Hal Roth - July 2009

 

Old News from Delmarva:
To Limit the Right of Suffrage
by
Hal Roth

   While preparing to write “No Secrets Between Us” some years ago, a story about several mostly forgotten Ku Klux Klan activities on the Peninsula in the 1920s, I received admonishments against doing so by several friends, both black and white. “Let it rest,” one instructed me. “No good can come from bringing all of that up again.”
    I said then and still believe that remembering and intelligently evaluating everything in our past, not just those incidents that it pleases us to recall, is necessary to the process of advancing any society. “History forgotten,” we have been correctly admonished, “is history repeated.” While it is most doubtful that the United States as a nation or Maryland as a state could ever again indulge in the degree of racial discrimination that darkens some pages of our history, it is important to remember the journey that brought us to where we stand today.
    The comments made to me in advance of that story’s completion were withdrawn once the article was read, and I received a number of positive comments from the general public. So here I go again!
    While scanning newspapers for my report on the 1909 Denton Automobile Show in last month’s Tidewater Times, I came across an editorial in the Denton Journal that shocked me. It was dated May 1, 1909 and titled “AN IMPERATIVE DUTY.”
   “At the behest, oft expressed, of a vast majority of the solid citizens of this State, the Democratic Party of Maryland will this year address itself to the urgent task of having passed an amendment to the Constitution, properly limiting the right of suffrage. This work is undertaken not alone because of the demand within the party at present responsible for the State’s government, but in respect to the wishes of very many of other parties also. The great suffrage privilege has too long been held down to the lowest levels by bestowing it upon those unfitted for it. A startling condition presents itself now. Right here in Maryland is found today a more politically potential force of colored, illiterate, irresponsible voters than in any of the states of the South, for there restrictions upon them have been enacted into law, which may not be set aside, and there is, indeed, now no serious disposition to set them at naught, even by the highest Republican authority in the land, so apparent is their good effect. For years there has been a pronounced feeling in Maryland that the great and ever-increasing body of colored voters, who have no care or thought for the welfare of the State, constitutes a public menace. Expression of this feeling has been given again and again at the polls since the year the great mass of those unfitted for suffrage duty were enfranchised against the will of practically all of the white people of the State. The good citizens have realized with alarm the tremendous power of sixty thousand men, voting as a unit, solely at the dictation of a controlling faction of the Republican organization and with no regard of themselves for the public weal or the interest of property owners. Many conservative Republicans now know right well the visible effect of the elevation to a position of commanding importance of the thousands of thoughtless and easily led among the great colored force. The effect of the negro’s power in politics is seen most plainly in the farmer’s labor troubles, and he is made to realize most clearly that the measure, adopted before the heat of sectional strife had abated, was, after all, a bad piece of business for the people generally, including the colored man, who would have been better off in every way had restrictions been made then as now sought to be provided.   Who can doubt that had such restrictions been imposed in the early ’70s, the colored people of Maryland would have been in a far better condition in every way today? Not so many of them would have been voters. They would not have been such a factor in State politics as they have been for nearly forty years, but there would have been stimulated among them a pride of citizenship, we believe, that would have been of great material help to the whole race here. The spectacle now manifest at the various penal institutions and in all criminal courts, where four fifths of the cases are of the irresponsible ones of the race, would not be so marked. The indiscriminate, unrestricted franchise has worked infinite harm to these irresponsibles and helped to make of them a very expensive public burden, as well as a serious hindrance to the thrifty, industrious and law-abiding colored people. And who can measure the harm that has been done in four decades in thus debasing the suffrage of the great Commonwealth?
   “There are earnest efforts at far-reaching reforms throughout the country; let us all here in Maryland unite to elevate the electorate to its proper place and pass the amendment to the Constitution. It will preserve the inalienable right of every white man, and no colored man of the thrifty or intelligent class will in any manner be deprived of suffrage. In such hands the great privilege firmly established by the blood of our forefathers will be raised again to the plane it once occupied and on which it should ever remain.”
    For a moment I sat stunned at my desk, hardly able to imagine that the Maryland Democratic Party had ever sponsored such a movement or that such an editorial would be published in a prominent public gazette.
    Many with little interest in history may also find it confusing to hear such negative statements about African Americans coming from a press obviously supporting the Democratic Party, but for many years after slavery was abolished, the black vote went primarily to Republican candidates, the party of Lincoln, the Emancipator, but that is another story.
    Upon further examination of newspaper archives, I soon discovered that such journalism was widespread on Delmarva and also filled with the bitter division that then existed between our political parties. Consider this 1879 report from the Easton Ledger:
   “The Republicans are indulging in their periodical abuse of the colored voter, after using him for election day purposes. Here is what the Talbot Times, whose editor is a member of the Republican State Central Committee, has to say of him. ‘As a race they can no longer be depended upon, and the best thing the party can do is to cut loose from them as a class entirely and leave them totally out of their calculations. Let them form an independent party or go over to the Democrats if they wish. It may be disastrous for the Republican Party for a few years, but in the end it will be to our advantage.’
