Tag Archives: African American History

Alfred Fowler and the Vietnam War

[This blog post was written by Matthew Peek, Military Collection Archivist for the State Archives of North Carolina.]

Snapshot of Alfred Fowler standing next to an artillery gun in a bunker in Vietnam

VW 1.B2.F12.1: Snapshot of Alfred Fowler standing next to an artillery gun in a bunker in Vietnam at an unknown location in June 1968, during his service with B Battery, 321st Artillery, 82nd Airborne Division, U.S. Army. Photograph sent to his wife Cynthia Fowler with a June 23, 1968, letter. From the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina.

In honor of Black History Month, the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina wants to feature one of its most important collections from the Vietnam War—the Alfred Fowler Papers.

Alfred Fowler was born on September 26, 1942, in Whites Creek Township in Bladen County, North Carolina. His parents were John Edd and Laney (Shaw) Fowler. Alfred’s mother died when he was five years old, leaving him to be raised by his father, with whom he was not very close. Alfred’s mother gave birth to nine living children, the oldest of whom—Mary Lee—worked to raise Alfred and his siblings. Growing up, Alfred was very close to his youngest sister Mabel.

Alfred Fowler would meet Cynthia L. Bryant while the two were in New York in the 1960s. Bryant was from Sanford, North Carolina. Alfred Fowler married Cynthia in August 1966, and they remained in New York until January 1967. In January 1967, the couple moved to Sanford, and lived with Cynthia’s parents on South Horner Boulevard.

Alfred Fowler worked at the Cornell-Dubilier Electronics plant in Sanford prior to his service in the Vietnam War. Seattle-founded Cornell-Dubilier, a pioneer in producing capacitors for radios and other electronics, opened a Sanford plant in 1955. Fowler worked in a laboratory at the company testing its products.

Prior to moving to North Carolina, Alfred Fowler had attempted to enlist voluntarily in the U.S. military, but was rejected three times by the military—likely due to his having high blood pressure. When the Fowlers relocated to North Carolina, however, Alfred received his draft board notice about six months later on July 3, 1967. Partly due to the Fowlers’ recent relocation, Alfred would receive draft notices from three different local draft boards between August and October 1967, as different localities were trying to claim him for draft quotas. He received his final draft notice, which indicated his date of induction would be in November 1967.

Alfred Fowler was inducted into the U.S. Army as a private on November 28, 1967. He entered basic training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in December 1967, where he remained until February 1968. Alfred was assigned to the 2nd Platoon, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade, in the U.S. Army Training Center at Fort Bragg. He would be transferred to Fort Sill near Lawton, Oklahoma, arriving there between February 9 and February 10, 1968. While at Fort Sill, Fowler was a member of Battery E of the 3rd Training Battalion at the U.S. Army Training Center-Field Artillery command. It was during his nearly three-month stay at Fort Sill that Fowler learned how to operate a variety of field artillery guns, which he came to utilize in the jungles and mountains of Vietnam.

Certificate for Alfred Fowler’s Bronze Star Medal

Certificate for Alfred Fowler’s Bronze Star Medal. From the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina.

Serving with Battery B of the 2nd Battalion, 321st Artillery Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, Alfred Fowler was sent to Vietnam with his regiment between the end of April and the first week of May 1968. He was promoted to corporal by July 3, 1968. Fowler’s overseas service ended in April 1969 after a year-long term in Vietnam. While in Vietnam, Fowler’s artillery unit participated in regular firefights with the Viet Cong. Upon returning to the United States, he was transferred to Fort Carson in Colorado—rather than his preferred location of Fort Bragg—sometime in May 1969. Fowler served at Fort Carson until being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army on November 26, 1969.

Alfred Fowler returned to work at his job with Cornell-Dubilier, and would attend Central Carolina Community College in Sanford for a couple of years. Fowler’s family recollects that he suffered mood swings and mental distress from his service in Vietnam, believing this to be what today is identified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He never would openly discuss his service, shielding his family from the horrors of what he experienced in Vietnam. Alfred had changed quite a bit upon his return from service, and the letters he wrote from Vietnam indicate some of the struggles he was going through during combat.

Since they had been newlyweds when he left for the U.S. Army, Alfred and Cynthia Fowler would have to relearn to live with each other, facing the challenges of adjusting to the drastic personal and cultural changes of the late 1960s as an African American couple in North Carolina. The Fowlers would remain together until Alfred’s death on July 17, 2004. He was buried at Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery in Spring Lake, North Carolina.

