I first voted in the 1972 elections; as far as I know, my parents have voted in every election since 1954.  But, of course, not all of my ancestors had the right to vote.

The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, provides:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

This Reconstruction-era measure was necessary to ensure that all the former Confederate states and a number of Northern ones did not deny the right to vote to the former slaves.  In some places, however, blacks were registered to vote before the Fifteenth Amendment.  Milam County, Texas, was one such place.

A transcription of the 1867-1869 Milam County Voter Registration records contains the following:
412 9 Jul 1867 Sanford, A. W. TN
1093 15 Aug 1867 Sanford, Manuel TN colored
1285 20 Nov 1869 Sanford, Joe TN colored
1298 20 Nov 1869 Sanford, R. H. TN
1305 20 Nov 1869 Sanford, George TN colored

The number to the left is the voter registration number; the date is the date he registered to vote. The two letter abbreviation is the place of birth of the voter. Voter No. 412, Archer Wood Sanford, and Voter No. 1298, Rueben Henry Sanford, were landowning brothers from Williamson County, Tennessee.  In 1854, they re-located with their mother, siblings, and slaves to Milam County, Texas.  The other Sanford voters listed were the former slaves.  I should note that I have no evidence that they ever actually voted.

Among the former Sanford slaves was my great-great-grandfather, William Sanford (1809-1916).   He was the oldest of the Sanford slaves, having been with the family in Virginia before the went to Tennessee.  He’s not listed among the registered voters.  I have no idea what to make of that fact.  I also don’t know if he was related to the other black Sanfords.

The end of Reconstruction brought the effective end of “Negro suffrage” as well in most places.  A long struggle commenced for black voting rights, culminating in the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the price was high: murder, assaults, intimidation and unjustifiable arrests were typically used to discourage blacks from voting.

In Texas, the most liberal of the former Confederate states, however, Jim Crow voting laws weren’t enacted until the early 1900’s.  In 1906, Texas then enacted a law that permitted Democratic party county organizations to judge the qualifications of voters for the primary election. (Until the 1980’s, the Democrats were the only party that mattered in Texas).  Some county committees added “white man” to the statutory criteria.  However, from time to time, depending on political needs, these same county committees would announce that Negroes would be allowed to vote.

Later,  Texas adopted a statute that provided, “in no event shall a negro be eligible to participate in a Democratic party primary election held in the State of Texas.”  This law was challenged by a black physician, L.A. Nixon, and was declared unconstitutional by a unanimous United States Supreme Court in 1927.

Texas quickly enacted a new provision to continue restrictions on voter participation, granting authority to political parties to determine who should vote in their primaries. Within four months the Executive Committee of the Democratic Party passed a resolution that “all white Democrats … and none other” be allowed to participate in any primary election thereafter.

Five years later, Dr. Nixon reappeared before the Supreme Court in another suit against the “white man’s” primary.  Again, the law was struck down.

In the 1940’s, most of my relatives moved away from Milam County.  Some went elsewhere in Texas, but two brothers, my grandfather Quentin Vennis Harold Manson and his older brother, Carl Edward Manson, ended up in Los Angeles.  Both registered to vote there in the 1940’s as California then had no laws disadvantaging any citizen from the franchise.

Uncle Carl registered to vote in Los Angeles as soon as he got there in 1940. Voter registration records show him and his first wife, Marie, living at 5820 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.   Carl’s occupation is given as “salesman” (he owned a millinery shop) and Marie is “at home.”  Both registered as Democrats.  They maintained the same registration in 1942.  In 1944, however, they had moved to 131 South  Wetherly  Drive, and Carl’s occupation was given as “aircraft” (he worked in one of the many airplane manufacturing facilities in Southern California at the time).

Carl Manson in front of his hat shop in Los Angeles, 1966

Carl Manson in front of his hat shop in Los Angeles, 1966

Interestingly, in 1946, Carl became a Republican as the couple moved to 226 East 30th Street in Los Angeles.  In 1948, they were still at that address and both Carl and Marie were Republicans.  But by 1950, having moved to  1109 Hartsock Street, they were Democrats again.  They switched parties again to Republican in 1952 and moved to 175 East 49th Street.  I don’t know what all the party switching was about.  I speculate, however, that in 1952, they were for Eisenhower rather than Adlai Stevenson–choosing the war hero over the “egghead.”

Strangely enough, in 1954, Carl and Marie Manson were registered in two different places in two different parties.  At the 1952 address of 175 East 49th Street, they were Republicans.  At 14415 Haas Avenue, they were Democrats. This  must have been the result of moving in the middle of the year and re-registering in the new place.  No dates are given on the Los Angeles voter records.  1954 is the last year that they appear in the voter records. Carl lived another 29 years and I don’t know what became of Marie after they divorced.   Carl’s second wife, Izola, does not appear  at all in the voter records.

Grandpa Quentin, Carl’s younger brother, first registered to vote in California in 1946. He was a consistent Democrat.  From 1946 to 1954, he moved just twice: from 1710 South Central Avenue to 221 West 41st Place. Like Carl, he doesn’t appear in the voter records again after 1954.

I’ve voted in every election since I first voted in 1972–even in 1984 when I was in the Air Force in Great Britain.  These days, I’m what California calls (unfortunately and inaccurately) a “permanent absentee voter.” All that really means is that I vote by mail instead of standing in line at a polling place.  So as I write this on Halloween night, it’s been a week since I voted.

As for the rest of you, quit reading and go out and vote! For whether you’re white or black, the elective franchise has been purchased for you with your ancestors’ blood.


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November 2008
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