The history of the African-American vote in Western North Carolina is “a long and tangled thing,” says Dr. Dan Pierce, history professor at UNC-Asheville.
African-American men first exercised their right to vote in the 1868 election. While their numbers were not high in Western North Carolina, Pierce notes, the state’s white party affiliation was evenly divided, which put the Republican Party at a distinct advantage, as former slaves heavily favored the party of Lincoln.
The possibility that the state’s Democratic stronghold would go to the Republican Party led to “fears of the elections turning violent,” says Dr. Steven E. Nash, assistant professor of history at East Tennessee State University. These fears quickly manifested in bloodshed.
This history continues to shape North Carolina’s political landscape. Most recently it played a role in the federal appeals court decision to strike down the state’s voter identification law. In the unanimous decision by its three judges — Diana Motz, James A. Wynn Jr. and Henry F. Floyd — the court writes, “Examination of North Carolina’s history of race discrimination and recent patterns of official discrimination, combined with the racial polarization of politics in the state, seems particularly relevant in this inquiry.” Within the same 83-page document, Motz adds, “Unquestionably, North Carolina has a long history of race discrimination generally and race-based vote suppression in particular.”
In Nash’s recent book, Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), the historian chronicles the political and social struggles that arose in Western North Carolina in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Nash argues that there remains a significant gap in our understanding of this history. When the Civil War began in 1861, African-Americans made up roughly 10 percent of the mountain counties’ populations. “That fact,” writes Nash, “led many popular observers and historians to conclude that the region was less committed to slavery, hence less devoted to the Confederacy and finally, less affected by emancipation.”
Both Nash and Pierce concur that this is far from the case — that racial tension filled the valleys and mountains of Western North Carolina before, during and after the Civil War, leading to intimidation, violence, murder and eventually the disenfranchisement of the African-American vote. This issue would not be rectified until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, before again finding its way back into the national conversation following the initial passing and subsequent invalidation of North Carolina’s voter ID law.
‘The hotbed of rebellion’
A series of surrenders in the spring of 1865 led to the end of the Civil War. The 13th Amendment, which freed the slaves, was ratified by the states on Dec. 6 of that year. Over the next five years, the 14th and 15th Amendments would be ratified. The former granted citizenship to the recently freed slaves, while the latter gave black male citizens the right to vote.
Tension mounted leading up to the gubernatorial and Constitutional Election of 1868. The Reconstruction Act had been passed the previous year, converting all the former Confederate states into military districts. The Freedmen’s Bureau, a government agency, was brought in to help the South adjust from slave to paid labor. One of its members, Oscar Eastmond, deemed Asheville “the hot-bed of rebellion in this section of the state,” following an attack on members of Asheville’s Union League, a Northern organization cultivating loyalty to the Union and the Republican Party, which spread throughout the South following the war. The attack was carried out by Southern Democrats (who at that time identified as conservatives).
By April of 1868, the Ku Klux Klan was reported in the region. Its members, writes Nash, “permeated the conservative-controlled courts and local law enforcement.” The historian adds that conservatives embraced the organization out of a sense of “powerlessness and racial alarm.”
Much of this worry stemmed from the rhetoric of such prominent conservative leaders as North Carolina’s former Civil War-years governor, Zebulon Vance. In a party meeting in Rutherford County, Vance gave a three-hour speech during which, Nash writes, Vance urged his listeners to “defend their white skin. … To oppose the integration of the militia, to denounce social equality as black supremacy, and to save their children from the indignity of integrated schools.”
Such alarm predictably led to violence against blacks, as well as whites who supported equal rights. While Nash writes of numerous accounts throughout the region, in conversation he highlights two events that took place in Asheville.
“Virgil Lusk was a white man from Buncombe County,” Nash says. “He was a lawyer who volunteered and served as a Confederate cavalryman during the war.” After the war, however, Lusk became a Republican. “This made him a ‘scalawag,’” Nash continues, “which is somewhat of a derisive term that white Southerners gave to other white Southerners who became Republicans.”
As solicitor of the 12th Judicial District, Lusk would challenge the Klan, making several enemies in the process. One such foe was former Confederate, Klan member and founder of the Asheville Citizen, Randolph A. Shotwell.
