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by Miranda Fraley-Rhodes, Ph. D.
On August 2, 1894, a Black man named C.A. McCamey (also spelled McKamey) paid $2.00 in state and county poll taxes in Knox County and saved his tax receipt. It is now in the collection of the Tennessee State Museum. This document and others like it, though small and modest in appearance, help preserve the stories of African Americans and others who worked to maintain their right to vote despite the poll taxes implemented to disenfranchise them.
Poll Tax Receipt, for C.A. McCamey, Knox County, 1894, Tennessee State Museum collection, 76.200.49)
Who should be allowed to vote was a topic hotly debated during Reconstruction at both the state and national levels. African Americans and woman suffragists advocated for significant expansions in voting rights and found some supporters in Congress and state legislatures. Through state action, Black men gained the right to vote in Tennessee in 1867.
On the national level, the 14th Amendment in 1868 imposed sanctions on states that denied men the right to vote. The 15th Amendment in 1869 extended voting rights to Black men throughout the nation. Disappointed suffragists who argued that women should also be able to vote continued fighting until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. These amendments to the U.S. Constitution were critical to the expansion of voting rights in the United States. However, many questions regarding voting remained. As Reconstruction governments in the South fell one after another amid brutal racial violence against African Americans, and former Confederates regained power, the rules for and contexts of voting continued to shift.
In the 1870 Constitutional Convention in Tennessee, delegates approved a controversial measure connecting the right to vote with the payment of a poll tax — a new use of this tax in the state. The 1870 Constitution specified that “all male citizens of this State over the age of twenty[-]one years, except such persons as may be exempted by law on account of age or other infirmity shall be liable to a poll tax of not less than fifty cents nor more than one dollar per annum.” An individual who wanted to cast a ballot was required to provide “satisfactory evidence that he has paid the poll taxes….”
Although poll tax measures were written to appear neutral, they were designed to discourage African American men from voting and prevented many white men who had little extra cash from casting a ballot. Paying taxes required currency, something in short supply among many potential voters. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many business transactions, especially in rural areas, were conducted through complex credit relationships, reflected in the many scraps of paper left to us today documenting exchanges. Historian Connie Lester highlighted the story of farmer Robert Cartmell of Madison County. His journals are now in the collection of the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Cartmell wrote that he “…gave my note to R & Sons for my acct.—payable at one the Banks 1st Dec. next…. I have tried to avoid that [credit] for the last year or so, but it seems a hard matter to do it. Short crops & low prices does the work—and crops or no crops, expenses keep going on.” To put the cost of a one-dollar poll tax in context, an individual could buy a good farm wagon from John S. Fielder’s store in Lexington, TN for fifty dollars in the 1870s.
Mandating that individuals pay poll taxes in order to vote was a highly contested public issue. There was such an outcry against having to show proof of paying the poll tax to cast a ballot that the Tennessee General Assembly voted to rescind this in late 1871. On July 26, 1872, The Bolivar Bulletin shared information about this change with its readers, noting that “the question as to the right of franchise to a person not having paid his poll tax having been considerably agitated of late, we append the following act of the Legislature which will put the matter at rest.” This act did not eliminate the poll tax; it removed the requirement for voters to prove they had paid it in order to vote.
There seems to have been considerable continuing debate over the collection of poll taxes during the 1870s and 1880s. The revenue from poll taxes was used for schools, and part of the confusion seems to have concerned who had the authority to collect poll taxes. For example, The Memphis Daily Appeal reported on February 10, 1880 that the school board appointed a committee of persons charged with working with the county trustee to hire persons to collect poll taxes. On January 6, 1883, the Milan Exchange featured an article about a public meeting in which the question of whether the school board could collect poll taxes was discussed, resulting in a consensus that this was acceptable.
The measures passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1883 included a law specifying that “The rate of taxation on every taxable poll shall be one dollar. Said poll tax shall be collected annually by the Trustee of the county, and shall be appropriated for common school purposes, in the manner prescribed by law.” Questions remain about how poll taxes were collected at the county level during this period. In Knox County, the county trustee marked the civil district tax lists to indicate individuals who owned no real property and therefore would have only paid poll taxes. However, no county records have survived that document the system in place for collecting these taxes.
From the late 1880s through the 1890s, many southern states passed laws designed to disenfranchise Black men. Historian Joseph H. Cartwright explained that multiple factors, including changing views on Black voting rights in the North, influenced this trend. New voting laws in Tennessee and other states and discussions of impacts of race on party politics in the South and nationally were important topics for articles in newspapers like the Memphis Appeal during 1889 and 1890. In 1889, the Tennessee legislature revisited the issue of mandating individuals show proof of having paid poll taxes to vote. Other measures passed related to voting including requiring secret ballots, which made it difficult for illiterate voters to participate, and requiring voter registration in specific urban areas. These laws were targeted to reduce voting by African American men but also impacted many white male voters. The legislation passed during the 1889 session. However, the poll tax law proposed during the regular session was not successful at that time.
Poll Tax Receipt, for C.A. McCamey, Knox County, 1891 (Tennessee State Museum collection, 76.200.47)
In March of 1890, during a special session, the Tennessee General Assembly passed an act which became law. Signed by Governor Robert Taylor, it reinstituted the requirement for individuals to show proof of paying poll taxes in order to vote. The law specified that “Every person in this state who is otherwise a qualified voter under the Constitution and laws, shall, as a condition precedent to the exercise of voting, furnish to the judges of election satisfactory evidence that he has paid the poll tax…without which his vote shall not be received.” During this special session, legislators also approved expanding the voter registration and secret ballot requirements so that they applied to voters in more areas.
Poll Tax Receipt, for C.A. McCamey, Knox County, 1885 (Tennessee State Museum collection, 76.200.41)
The poll tax requirement and other measures significantly reduced voter participation, particularly among Blacks. On November 6, 1890, The Johnson City Comet featured a front-page story about a speech given by Tennessee Governor Robert Taylor at the Dallas Exposition in Texas. According to this article which included a summary of the speech, Taylor criticized federal intervention, stated that the main racial issue in the South concerned African American voting, and claimed “the Australian system [secret ballots], a registration law and a good poll tax will settle that for the present.” Historian Joseph H. Cartright found in his study The Triumph of Jim Crow: Tennessee Race Relations in the 1880s that the numbers of African Americans who voted in urban areas like Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, and Knoxville decreased dramatically in the November 1890 elections. These measures greatly impacted areas where the majority of the population was African American. The poll tax continued to be an issue in state politics until the requirement to pay this tax was removed through a revision of the Tennessee State Constitution in 1953.
Miranda Fraley-Rhodes, Ph.D. is the Assistant Chief Curator of the Tennessee State Museum. She was the curator of the Museum exhibition, Ratified: Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote and online exhibition, Ratified! Statewide! Every County Has a Suffrage Story.