Editor’s note: Amid current discussions about race relations in America and in Western North Carolina and in light of a recent event that looked at social and political attitudes around the time the region’s Confederate monuments were raised (see “Monumental Decisions” Jan. 31, Xpress), we present this historical look at perspectives on race in 1900. Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation as well as antiquated and offensive language are preserved from the original documents.
African-American men first exercised their right to vote in the 1868 election. By 1870, this right was adopted into the U.S. Constitution under the 15th Amendment. Tension surrounding its passage continued throughout the final three decades of the 19th century, often resulting in violence and death. By 1898, the Democrats, who at the time identified as conservatives, began a white supremacy campaign. (See “Blood and Ballots: African-Americans’ Battle for the Vote in WNC,” Oct. 6, 2016, Xpress)
In 1900, North Carolina was set to vote on an amendment to its state constitution. Literacy tests were among the additions proposed. Illiterate white men, however, didn’t have to worry. This point was made clear in a Jan. 30, 1900, Q&A in The Asheville Daily Citizen. Titled, “WHITE SUPREMACY MADE PERMANENT,” the piece answered inquiries and concerns surrounding the amendment. Would, for example, uneducated white men have to pass a literacy test in order to cast a ballot? The paper answered:
“Certainly not. Under it any white man who could vote at any time before 1867, or whose ancestors (that is, his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, etc.) could vote at any time before 1867, can register — whether he can read and write or not[.]”
The follow-up question asked: “Why this difference between the white man and the negro?” The paper responded:
“Why bless your soul, it is a matter of natural understanding and capacity. The white man has more sense and capacity than the negro, and by nature understands the duties and responsibilities of suffrage and citizenship better than the negro; and the Democratic party holds that the uneducated white man can be trusted to cast a more intelligent vote than even an educated negro.”
The vote for the amendment would not take place until Aug. 2, 1900. In the meantime, a push for its passage took several forms, including the creation of Asheville’s own Young Men’s White Supremacy club. On June 27, 1900, The Asheville Daily Citizen reported on the organization’s inaugural meeting, held the previous night. Among its speakers was a Dr. Paquin. According to the paper:
“Dr. Paquin declared that the amendment ought to be carried in such a way as would convince the people of the north that the question was of supremacy of the white man, and not a partisan one. … He declared that it was ridiculous and absurd to give the negro or any other debased race political equity with the Anglo-Saxon. Dr. Paquin’s speech pleased the club so much that it was resolved to ask him to write out his views for publication.”
On July, 30 1900, three days before the vote, a torchlight procession was held in downtown Asheville. The following day, The Citizen reported on the event: “There were 1200 to 1500 people in the parade and thousands of spectators thronged the sidewalks. … Old men and boys, ladies and children, caught the enthusiasm of the hour and shouted themselves hoarse.”
The article went on to include the “many transparencies [that] were carried in the procession.” According to the paper, some of these signs read:
- “We are for disfranchising negroes; [Rep. Richmond] Pearson disfranchised white men.”
- “All coons look alike to us.”
- “Give white supremacy 1000 in Buncombe.”
- “White supremacy is life; black supremacy is death.”
On Aug. 2 the state voted on the amendment. The following day, a headline in The Asheville Daily Citizen read, “The Expected Has Happened.” The amendment was ratified. The article declared:
“The constitutional amendment submitted to the people of North Carolina in yesterday’s election made an issue between white men and colored men — between the Anglo-Saxon and all ‘lesser breeds.’ It also presented a political test of the natural law of the survival of the fittest; and the purblind politicans who thought to defeat its ratification not only discredited the traditions of the most masterful race the world has yet seen, but arrayed themselves in opposition to a well-recognized law of all being.
“The amendment has been ratified, and the government of state and county has been committed to the party which stands for white supremacy, by overwhelming majorities; and it is hoped that the lesson of this result will not be lost on those partisans and theorists, here and elsewhere, who have thought it possible for the white men of their country to yield any considerable share in their government to an alien and inferior race. The principles of equality before the law and majority rule are sacred, when properly understood and applied, but they will never in this country be so understood or applied as to put negroes in authority over white men. Every attempt so to apply them has been productive of evil, and only evil, for the negro race, and the only hope of peace and prosperity for that race is in its frank recognition of this truth.”
On Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act. It aimed to overcome legal barriers, such as literacy tests, that prevented African-Americans from exercising their right to vote.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on July 10, 2020 to accurately reflect the spelling of Dr. Paquin.