In 1869 Shotwell chastised Lusk in the public square (Pack Square) for his accusations against the white supremacy group, raising a rattan cane and dealing numerous blows to the solicitor’s head and back. Lusk fell to the ground as Shotwell continued to beat him. Lusk managed to pull out his .32-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol, shooting Shotwell in the leg. “It’s this big local event,” says Nash, adding that Shotwell would go on to be “one of the few Klansmen in the South that [went] to federal jail.”
The Asheville Riot of 1868 marks another significant event in the city’s history. On Nov. 3 of that year, James Smith, a black resident, was denied the right to vote by a white county clerk on account of a previous criminal record. “Following the exchange of heated words and a brief altercation, angry blacks and whites took to the streets, waving clubs and voicing their discontent with the other side,” writes Nash.
The exact cause of the escalation remains unclear. Nash cites historians who attribute it to an altercation between Smith (a Republican) and a fellow African-American named Silas, who had voted conservative. Court testimonies assert that Smith threw a rock at Silas. Whites came to Silas’ side, hoisting guns and taking aim from nearby storefronts.
By the time the final shot rang out, Smith was dead. Eighteen other African-Americans were wounded, as were two whites. A letter written by Harriet Jones, daughter of Congressman Alexander H. Jones (who coincidentally had been housing Smith until his death), attributed the violence to the Klan.
Amid this violence and unrest, the Republican Party managed to win the election. William Holden was elected governor. The victory, Nash notes, had a double-edged effect. In one sense, it showed intimidation could not deter the will of the people. But it also led national policymakers to view the Republican win as evidence that congressional Reconstruction had worked. The Freedmen’s Bureau agents were ordered to leave North Carolina by Jan. 1, 1869.
Without the agency’s presence, the Klan became a prominent force throughout the state. On Feb. 26, 1870, Wyatt Outlaw, a black Republican, was found dead, hanging from a tree outside the Alamance County Courthouse. Three months later, John W. Stephens, a white Republican, was stabbed to death in the Caswell County Courthouse. Between 1868 and 1872 there were over 100 whippings of African-Americans in Rutherford County alone.
Yet the Rutherford Western Vindicator, much like the Raleigh Daily Sentinel, denied the very existence of the Klan. Nash writes that both papers accused “the Republican victims of fabricating stories of violence for political purposes.”
That same year, Democrats regained control of the legislature. By 1871 Gov. Holden was impeached, a result of fallout from his mobilization of the state’s militia against the Klan. In 1876, Zebulon Vance returned to his former position as governor.
It wouldn’t be until the 1898 election, however, that the Democrats began their white supremacy campaign, referring to themselves as the “white man’s party.” Following the Democratic victory, new voting laws were put into place. “But because of the 15th Amendment,” says Pierce, “they couldn’t just disenfranchise black voters, so they had to find a way to do it.” Pierce points out this was done primarily through the poll tax and literacy tests.
‘The South is the best place in the world for a decent negro to make a decent living”
In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of “separate but equal.” The case marks the start of what is known as the Jim Crow era in the South. In the decades that followed, African-Americans would not fare well.
In North Carolina, the black population steadily dropped. Immediately after the Civil War, African-Americans constituted a third of the state’s overall population. By 1940, the number was down to 27.5 percent. In 1900 there were 18 black majority counties; by 1940, this number fell to nine. A Chatham County study conducted in the 1920s showed that the average annual income of 102 black tenants was $257; comparable statistics revealed an average white tenant’s income was $626.
Black citizens faced many health issues. In A History of African Americans in North Carolina, by Jeffrey J. Crow, Paul D. Escott and Flora J. Hatley, the historians write that in 1940, black “deaths from tuberculosis, syphilis, and malaria were one-and-one-half times as great as whites’ deaths from the same diseases.” Crow, Escott and Flora go on to note that there was “one white physician for every 1,127 white persons, but only one black physician for every 6,499 black persons.”
Housing was yet another need. The historians write that a 1939–40 report showed that “80 percent of black families lived in substandard housing, and two thirds of black households earned less than $800 per year.”
These factors influenced the large number of African-Americans who left the state. A 1919 Department of Labor report quotes one migrant who left for Iowa, who noted that there were better educational opportunities in the North, as well as better wages, shorter hours and “the privilege of voting.”