You can learn more about Alfred Fowler from his collection, the Alfred Fowler Papers (VW 1) in the Vietnam War Papers of the Military Collection, that contains more than 180 letters written between him and his wife during Fowler’s service in the Vietnam War.

You also can currently see Alfred Fowler’s Vietnam War Army uniform on display in the North Carolina Museum of History’s “Call to Arms” Gallery on the Third Floor of the Museum in the Vietnam War section of the exhibit.

Advertisements

PC2124: Slave Deed of Gift of Sam

deedfrontside_pc2124

Front side of deed of gift of Sam, age 25, Moore County, from John R. Ritter to his daughter, Jane Ritter, 18 December 1847.

[This blog post was written by Fran Tracy-Walls, Private Collections Archivist, of the Special Collections Section of the State Archives of North Carolina.]

Private Collections (PCs) are an important source for researchers seeking not only genealogical information, but also important context for understanding family, social, and economic history. Likewise, PCs are an especially valuable resource for those tracing slave ancestry and a sense of the broader historical context and personal details. In honor of Black History Month, February 2017, this post shines a light on rich aspects of the life of Samuel (Sam) Ritter (ca. 1822-1892). Such focus places Samuel in a position of respect far above the offensive fact that he was born into slavery and given as a man of 25 to a girl of 12, the eldest daughter of the slave master.

Realities conveyed in bare facts, such as the foregoing, can bring pain and offend our humanity and sense of human dignity. Difficult as it is to view papers documenting unsavory facts, we must continue to seek and to make available all that offer clues, especially in the difficult challenge of slave ancestry. Such is true of the donation in 2016 to Private Collections of a single item titled: “Slave Deed of Gift of Sam, Age 25, Moore County, from John R. Ritter to Jane Ritter, 18 December 1847.” PC.2124.

In the course of a recent day’s work, I set out to discover and document the usual background facts expected in the writing of a finding aid. Additionally, I wanted to make meaningful sense of this unusually troubling deed of gift and to provide some basis for investigations by future researchers. The bare facts of this 1847 deed of gift were especially provocative, and I was vexed enough to raise the obvious questions, and a few more. For starters, I wanted to know: Did Sam survive ownership by young Jane? If she married during the next decade or so, did Sam become part of her husband’s estate, and what was his name and locale? Did Sam escape to the North? Or if he survived in North Carolina past the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, what surname did he assume? Where did he live? Did he ever reach position of dignity as a head of a household? Did he have a vocation, and a family of his own? And finally, who were Sam’s parents and siblings?

Though a seasoned archivist and historian, I admit to being somewhat daunted thinking of the span of time and the proverbial brick walls that I might hit in researching Sam from the year 1847 to the year 1870—when black individuals and families were first named on the U.S. Federal Census. There was the realistic possibility of no clear answers to any of my questions. Still, I proceeded to build into my finding aid’s biographical and historical note a basic chronological framework. With many other projects awaiting attention, I strove to find as much factual information as I could find in a reasonable length of time. Yet even the essential clue of finding Jane’s future married name in the North Carolina Marriage Bonds and the Marriage Index was denied. Consequently, I resorted to a wide assortment of Internet searches. The end result was a mix of unproven clues about the Ritter family, scattered about the Internet, and facts derived from the standard sources, mainly census records. I offer the following as an approach that others might consider when seeking to trace and to highlight the life of a particular individual.

deedsamnamedexcerpt

Excerpt from deed of gift identifying a “negro man Slave named Sam aged about twenty five years.”

In this case, it was necessary to begin with the first-named slave owner conveying the “gift” of Sam’s person. Research revealed him to be John Richardson Ritter (ca. 1793–1860), a son of John (ca. 1760–1828) and Elizabeth H. Richardson Ritter (ca. 1760–1842). The younger John was married around 1813 to Mary Kennedy (1802–1865 or before), Moore County. The couple is shown on the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Federal Census residing with three sons and five daughters, with birth dates ranging from around 1829 to 1850.

