voting rights

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.

Work and that woman has kept me right.

Martha Tyson Dixon‘s husband Luke D. Dixon consented to a Federal Writers Project interview, too. His story, starting with his Africa-born grandparents, is electric.

“My father’s owner was Jim Dixon in Elmo County, Virginia. That is where I was born. I am 81 years old. Jim Dixon had several boys — Baldwin and Joe. Joe took some of the slaves his pa gave him, and went to New Mexico to shun the war. Uncle and Pa went in the war as waiters. They went in at the ending up. We lived on the big road that run to the Atlantic Ocean. Not far from Richmond. Ma lived three or four miles from Pa. She lived across big creek — now they call it Farrohs Run. Ma belonged to Harper Williams. Pa’s folks was very good but Ma’s folks was unpleasant.

“Ma lived to be 103 years old. Pa died in 1905 and was 105 years old. I used to set on Grandma’s lap and she told me about how they used to catch people in Africa. They herded them up like cattle and put them in stalls and brought them on the ship and sold them. She said some they captured they left bound till they come back and sometimes they never went back to get them. They died. They had room in the stalls on the boat to set down or lie down. They put several together. Put the men to themselves and the women to themselves. When they sold Grandma and Grandpa at a fishing dock called New Port, Va., they had their feet bound down and their hands bound crossed, up on a platform. They sold Grandma’s daughter to somebody in

“Texas. She cried and she begged to let them be together. They didn’t pay no ‘tension to her. She couldn’t talk but she made them know she didn’t want to be parted. Six years after slavery they got together. When a boat was to come in people come and wait to buy slaves. They had several days of selling. I never seen this but that is the way it was told to me.

“The white folks had a iron clip that fastened the thumbs together and they would swing the man or woman up in a tree and whoop them. I seen that done in Virginia across from where I lived. I don’t know what the folks had done. They pulled the man up with block and tackle.

“Another thing I seen done was put three or four chinquapin switches together green, twist them and dry them. They would dry like a leather whip. They whooped the slaves with them.

“Grandpa was named Sam Abraham and Phillis Abraham was his mate. They was sold twice. Once she was sold away from her husband to a speculator. Well, it was hard on the Africans to be treated like animals. I never heard of the Nat Turner rebellion. I have heard of slaves buying their own freedom. I don’t know how it was done. I have heard of folks being helped to run off. Grandma on mother’s side had a brother run off from Dalton, Mississippi to the North. After the war he come to Virginia.

“When freedom was declared we left and went to Wilmington and Wilson, North Carolina. Dixon never told us we was free but at the end of the year he gave my father a gray mule he had ploughed for a long time and part of the crop. My mother jes

“picked us up and left her folks now. She was cooking then I recollect. Folks jes went wild when they got turned loose.

“My parents was first married under a twenty five cents license law in Virginia. After freedom they was remarried under a new law and the license cost more but I forgot how much. They had fourteen children to my knowing. After the war you could register under any name you give yourself. My father went by the name of Right Dixon and my mother Jilly Dixon.

“The Ku Klux was bad. They was a band of land owners what took the law in hand. I was a boy. I scared to be caught out. They took the place of pattyrollers before freedom.

“I never went to public school but two days in my life. I went to night school and paid Mr. J.C. Price and Mr. S.H. Vick to teach me. My father got his leg shot off and I had to work. It kept me out of meanness. Work and that woman has kept me right. I come to Arkansas, brought my wife and one child, April 5, 1889. We come from Wilson, North Carolina. Her people come from North Carolina and Moultrie, Georgia.

“I do vote. I sell eggs or a little something and keep my taxes paid up. It look like I’m the kind of folks the government would help — them that works and tries hard to have something — but seems like they don’t get no help. They wouldn’t help me if I was bout to starve. I vote a Republican ticket.”

NOTE: On the wall in the dining room, used as a sitting room, was framed picture of Booker T. Washington and Teddy Roosevelt sitting at a round-shaped hotel dining table ready to be

“served. Underneath the picture in large print was “Equality.” I didn’t appear to ever see the picture.

This negro is well-fixed for living at home. He is large and very black, but his wife is a light mulatto with curly, nearly straightened hair.

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This is the image that Luke Dixon’s interviewer so studiously ignored. The event it depicted, which scandalized white America in 1901, is the subject of Deborah Davis’ recent book, Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation (2012).

I have not found Luke Dixon or his parents in the censuses of Virginia. There is no “Elmo County,” Virginia, but New Port may have been Newport News, which was little more than a fishing village in the antebellum era.

Dixon apparently attended night school at Wilson Academy, but it is not clear when. Joseph C. Price headed the school from 1871 to 1873, when Samuel H. Vick was just a child. Vick assumed the helm at age 21 after graduating from Lincoln University.