Problems arose with the departure of so many of the state’s residents. In 1916, 87 percent of the state’s counties reported labor shortages. In 1920, Governor Thomas Bickett addressed the General Assembly, proclaiming that the state would welcome back 25,000 African-Americans. “[T]he South is the best place in the world for a decent negro to make a decent living,” the governor said. He went on to note, however, that the state was not interested in “negroes [who] have become tainted or intoxicated with dreams of social equality or of political dominion … for in the South such things are forever impossible.”
Five years later, Bickett’s successor, Governor Angus W. McLean, addressed a crowd at the Negro State Fair. During this speech he chided, “There is no longer a real race problem in the South. It exists only in the minds of those, white and colored, who are seeking selfish advancement; who are trying to intimidate others, and have no better weapon than the cowardly appeal to racial prejudice and racial antipathy.”
One hundred years later
Boycotts against segregation began as early as the 1930s. Historians Crow, Escott and Hatley write that in 1932, black ministers in Raleigh refused to attend the dedication ceremony of the new War Memorial Auditorium, on account of the small section of the balcony blacks were confined to. In Greensboro in 1938, black citizens boycotted theaters.
School boycotts began in the 1940s, with the help of the NAACP. The 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education put an end to segregation in public schools (although Crow, Escott and Hatley note, “Complete desegregation of North Carolina’s public schools did not occur until the 1970s”).
By the 1960s, North Carolina students adopted civil disobedience as a way to protest segregation in public facilities. The F. W. Woolworth in Greensboro took center stage on Feb. 1, 1960, when four black students from North Carolina A&T College sat at the lunch counter at the five-and-dime. The students remained at the counter until the store closed without being offered service. Crow, Escott and Hatley write, “This action by the four Greensboro students is generally credited with being the opening salvo of the sit-in movement of the early 1960s.”
On Aug. 6, 1965, 100 years after the Civil War, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act. It put an end to the very laws that had disenfranchised black voters at the turn of the century.
Between 1965 and 2013, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act prohibited North Carolina — along with six other Southern states that had used literacy tests and other voting impediments — from making any changes to its statewide voting laws without first gaining approval from either a federal court or the Department of Justice.
On June 25, 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court ruled that the supervision dictated by Section 5 imposed an unconstitutional intrusion on state autonomy. The following day, the North Carolina state legislature moved forward with what would become the voter ID law. In it, early voting was reduced from 17 to 10 days; same-day registration, as well as provisional ballots for those voting at the wrong precinct, were eliminated.
Three years later, the law was struck down in federal court. Among the 4th Circuit’s findings was that members of the General Assembly “requested and received a breakdown by race of DMV-issued ID ownership, absentee voting, early voting, same-day registration, and provisional voting (which includes out-of-precinct voting).” The court goes on to write, “This data revealed that African-Americans disproportionately used early voting, same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, and disproportionately lacked DMV-issued ID.”
The 4th Circuit further contends that “The record reveals that, within the time period that the district court found free of ‘official discrimination’ (1980 to 2013), the Department of Justice issued over fifty objection letters to proposed election law changes in North Carolina — including several since 2000 — because the State had failed to prove the proposed changes would have no discriminatory purpose or effect.”
Within its ruling, the 4th Circuit notes that its assessment does not deem any member of the General Assembly as harboring “racial hatred or animosity toward any minority group.” However, according to the ruling, the law did target voters based on race; regardless of whether or not this was done for partisan ends, it still constituted racial discrimination.
Opinions on the ruling remain hotly contested. Jay DeLancy, founding member of Voter Integrity Project, based out of Raleigh, argues that the law’s repeal opens the door to voter fraud in the upcoming election.
Anita Earls, executive director at Southern Coalition for Social Justice, disagrees. She cites the 4th Circuit’s finding that the state “failed to identify even a single individual who has ever been charged with committing in-person voter fraud in North Carolina.”
In an email follow-up, DeLancy writes, “Voter impersonation fraud is the perfect crime, since there is no way to detect it unless the crook is VERY unlucky and happens to get caught by both an observer who knows the person is lying about his/her name AND by an election employee who cares.”
DeLancy goes on to cite the November 2015 conviction of Pasco Parker, a former resident of Lake Lure, as evidence of how easy it is to register and vote in multiple states. In 2012, Parker voted three times in the general election. Two of those votes were cast through absentee ballots (in North Carolina and Florida), while the third was an in-person vote in Tennessee. Parker, who is white, pleaded guilty, receiving two years’ probation.