An essential character in my query was the said Jane Ritter, born in 1835, and the oldest daughter of the Ritter couple. As stated, she was 12 years of age when her father deeded to her the “gift” of “ownership” of Sam, age 25, born around 1822. The 1850 U.S. Federal Census slave schedule does not list Jane Ritter as a slave owner, but shows that her father, John R. Ritter, claimed two females, ages 30 and 12, mulatto; and eight males, with three of the four children therein described as mulatto. The two adult males included one listed as 35, and the

other as 30 years of age. The latter man was probably Sam, named in the 1847 deed of gift. It should be noted that John R. Ritter is not listed as a slave owner in the 1860 U.S. Federal Census slave schedules. That was probably the year of his death, and it is uncertain what happened to the ten slaves, ascribed to him in 1850.

Jane Ritter, also known as Dicie Jane (1835–1891), was still living in her parents’ household during the census enumeration of 1860. Family reports, lacking documentation, indicate that Jane Ritter was married in late 1861 to Nelson J. Hunsucker (1833–1875). The 1870 census does verify that Nelson Hunsucker was recorded by the census taker as a farmer, with a full household. Family named include Hunsucker’s wife, Dicie Jane, his mother, four young Hunsucker children, plus a boy of 10, possibly a relative, and one Samuel Ritter, black, age 22, with an approximate birth year of 1848. The Hunsucker household and farm were located in Ritters Township, Moore County. These welcomed pieces of information, made me suspect that the young Samuel Ritter (SRJr) might well be the son of the elder Samuel Ritter (SRSr)

It is more than coincidental that on the 1870 census another Samuel Ritter, black, is listed as a farmer in Ritters Township, and located in fairly close proximity to the Hunsucker farm. If the age this older Samuel Ritter gave to the census taker is correct, his birth year was around 1819. This is within three years and remarkably close to the projected birth year of the slave, Sam (described as age 25 in the said Ritter family deed of gift of 1847). Signs surely point to the high probability that Samuel and Sam were indeed the same, and I will hereafter designate him as SRSr.

There are several other pieces of additional interest in the 1870 census record. First, the household of SRSr includes Elisabeth/Elizabeth, age 28, a mulatto, and six children, ranging in ages from ten years to infancy. Secondly, there is additional information in the census form’s “Personal estate” category, column 9. The enumerator entered 100 (dollars) for SRSr’s personal property (defined generally as including all bonds, stocks, mortgages, notes, livestock, plate, jewels, or furniture). The practice was to leave the column blank if the valuation was less than $100.

This category of “Personal estate” was, in fact, left blank for the neighboring Hunsucker family, and some of the other white families in the area. Additionally, it is assumed that the elder Samuel Ritter had title to the land that he farmed, and was not in the category of sharecropper that described so many men during the 19th and on into the 20th century. Finally, Elisabeth Ritter was entered on the form as being able to read, though not write. Samuel Ritter, on the other hand, like so many of that era, could neither read nor write.

The 1880 U.S. Federal Census also suggests a possibly cooperative relationship between the white Hunsucker family and the two black Samuel Ritters (SRSr and SRJr) and their families. By 1880 Dicey Jane Ritter Hunsucker is now a widow and listed as a farmer/head of household. The older SRSr, now 60 years old, is again registered as a farmer, and his name has the actual designation of “Senior.” Notably, there is only one residence separating his farm from that of the Hunsucker farm. The young Samuel Ritter (SRJr) who previously lived with the Hunsucker family, is now married, and listed as a farmer, with several young children. Significantly, he and his family are residing in a residence adjacent to the senior Samuel Ritter, most certainly his father, SRSr. Furthermore, SRSr lives in the second residence down, and SRJr lives in the third residence down from the Hunsucker homestead.

Following these families gives rises to even more unanswered questions, and surely the

deedtitle_reverseside

Excerpt from reverse side of deed of gift, with title and partial court endorsement.

loss of the 1890 U.S. Federal Census compounds the problem. Since SRSr does not appear on the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, we can assume that he died sometime between the 1880 and 1900 enumerations. One unproven family record on the Internet indicates that he died in 1892. If true, then SRSr lived well past the average life expectancy for men of that era. We know with fair amount of certainty that Dicey Jane Ritter Hunsucker died in 1891 because of the existence of her gravestone at the Bethlehem Baptist Church Cemetery, close to Ritters Township, in the town of Carthage.

