppression shenanigans to win a second term on Wilson’s Board of Aldermen. In 1957, to make sure this didn’t happen again, Wilson dynamited its ward system. 

Dr. Butterfield’s son George K., Jr. is, of course, the United States Congressman for the 1st District of North Carolina, which includes Wilson County. “That is the thing that has precipitated my whole interest in law and politics,” Butterfield Jr. told the Wilson Daily Times in a 3 February 2003 article, “I’ve learned how government can work for you and against you. And in this case, it worked against a significant portion of the community.”

The bullet-point version:

  • In 1928, Dr. Butterfield was one of 46 Black registered voters in Wilson.  
  • In the 1930s and ’40s, several organizations formed to support political and educational advancement of African-Americans, including voter registration.
  • By the early 1950s, about 500 Black voters were registered, almost all of whom lived in the city’s Third Ward, a long narrow precinct that crossed Wilson east to west.
  • In early 1953, Dr. Butterfield announced his candidacy for a seat on Wilson’s Board of Aldermen, the precursor to today’s city council. He drew immediate widespread support from unionized tobacco leafhouse workers (many of whom were women), churches, and the small African-American professional class.
  • A few days before the election, incumbent Herbert Harriss challenged the eligibility of 185 voters. Of 150 voters struck from the rolls as a result, all but three were Black. 
  • On election night, Dr. Butterfield and Harriss each received 382 votes, but Butterfield objected that the registrar had violated regulations requiring votes be counted where ballot boxes were opened. City Attorney W.A. Lucas conceded the count was irregular, but declared the point moot, as there were tie-breaker provisions. Over Dr. Butterfield’s expostulations, the City Clerk placed the two candidates’ names in a hat, blindfolded a three year-old girl, and asked her to draw a name.
  • Dr. Butterfield won!
  • Two years later, the City of Wilson rolled up its sleeves to get in front of Dr. Butterfield’s re-election. First, it threw out all the registration books, ostensibly to clear the rolls of dead or otherwise ineligible voters. It gave citizens one month to re-register by notifying their ward registrar at his house on a weekday, a difficult feat for factory workers and domestics working on the other side of town from their homes. Next, the city expanded Ward 3 on its western end to pull in hundreds more white voters. And the Wilson Daily Times did its part to highlight the peril by publishing running tallies of new registrations by race. 

Wilson Daily Times, 8 April 1955.

Wilson Daily Times, 25 April 1955.

  • On election day, 93% of all eligible Black voters voted — let me say that again, NINETY-THREE PERCENT OF ALL ELIGIBLE BLACK VOTERS VOTED — and Dr. Butterfield won again! (Won’t He do it?)
  • In 1957, faced with another Butterfield campaign, the City went for the nuclear option and chucked the whole ward system for “new and fair” city-wide, at-large seats. Further, to thwart bloc voting, voters would not be able to vote for just one candidate. Rather, they had to select six or their ballots would be invalidated. Jim Crow protocols prevented Dr. Butterfield from campaigning directly to white voters, and he was unable to counter when his white opponents sneered at his ties to “special interest groups” like the NAACP and cast him as a candidate solely interested in advancing Black issues. (One, oh, the hypocrisy! Two, doesn’t this all sound familiar?)
  • Unsurprisingly, Dr. Butterfield placed eighth of 16 candidates and was the sole incumbent to lose his seat. 

The story didn’t end there, of course. Butterfield’s final defeat coincided with the emergence of new grassroots civil rights organizing efforts to attack segregation and racism in every corner of Wilson life. I’m shining a timely light on Dr. Butterfield’s pioneering political career to remind you that there is nothing new under the sun; that voter suppression is the weapon of choice whenever you show your strength; and that, though you may not win every battle, you can do no less than the Black men and women of Wilson who defied their government and risked it all to vote over and over and over. 

“Victors in May 3 City Elections Are Given Oaths of Office Today,” Wilson Daily Times, 6 June 1955.

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The deadline for registration in Georgia is October 5.

The deadline for registration in North Carolina is October 9.

For the full, fascinating source of my summary of Dr. Butterfield’s elections, please read Charles W. McKinney Jr., Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina (2010).

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P.S. Right on time — today, the first in the New York Times’ video series, Stressed Election, focuses on voter suppression in Georgia, where I now live. 

https://www.nytimes.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000006810942

The South is all right.

On the eve of the civil rights movement, Wilson Daily Times editor John D. Gold penned this soothing editorial meant to reassure his readers (or the white ones, anyway) that there was no trouble “between the races” in the South, that colored people know “the Southern white man is his friend,” and that Negroes are loyal and faithful around the house and farm. The piece is rubbish, but includes views of Charlie Thomas, who worked for the Golds as a house servant and at the newspaper, and Dick Pender, who worked for the Golds and, most especially, for Joshua Barnes. (Pender died in 1896; Gold had to reach way back for him.)

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Wilson Daily Times, 12 May 1948.

To hold this element in check.

In November 1896, the Wilson Advance published an editorial plainly warning that annexing the “negro settlement” east of the railroad would imperil white control. “Our town government at present is good” and “to include this portion of our suburbs would greatly reduce, if not entirely wipe out [the white] majority.”

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Wilson Advance, 12 November 1896.

Registrars and judges of election.

In August and September 1896, the Chairman of the Republican State Executive Committee submitted lists of  Registrars and Judges of Election for elections to be held in November 1896.

Wilson County was divided into 14 precincts — four in Wilson, two in Toisnot township, and one each in Taylors, Old Fields, Springhill, Cross Roads, Black Creek, Stantonsburg, Saratoga and Gardners townships. Braswell R. Winstead was appointed Judge of Election for Wilson Precinct No. 1 and Toisnot Precinct No. 1 and Elijah L. Reid was appointed Judge of Election for Stantonsburg Precinct. William H. Vick was appointed Registrar for Wilson No. 2; Alexander D. Dawson for Wilson No. 3; and Jeremiah Scarboro for Wilson No. 4. Jessie Howard was appointed Taylors registrar and Gray Newsome, Cross Roads.

Election Records 1896, Officials’ Bonds and Records, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.

Recommended reading, no. 3.

My well-worn copy.

May I recommend Charles W. McKinney’s excellent Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina? Published in 2010, this fine-grained and meticulous monograph examines the many grassroots groups — including farmers, businessmen, union organizers, working class women — who worked together and separately to drag Wilson County into and through the civil rights movement.

God bless Wilson and her worthy people.

One hundred nineteen years ago today, the Wilson Times ran a letter sent from Monrovia, Liberia, by Rev. Owen L.W. Smith, U.S. consul to that West African country. Largely a sycophantic roll call of Wilson’s elected officials, halfway through Smith suddenly jabs. Praising a hospital director, he commented that all had “the appearance that better things are coming, notwithstanding the ‘Jim Crow Car’ law, the election franchise act, and the constitutional amendment. But I believe you will let me vote.” He then drops a few lines describing Liberia’s system of suffrage. It’s not universal, but. Touché.

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Wilson Times, 9 June 1899.