“It seems to me the fact that he was convicted in the first place, shows the system works,” Earls maintains.
DeLancy argues the conviction took three years, and that the crime itself is a Class I felony. “It’s such a low-level felony,” says DeLancy. “Rarely does anyone ever prosecute [it].”
Earls points out that, within the former voter ID law, absentee voting was exempt from the photo ID requirement. That means Parker would have been able to commit the crime whether or not the law was in place. The 4th Circuit noted this issue in its report, along with many other issues. Unlike early voting, same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, which were all disproportionately used by African-Americans, the court highlighted that the General Assembly’s data showed absentee ballots were disproportionately used by white voters.
DeLancy maintains that eyewitnesses have brought forward other accounts of voter fraud. “Either all these fine, upstanding citizens are pathological liars, or they just realize their hands are tied and nobody cares and the legislators won’t do anything about it. Voter ID is the only way to prevent it. We have a system that is fraud-friendly that’s designed in such a way that detection is difficult and prosecution is impossible.”
In his email follow-up, DeLancy continues, “The problem is that nobody has yet created a way to measure a crime that goes on [with lots of eyewitnesses] but without an evidence collection method that would meet probable cause. In short, the academics cannot see the fraud because their instrumentation [or measurement method] is inadequate. To then claim that the thing they were looking for ‘does not exist’ is a logical fallacy. Carl Sagan summed it up as this: ‘The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.’”
Earls insists in-person fraud “defies logic.” She points to the fact that impostors would need to know not only a person’s name, but their address and what precinct they vote in. “If you’re going to try and impact an election, absentee ballot fraud is a much more effective way.”
Does common ground exist?
Both DeLancy and Earls agree that North Carolina needs to prioritize its values. In DeLancy’s opinion, fraud deserves just as much attention as disenfranchisement. “There needs to be a balance between those two and there is none. You’ve got zero percent toward anything preventing fraud and 100 percent toward [preventing] anything that would cause disenfranchisement.”
Earls agrees that these considerations are important, but asks, “Who should be able to vote who won’t be able to, in the pursuit of further deterring the one or two people who commit in-person voter fraud?… I’m all for making [elections] better, but I want to make them better in a different way — by making sure that everyone who wants to vote is able to vote by making it easy and convenient. I think we can do that while still making elections secure and accurate.
“I think that it’s fine to ask people if they have an ID,” continues Earls. “Because the vast majority of us do have them. That isn’t the problem. … The [problem] is what do you do about someone who doesn’t have an ID? I say, you let them vote anyway, and have them sign the paper saying they are who they say they are. I think that’s a reasonable compromise.”
A future verdict
In the 4th Circuit’s repeal of the voter ID law, Motz wrote, “Because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.”
Like the debate surrounding the law itself, however, opinions on what future generations will think of the case vary.
“I think it’ll be part of the context of the history of the battle for political power in this state,” says Pierce. “It’s about staying in power and using every means that you can.”
“Historically, we’re not in possession of everything,” says Nash. “We don’t have the advantage of seeing the correspondents. We don’t have the documents that are all behind the scenes. … As a historian that’s always a caveat. But what came out of the decision from the federal bench certainly appears to be damning.”
DeLancy worries less about posterity’s assessment, and more about the potential threat that he considers inevitable if voter fraud continues. “The logical conclusion to voter fraud is totalitarian government. That’s it. … We’re going to wake up one day with a government that’s totally stolen. And people like me, who tried to tell them what would happen, will either be laughed at or [they’ll] haul us off to concentration camps.”
Earls isn’t sure what the future holds. She can only speak to the past. And the more recent past, she notes, suggests promise. “I’ve been doing voting rights work for almost 30 years now. The kind of protests at the legislature, when the bill was being contested and passed, with students in the gallery with tape across their mouths, with people at the Moral Monday protest willing to be arrested and articulating the reasons they were willing to be arrested … I haven’t seen that level of personal commitment so broadly across an electoral state the whole time I’ve been doing this work.
“It’s a sign of the time,” she continues, “that there’s a real strong feeling about the importance to partake in elections and to protect the right to vote.”