Overall, discovering several positive connections to SRSr and his family has indeed been gratifying. Though I did not answer all questions, the results exceeded what I could reasonably anticipate when I first initiated my inquiries. For other researchers who have a family and/or a historical interest in SRSr and family, further in-depth research can take myriads of other directions. Thanks to the starting point presented through a single 1847 deed of gift, we have a better understanding of SRSr’s life and the legacy that he represents. We can never know the exact and undoubtedly complex nature of the relationships between the white Ritter family/Hunsucker family and the black Ritter family. It is certain, however, that their lives intersected in significant ways. It can probably be safely surmised that the relationship between Dicey Jane Ritter Hunsucker (d. ca. 1891) and Sam Ritter (d. ca. 1892), was at least cooperative on some levels and peaceful enough so that they could live almost side-by-side on their farms until the end of their days.

See also in honor of Black History Month, February 2017, a blog post written by Elizabeth Crowder, about the McCormick, Green, and Shaw Collection. PC.2130.

Collection Overview:

PC. 2124. Slave Deed of Gift, of Sam, age 25, Moore County, from John R. Ritter to his daughter, Jane Ritter, 18 December 1847. This document was proven and duly registered in the January court session of 1848, by the oath of Benjamin P. Person. 1 item.

 

McCormick, Green, and Shaw Private Collection

[This blog post was written by Elizabeth Crowder with the Private Collections of the Special Collections Section of the State Archives of North Carolina.]

Under the supervision of Fran Tracy-Walls, Private Manuscripts Archivist at the State Archives of North Carolina, I have arranged and described the McCormick, Green, and Shaw Collection (PC.2130). This work was made possible through generous funding bequeathed to the North Carolina Genealogical Society by the estate of the late Frances Holloway Wynne.

nelly_1828_taped-1118-x-713

Bill of sale for Daniel McCormick’s purchase of Nelly McCormick, Sarah (mother), and Sally (daughter). [1828]

Private collections can be a valuable source of information for researchers tracing slave ancestry. In honor of Black History Month, this post examines the life of Nelly McCormick (born ca. 1799) as revealed in the contents of the McCormick, Green, and Shaw Collection. The earliest reference to Nelly McCormick is found in the collection’s “Miscellaneous” series. An 1821 bill of sale indicates that Archibald Smith sold his current and future interest in Nelly and her offspring to a James Campbell. Nelly is identified as the daughter of Sarah. She is also referred to as the property of John Smith, Archibald’s father. Nelly passed to John Smith’s wife, Catherine (perhaps Archibald’s stepmother—he never refers to her as his mother), for Catherine’s lifetime. All the parties involved were likely residents of Cumberland County, NC. Though no record of John Smith’s death and/or estate has been found, the 1830 federal census lists a Catharine Smith as a resident of Cumberland County and the owner of three slaves.

According to the McCormick papers in PC.2130, Nelly was sold to Daniel McCormick of Cumberland County in April 1828. McCormick purchased her, her mother Sarah, and her daughter Sally from John E. Smith, likely a son of the John Smith mentioned above. Sarah’s age is given as “between sixty and seventy years,” making her birth year between 1758 and 1768. Nelly’s age is given as “about twenty-three years,” making her birth year approximately 1805. Sally is identified as six months old, meaning that she was born in late 1827.

nelly_1864_hasahole-927-x-720

John Smith’s 1864 letter demanding Nelly, Sally, and Rachel from Daniel McCormick.

After 1828, no details of Nelly McCormick’s life emerge for more than thirty years. But in 1864, John E. Smith’s son demanded Nelly, Sally, and Rachel (presumably another daughter of Nelly’s) back from Daniel McCormick. Whatever the result of the lawsuit Smith threatened, Nelly remained tied to the McCormick family. The ledgers of John McCormick, Daniel McCormick’s son, contain an 1866 account for Nelly McCormick, who either purchased food items from him or received pay for her labor in those same items.

While Nelly’s life cannot be traced beyond 1866, census and marriage records may provide insight into the lives of one of her children and two of her grandchildren. The 1880 federal census lists a twenty-year-old Nelly McCormick as a servant and farmhand in the household of John McCormick and his wife, Grissella. A Cumberland County marriage license dated June 3 of that same year records the union of Robert Allen and twenty-six-year-old Sarah McCormick, daughter of Sally McCormick and Porter Williams. The aforementioned Nelly and Sarah McCormick may well have been sisters. Both of them could have been the daughters of Sally McCormick, Nelly’s daughter born around 1827.

nelly_1866_accnt-1280-x-720

Nelly McCormick’s 1866 purchases recorded in John McCormick’s account book.

