American Story: New Century


New Century

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States was well on its way to becoming an economic and political powerhouse. The benefits of democracy and industrialisation were not so apparent in Alabama however. In fact, when the Southern Democrats swept the board in the 1900 election, the State took the opportunity to turn 180 degrees backwards.

It is obvious now that stalling the aspirations of half its population because they were black was counter-productive. It makes no sense for a society to limit the expansion of its tax base, to discourage more of its people from becoming contributors to its institutions.

However the priority for white Alabaman voters in 1900 was what one newspaper called, "the perplexing, menacing problem of negro suffrage". The solution, it seemed, was a new constitution, because "the present one is out of date, imperfect and unfitted to present circumstances.

From its inception, the Constitution of the State of Alabama 1901 was an insincere document. It began with what read like an endorsement of the core sentiments of the national constitution: "That all men are equally free and independent, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". 

The impression created by the first paragraph was intentionally misleading. According to a commemorative address by Judge Walter Burgwyn Jones in 1940, (and referring to the 155 delegates who made up the Constitutional Convention of 1901), "The urgent task of that representative body of the people was to establish white supremacy in the State within the limits imposed by the United States Constitution." The Alabama document had to 'look good'.

"The State's work", the judge went on to say, "was to preserve white supremacy by doing legally in the future what in the past good citizens had been forced to do by fraud". Note the admission, also expressed in the Convention's own accounts of its proceedings, that previous elections had been conducted in an atmosphere of corruption. The two most common strategies employed had been violent intimidation to keep blacks from attending the polling booths and 'stuffing' ballot boxes with fictitious 'votes' for pro-white candidates. These practices had become "a stench in the nostrils of every man" and "the youth of the State were being taught that cheating in elections was excusable". The new Constitution had to find another, 'acceptable', way to achieve the same result.

At the conclusion of its constitutional drafting in September 1901, the Committee of the Convention published an Address to the People of the State, promoting their real achievement of 'legalising illegality': "Your delegates have wrought as best they could, and submit the result of their labors, feeling confident that the plan submitted will purge the electorate of the unworthy and vicious voter who has so long debased our suffrage."

In summary, the new definition of "a qualified elector" was male, 21 years or older, a US citizen who had resided in Alabama for 2 years or more, a duly registered voter, and with no State tax unpaid. However, paragraph 182 qualified this general definition in a couple of important ways.

The essential "qualifications" to be registered as "electors" were; "First - Those who can read and write any article of the Constitution of the United States in the English language"; and "Second - The owner in good faith, in his own right...of forty acres of land situate in this State...or of real estate situate in this State assessed for taxation at the value of three hundred dollars".

Distinguishing the impact of the literacy and property requirements between 'poor whites' and 'poor blacks' was the work of paragraph 180, which provided an alternative pathway of qualification through past military service: "First - All who have honorably served in the land or naval forces of the United States...or... of the Confederate States or the State of Alabama"; or "Second - The lawful descendants of persons who honorably served in the land or naval forces of the United States...or...of  the Confederate States or the State of Alabama".  

The wars mentioned are "the war of the American Revolution...the war of 1812...the war with Mexico...any war with the Indians...the war with Spain...the war between the states". In all these conflicts, black slaves were legally excluded from enlistment or conscription, whereas most white settlers would be hard-pressed not to find at least one ancestor with military service.

The effect of the 1901 Constitution's exclusionary provisions was felt almost immediately, and throughout the State.

Alabama State                                        White                    Black
Males of Voting Age in 1900                    224,212                 205,278
Registered Male Voters 1905                  205,278                     3,654    

Choctaw County                                     White                    Black
Males of Voting Age in 1900                     1,697                     1,929
Registered Male Voters 1905                   1,496                          29

The constitutional disenfranchisement of nearly all black voters, without any reference to the central issue of Race, was an astonishing piece of duplicity. It is difficult to imagine how any of the 81,734 voters who voted in favor of this blatantly dishonest legislation could keep a straight face, (although 54,875 did feel sufficiently disturbed to vote against.)

