Recalling an era when the color of your skin meant you paid to vote On March 24, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Harper v. Virginia Board of Electors, that poll taxes for any level of election were unconstitutional. (NMAAHC/AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)
Recalling an era when the color of your skin meant you paid to vote
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In January 1955 in Hardin County, Texas, Leo Carr had to pay $1.50 to vote. That receipt for Carr's "poll tax" now resides in 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, 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 from Carr's family in 2012 as a vivid example of the way that voting rights were denied to African Americans. Poll taxes, quite simply a tax to pay to vote, were enacted from the late 19th to the very early 20th century. But they remained in effect until the 1960s.
 
March was the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision to strike down poll taxes. And as voters head to the polls for the 2016 presidential elections, some, including former U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, have suggested that voting rights are once again under siege.
 
"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, when voting rights were accorded to African Americans in the south, thousands registered, voted and 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 to prevent them from voting. A series of laws were passed state by state in the south, ranging 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, which prohibited governments in the nation 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, along with other measures including comprehension tests, voter intimidation and worse.
 
But during the tumultuous battles of the civil rights movements, activists saw poll taxes and similar policies as barriers to the voting rights of African Americans and the poor.
 
In 1962, the 24th Amendment was proposed, prohibiting 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, Leo, partly because of her surprise 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, after Leo's mother passed away. When they went through it, there it was, nestled among old family pictures.
 
"I really was surprised, because my uncle never really talked a lot about voting," says Carr, 54, who lives in Kansas City. "It shocked me that he actually went out and participated and paid."
 
Carr says the other reason she chose to donate this piece of her family's history is 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.
 
Carr says that she is concerned about the voting restrictions that are being enacted in states ranging from Texas to Virginia to Wisconsin.
 
In 2012, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder blasted Texas over its voter ID law, saying "we call those poll taxes," adding that many of those without IDs "would have to travel great distances to get them, and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them."
 
Smithsonian curator Bill Pretzer sees similarities.
 
"You have to have a particular kind of ID," he explains. That includes identification offered through the state or federal government, military IDs, a state handgun license, a U.S. citizenship certificate, or a U.S. passport.
 
"The kinds of documentation that's needed for this voter ID costs money," Pretzer says. "An individual who doesn't have their own transportation, or would need to take time off on an hourly basis . . . is going to suffer economically."
 
The Department of Justice is in ongoing litigation related to voter ID laws in both Texas and North Carolina, saying both states laws would "have the result of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group."
 
Texas was allowed to enforce its law during the 2014 elections.
 
Last August, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the Texas law discriminated against African-American and Latino voters. But it also said that a district court must re-examine its conclusion that Texas acted with discriminatory purpose, and that the lower court should seek ways to change the voter law without overturning it entirely.
 
At the time, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a statement saying the intent of the law "is to protect the voting process in Texas." He noted that the U.S. Court of appeals had rejected the claim that the law was a poll tax. The full 15-member Fifth Circuit has voted to hear the case again. Paxton called the decision "a strong step forward in (Texas') efforts to defend the state's voter ID laws."
 
The Carr family poll tax receipt will likely go on view in the new museum (which opens on September 24) some time in 2018. Until then, it will become available online. Pretzer says such artifacts are important because they make real something that is hard to imagine.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did the poll tax have more impact on African Americans than whites?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (47)
  • blakeolson-dia
    9/09/2016 - 11:44 a.m.

    Because they had to pay to vote. The whites didn't have to pay to vote. They had a law saying african americans had a pole tax

  • irisp-ste
    9/13/2016 - 09:02 a.m.

    Through all the years that the poll tax for voting was in place, African Americans continued to face harsh Jim Crowe laws that restricted them from having enough money to pay the toll to cast their vote. For white Americans, the poll tax did not matter. They had much better opportunities to make money compared to blacks, so the toll was only a small fee.

  • jahir-orv
    9/13/2016 - 07:18 p.m.

    because at the time the African Americans were still recovering from slavery and also the Jim-crow/segregation events going in around the country. That prevented the black race from going to good schools. Also the black economy the people were poor and might not have had enough money to vote.

  • emmab-cel
    9/19/2016 - 10:53 a.m.

    I really like learning about the history of our country and this is a big part in it that schools don't teach a lot. Its sad that people discriminated back then but what is worse is how it is still happening today.

  • betom-fil
    9/21/2016 - 06:11 p.m.

    The poll tax had more impact on the African Americans than whites because " A series of laws were passed state by state in the south, ranging from literacy tests to poll taxes." The Voter ID Law proposed in Texas is similar to the poll tax in that they both have the "we call those poll taxes," adding that many of those without IDs "would have to travel great distances to get them, and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them."

  • crisf-fil
    9/21/2016 - 06:14 p.m.

    The poll had more impact on African Americans then white because "After the 1870s, particularly in the southern states, there was an effort to restrict any kind of political power for African Americans" (last 1). The Voter ID Law proposed in Texas is similar to the poll tax in that they both.... Poll taxes, quite simply a tax to pay to vote

  • josha-fil
    9/29/2016 - 08:30 p.m.

    Poll tax had more impact on African Americans than whites because black Americans compromised as much as 40 percent of the population or more in southern states. Their votes were very significant, also the Jim Crowe laws restricted black Americans from having enough money to cast a vote.

  • briannaf-fil
    9/29/2016 - 09:53 p.m.

    One of the things that caught my eye is before you had to pay to vote and now if you do its expensive.Because at the time the African Americans were still recovering from slavery and also the Jim-crow/segregation events going in around the country.But it also said that a district court must re-examine its conclusion that Texas acted with discriminatory purpose, and that the lower court should seek ways to change the voter law without overturning it entirely.

  • chrisv-fil
    9/30/2016 - 01:01 a.m.

    The poll tax had more of an impact on African Americans than whites because African Americans had to pay a poll tax in order to vote. "Poll taxes were, quite simply, a tax to pay to vote. They were enacted from the late 19th to the very early 20th century. They remained in effect until the 1960s. (Keyes, Allison. "Recalling an Era When the Color of Your Skin Meant You Paid to Vote." Smithsonian.com, 8 Sept. 2016. Web.)" The poll tax was also used as a way to discourage African American voters to vote and was used to restrict any kind of political power for African Americans. "Southern legislators began to find ways of limiting African-American rights. One of the major ways was to enact barriers to prevent them from voting. A series of laws were passed state by state in the south ... 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, which prohibited governments in the nation from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color or previous condition of servitude. (Keyes, Allison. "Recalling an Era When the Color of Your Skin Meant You Paid to Vote." Smithsonian.com, 8 Sept. 2016. Web.)" Although poll taxes were removed and deemed unconstitutional in March, 24 1966 there are different forms of taxes that still target African Americans and different ethnicities. "Two years later, on March 24, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that poll taxes for any level of election were unconstitutional... voter ID laws in both Texas and North Carolina, saying both states laws would "have the result of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group."(Keyes, Allison. "Recalling an Era When the Color of Your Skin Meant You Paid to Vote." Smithsonian.com, 8 Sept. 2016. Web.) "




  • crisf-fil
    9/30/2016 - 08:03 p.m.

    African Americans where not being treated write in the 19th century even today we still see racing, African Americans where being treated different from the white people the African Americans had to pay to vote unlike the white they didn't have to. The poll tax has more impact in African Americans then whites because the poll taxes was an effort to keep the African Americans as far out of politics as possible without violating the 15th amendment to the U.S. constitution.

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