For additional slave records in the McCormick, Green, and Shaw Collection, see PC.2130.1, folder 2; PC.2130.4, folder 4; and PC.2130.5, folder 5. The accounts, bills of sale, and wills therein identify many slaves’ names and owners. A search of census, marriage, birth, and death records may well provide insight into their lives after emancipation and the Civil War.

Treasures of Carolina: North Carolina Constitutional Reader

[This blog post was written by Andrea Gabriel, Outreach and Development Coordinator for the State Archives of North Carolina.]

Despite gaining the right to vote in 1870, African Americans could be circumvented from asserting their constitutional rights at the election polls, those in power often requiring literacy tests not required of white voters. The Permanent Registration Act of 1901 required African American voters to read and write any section of the U.S. or state Constitution.  In 1903, St. Augustine’s School (now St. Augustine’s University) published the North Carolina Constitutional Reader, Being a Hand Book for Primary Use in One, a primer “that the unlearned man and lad may commence with the Alphabets and learn step by step how to spell, and to read and write any section of the State Constitution.” G. E. Harris, its author, was a teacher in Littleton, North Carolina. The book contains twenty-four lessons describing the very basics of word spelling and pronunciation. The second half of the book replicates the North Carolina Constitution with each word accented. Lesson three presents Roman numerals that would be encountered in fourteen (XIV) articles in the Constitution.

North Carolina Constitutional Reader, 1903, Vault Collection.

North Carolina Constitutional Reader, 1903, Vault Collection.

This book is evidence that not only did African American males wishing to vote encounter arbitrary obstacles, but also that there were efforts in place to counteract them. Women, black and white, were denied the right to vote until 1920.

———————————————————————

A selection of the state’s historic documents will be exhibited in Treasures of Carolina: Stories from the State Archives of North Carolina at the Museum of History, October 24, 2015–June 19, 2016. Documents from the Archives vault, unique letters, historic photographs, public records, and other media will illuminate the myriad of ways in which the holdings of the State Archives document the workings of our government, provide evidence of civil liberties, and preserve the history and culture of North Carolina. This exhibit is sponsored by the Friends of the Archives and runs through June 19, 2016. Additional funding was provided by the N.C. Bar Association Foundation, the Raleigh Times, and Wells Fargo.

To learn more about the exhibit, please see: https://ncarchives.wordpress.com/tag/treasures-of-carolina/

For a full list of documents that will be on display only a limited time, see: https://ncarchives.wordpress.com/2015/09/09/plan-to-visit-treasures-of-carolina/

See the State Archives Facebook calendar or Dept. of Natural and Cultural Resources events calendar for more upcoming events.

First Wednesdays – Cohabitation Certificates

An example of cohabitation records indexed in the MARS online catalog.

An example of cohabitation records indexed in the MARS online catalog.

Collection Services Section Manager Debbi Blake wrote this month’s “First Wednesday” post for the North Carolina Civil War 150 blog. The post discusses cohabitation certificates and how they can be useful for researchers looking for records of African American marriages.

In addition to the blog post, there are other resources related to these records, including:

  • The MARS online catalog, which includes an index for many of the cohabitation materials.
  • The three-volume reference work Somebody Knows My Name: Marriages of Freed People in North Carolina County by County by Barnetta McGhee White, PhD.
  • Family Search page on the North Carolina cohabitation records.
  • North Carolina cohabitation records are available through Ancestry.com’s North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 page.

 

First Wednesdays – Cohabitation Certificates

[This blog post was written by Debbi Blake, Collection Services Section Manager for the State Archives of North Carolina.]

With the abolition of slavery came many questions about the rights of freedmen, one of which was how to validate marriages. This was answered by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1866 with an act allowing formerly enslaved couples to register their marriages in the county of their residence. This act provided proof that such unions had existed, often for decades. In North Carolina, such certificates were called cohabitation records, most of which are housed in the State Archives of North Carolina. Couples were to appear before 1 September 1866, although it was later amended in order to extend the period until 1 January 1868. The overwhelming majority of couples came before the clerk of court or justice of the peace during the first targeted period of March to September. This stampede resulted in the thousands of certificates in the Archives. [Read more…]

Summer of the Archives Series

Have you ever scrolled through the many items in the North Carolina Digital Collections and discovered a hidden treasure? Each week this summer we will highlight an item from our collection in the hopes of inspiring you to discover new-to-you materials in our digital collections.