   “To which the Denton Journal well replies that the Talbot Republicans would make a woefully poor showing if even one-third of the colored voters left them. There are in this county maybe five hundred white men and three times that many colored men who vote the Republican ticket. How the handful of whites can ever expect to win an election without the army of blacks, when it is only at rare intervals they can win even a partial victory with the aid of their black allies, is a mystery to us. Maybe Editor Mullikin can explain how it is to be done. We certainly cannot.
   “The fact is the Republicans could never carry a county in the State but for the black voters. These black voters elected Lloyd Lowndes Governor. They elected Malster Mayor. They elected Wellington Senator. They elected Phil Goldsborough Comptroller. They elected Clay Mullikin State’s Attorney and George Trax County Commissioner. But for them, not one of these gentlemen would now be in office. How foolish it is, then, to talk of Republican success without their aid.
   “The Republican party has looked upon the colored man as its chattel, to do with as it has seen fit. The Republican bosses would own – and have owned – the black voters body and soul. They have worked upon the ignorance and the prejudices, the fears and the passions of the negroes until these poor creatures were made to believe that a failure to vote the Republican ticket would mean damnation here and hereafter for themselves, their families and their friends. They have been cajoled and driven and threatened, until in some localities right here in Maryland it is almost worth his life for any black man to say openly that he is a Democrat.
   “Times are changing for the negro, however. He is becoming more enlightened, and the more enlightened he becomes the less blindly he follows those self-appointed Republican slave drivers. Astute Republicans see this. They also see in the new condition of things all their hopes of political success blasted forever.
   “Even so, it is basest ingratitude for this handful of whites to kick and cuff and spurn and spit upon the black men who alone have made it possible for them even to have preserved a political organization.”
    And you thought today’s media was biased in its reporting.
    Attempts to pass a state constitutional amendment to deny suffrage to black voters did not begin in 1909. Following is an excerpt from a document produced by the Democratic State Committee, chaired in 1905 by former governor E. E. Jackson.
   “States south of us having deprived negroes of the right to vote, the negroes are moving to States where they can vote as rapidly as they can find employment. Our registration books show that they are already moving into our State. If we adopt this amendment, this moving horde of Southern blacks will cross Maryland into Ohio or Pennsylvania, but if we defeat it, and thereby offer negroes political equality with whites as well as the hope of employment, we shall attract such swarms of Southern negroes, who are accustomed to working for low wages, as will prove a serious menace to the peace and good order of the State as well as to the welfare of our laborers and mechanics.
   “The prosperity of our merchants and manufacturers and other business men depends largely upon our Southern trade. The Southern people buy in Baltimore largely because they look upon Maryland as a Southern State. The entire South, from Texas to Virginia, had declared for white supremacy. If we declare against white supremacy and thereby ally ourselves with the radical element of the North; if we arrogate to ourselves a political wisdom counter to our Southern customers, and by our action condemn their position, we may to a great extent destroy that friendly feeling upon which our Southern trade so largely depends.
   “Experience shows that the negro grows more insolent and lawless when a party is in power by means of negro votes; he feels his importance and, to some extent, feels that he will be protected in doing as he pleases.
   “The adoption of this amendment will not only check the influx of blacks from the South, but establishing white supremacy will make the negroes who are here less insolent, and will render our homes and firesides more secure.”
    The battle to disenfranchise black voters in Maryland in the early twentieth century could easily fill a volume or two, but I have run out of space to report it here. I shall add, however, that I found it incredibly ironic to discover the following two court decisions reported back-to-back in the same newspaper that decried Marylanders of African descent as “a very expensive public burden” because of their disproportionate numbers in Maryland penal institutions.
   “Robert Collins, charged with stealing a horse and carriage, was found guilty. County Commissioner Wright spoke in the man’s behalf, and on motion of the State’s Attorney, who held in view the prisoner’s previous good reputation, the court paroled the accused, sentence being suspended.”
   “John Spicer, colored, charged with the larceny of a chicken, was tried before the court on Wednesday, found guilty, and sent to jail for four months.”
    Such disparities in the administration of justice between the races began early in our history, and some might argue that they have not entirely been removed to this day. I challenge you to find a punishment inflicted on any European colonist in Maryland such as was imposed on seven black men in April 1742.
   “At the Provincial Court held this month, seven negroes receiv’d sentence of death for the murder of their Master, Jeremiah PATTISON, about a year ago, which was never discovered ’till lately, when one of them, principally concern’d, confess’d that he and his fellow slaves murder’d their Master as he lay in bed asleep, by choaking and smothering him; and that he could not be easy since, ’till he made the discovery [admitted the crime]. Their sentence was to be carried to the gallows, and first have their right hands cut off, then to be hang’d ’till dead, then their heads cut off, and their bodies to be cut in quarters and hung up in different publik places. Wednesday was the day of execution.”

   You can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com