Several explanations have been suggested for why white Alabamans plunged themselves into nearly one hundred years of racial segregation. One of the more convincing is that economic factors were in play. Nothing comes from nothing, as the saying goes. People's opinions and political decision-making are influenced and formed within their historical context..

"The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were years of shrinking opportunities for many southern rural whites. In particular the rate of white farm tenancy increased in these decades". That is to say that between 1890 and 1910, the sons of white farmers were less likely to become land owners ('planters') and more likely to become land renters ('share croppers'). This shrinkage of the agrarian 'middle class' meant lower incomes, and lower status, for the young men who were 'shed off' by the process.

There were direct economic effects. A new class of poor white share croppers came into competition with a pre-existing class of poor black share croppers. Social pressure grew to force landlords to preference white renters (with better land and fairer contracts) and employers to hire white labourers (with higher wages). Resentment at the agricultural squeeze happened right across the Deep South. And right across the Deep South state legislatures enacted constitutions and statutes that disenfranchised black voters.

This argument has reasonable legitimacy (although the outcome for blacks was anything but!). The experience of the Boykin family probably supports the idea of a generational change in fortunes for the descendants of the original pioneers. 

In the Federal Census for 1850, Burwell and Margaret's 'plantation' at Camp Springs was being farmed by 3 married sons living in separate dwellings and 4 single sons living 'at home'. Of these 7 sons, Burwell Jr. died between the 1850 and 1860 censes, and Alexander died from his war service in the years after 1865. Although both sons were married with children in 1850, there is no record of their families residing in Choctaw County by the time of the 1900 Federal Census. Neither is there mention of Christopher, who was married with children in 1850, or Jesse, who was single and living with his parents then. 

In effect, 4 of the 7 potential farmers were no longer in the district by 1900. The 3 remaining Boykin men represented in the 1900 count for Choctaw also appear to have had mixed fortunes. 

Clark (Henry Clark), who served in the 40th Alabama Infantry, is listed in the census year as a 62 yo farmer who owned his farm and dwelling situated near Bergamot (a post office just south of Camp Springs). He lived there with his wife Mary, 21 yo son Marvin, 19 yo son Gehin (who rented some farm land), and 13 yo daughter Eva. Clark and his two sons were surviving the changes in agriculture with the support of some share cropping.

Frank (Franklin), who served in the 40th Alabama Infantry, is listed in 1900 as a 63 yo farmer who rented a house and farm land near Bergamot. He lived with his wife Mandy, 16 yo son Julian and 15 yo daughter Gertrude. This looks grim. However, next to Frank's rented dwelling (#234) and rented farm (#229) were (i) Carney Boykin, 24 yo farmer, married with 1 child, with rented dwelling (#233) and rented farm (#229), and (ii) Malisa Boykin, 27 yo farmer and widow with 4 children, possessing own dwelling (#236) and own farm (#231). The proximity of dwellings and farms occupied by these 3 households with the surname Boykin suggests a closer family relationship. It may mean that Frank's line had not lost all their land, and had transferred freehold title to support a deceased son's young family. But this is speculative. On the bare facts laid out in the census, Frank and Carney were share croppers.

Finally, Solomon who served in the 38th Alabama Infantry, is not listed in the 1900 Census for Choctaw County, but we can assume he wasn't far away because his body was buried beside his wife Mary Jane at Camp Springs Cemetery in 1918. Solomon's son Jack (Andrew Jackson) is listed in his place perhaps, as a 39 yo farmer, married with 4 children, and owning both dwelling and farm. The Solomon line was therefore still represented in the district as landowners, but by one son rather than a possible five.

In summary, the experience of Burwell Boykin's sons and grandsons reflected a widespread pattern of economic change and population dispersal in the rural South. Seeking to find a 'rational' explanation for the 1901 Constitution, however, only succeeds in reinforcing the essentially irrational motive behind its construction. Personal discontent is not a 'reason' ('We're doing it tough, so they're going to do it tougher'). The Democrats of Alabama "enabled", and their white voters "ratified", a fundamentally vindictive document, one which 'locked in' harmful and destructive social attitudes for generations to come.


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