Fifty-five years ago this week, on July 26, 1960, the first African Americans were served at the lunch counter in the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth. Almost six months previously, on February 1, 1960, four African American students from North Carolina A & T State University had attempted to integrate the “whites only” lunch counter, but were refused service. The students had just purchased school supplies in the store, and argued that if the store was willing to take their money for goods, they should also be willing to serve them at the lunch counter. Even though they were repeatedly asked to leave by the lunch counter staff and by police, the four students stayed seated until the store closed that night. The next day, twelve African Americans came to sit at the Woolworth lunch counter.

African American men seated at lunch counter, 1960.  [Call no. NO.2.10.1960.fr6a]

African American men seated at lunch counter, 1960. [Call no. NO.2.10.1960.fr6a]

The lunch counter sit-in protests quickly spread to other cities in North Carolina and across the South, and, in the end, these demonstrations led to the desegregation of many public spaces.

This photograph is part of the News and Observer Photograph Files, State Archives of North Carolina, and can be found in the Civil Rights digital collection at North Carolina Digital Collections. The Civil Rights collection includes photographs and documents from the 1950s through 1970s related to the Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina. Check out these articles at NCpedia for more information on the Greensboro Four and African American Civil Rights in North Carolina.

Voting Rights Act Exhibit Now Open in the State Archives Search Room

[This blog post was written by Josh Hager, Reference Archivist in the Reference Unit of the Collections Services Section.]

Voting Rights Act Exhibit Now Open in the State Archives Search Room

For the rest of February, the State Archives of North Carolina is proud to present the exhibit, “Democracy for All the People: The Voting Rights Act in North Carolina.” This exhibit commemorates both Black History Month and the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, signed into law in August 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Dr. Martin Luther King at NC Central, 1966 [Call number: N.98.7.70]

Dr. Martin Luther King at NC Central, 1966 [Call number: N.98.7.70]. Dr. King was generally considered the most prominent advocate for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to end the legal disenfranchisement of minorities at the ballot box. In certain states and counties until 1965, election officials had the right to prevent an African-American from registering to vote through the use of the poll tax and the literacy test. The poll tax required citizens to pay a tax in order to maintain their voter registration. The poll tax technically applied to both white and African-American citizens, but the relative poverty of the African-American population throughout the South meant that the poll tax served as an effective disenfranchisement tool. The average poll tax in 1900 was $1.00 which was roughly equivalent to the one-half of one percent of an African-American farm laborer’s annual income. [1]

The literacy test as a blanket term applies to any requirement that potential voters read or write a passage on demand or answer questions about government in order to vote. In practice, election officials used the literacy test to disenfranchise African-Americans through applying impossibly rigid standards to pass. In North Carolina, the literacy test required that citizens read or write a portion of the state constitution, although election officials would occasionally require a potential voter to recite a portion from memory if he or she successfully completed the initial task. The literacy test law also included an exemption for those citizens that election officials deemed to have a strong educational background, which effectively meant white officials exempted white voters.

Telegram, Shirley Jackson to Congressman Roy Taylor, April 2, 1965 [Call number: PC.1613.51]

Telegram, Shirley Jackson to Congressman Roy Taylor, April 2, 1965 [Call number: PC.1613.51]

North Carolina had a mixed record on voting rights before the Voting Rights Act. North Carolina first implemented the poll tax in 1902 and kept in on the books until 1920, when the General Assembly outlawed it. Certain counties stopped enforcing the literacy test over time, most notably Wake, Durham, and Mecklenburg. The combination of these factors led to a higher percentage of the African-American population having the ability to vote in North Carolina than in other states. However, many African-American North Carolinians faced disenfranchisement thanks to the literacy test. In fact, in 1959, the State Supreme Court upheld the legality of the literacy test as a prerequisite for voting despite the argument that the literacy test’s very existence violated the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed both the poll tax and the literacy test, amongst other measures designed to foster equality at the ballot box. African-American registration to vote skyrocketed throughout the South. However, the journey to passage was not easy. Many citizens and public officials fought against the Act, arguing that it was a federal overreach into the state matter of election management. “Democracy for All the People” contains letters from private citizens that document both sides of this often rancorous debate.

Look for more blogs in the weeks to come on specific subjects related to the Voting Rights Act in North Carolina. For now, we encourage you to visit the Search Room to see the exhibit and commemorate this important anniversary in modern American history.

[1] Richard M. Valelly, The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pg. 125-126.