Recalling an era when the color of your skin meant you paid to vote
In January 1955 in Hardin County, Texas, Leo Carr had to pay $1.50. He paid it so he could vote. That receipt for Carr's "poll tax" is now part of the collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. In today's dollars, Carr paid roughly $13.
"It's a day's wages," explains William Pretzer. He is the museum's senior history curator. "You're asking someone to pay a day's wages in order to be able to vote."
Pretzer says the museum accepted the donation of the receipt. It came from Carr's family. That was in 2012. Pretzer said the receipt is a vivid example of the way that voting rights were denied to African Americans. Poll taxes were, quite simply, a tax. It was to pay to vote. The taxes were enacted from the late 19th to the very early 20th century. They remained in effect until the 1960s.
March was the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision to strike down poll taxes. In November, voters will head to the polls. It is for the 2016 presidential election. Some people have suggested that voting rights are once again under attack.
"After the 1870s, particularly in the southern states, there was an effort to restrict any kind of political power for African Americans," Pretzer says. In the immediate post-Civil-War era, voting rights were accorded to African Americans in the South. Thousands registered. They voted and they ran for office. "There was great concern on the part of the white power structure that this was a revolution in their lives."
Southern legislators began to find ways of limiting African-American rights. One of the major ways was to enact barriers. These were to prevent blacks from voting. A series of laws were passed state by state in the South. They ranged from literacy tests to poll taxes. This was an effort to keep blacks as far out of politics as possible without violating the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment barred local governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color or previous condition of servitude."
By 1902, all 11 of the former Confederate states had enacted a poll tax. Other restrictions were enacted, too. These included comprehension tests, voter intimidation and worse.
But during the stormy battles of the civil rights movements, activists saw poll taxes and similar policies as barriers to the voting rights of African Americans. And they saw them as barriers for the poor.
In 1962, the 24th Amendment was proposed. It prohibited the right to vote in federal elections from being contingent on the payment of a poll tax. It was ratified in 1964. Five states still retained the use of poll taxes for local elections.
Two years later, on March 24, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that poll taxes for any level of election were unconstitutional.
Lena Carr says she donated the 1955 Texas poll tax receipt from her uncle. His name was Leo. She did it partly because she'd been surprised. It happened when she learned that her family had been involved in the battle for voting rights in the Civil Rights era. The family found the receipt in a suitcase. This was after Leo's mother passed away. When they went through it, there it was. It was nestled among old family pictures.
"I really was surprised. Because my uncle never really talked a lot about voting," says Carr. She is 54 years old. She lives in Kansas City. "It shocked me that he actually went out and participated and paid."
Carr says there was another reason she chose to donate this piece of her family's history. It's because she thought it would be useful and inspiring.
"A lot of the young people don't realize the things people had to go through to vote," Carr says.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did the poll tax have more impact on African Americans than whites?
Write your answers in the comments section below