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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Christopher Grisham
Suffrage has been something that people have fought for throughout Tennessee’s history, but what is it? The word doesn’t sound very nice. It sounds like suffering, and why would anyone want that? It turns out that suffrage means the right to vote. If you have suffrage, that means you have a voice. You get to help choose the people that make rules and laws for everyone else. This is necessary to make sure the things that are important to you are important to elected officials.
Who has Suffrage?
Who gets to vote? Can you vote? There have always been some limits on voting. Now you can’t vote until you turn 18. At different times in history there have been other limits on the right to vote. Can you think of any limits there might have been in the past?
Who has the right to vote is usually set out in laws or in the Constitution. Tennessee has had three constitutions and each of them changed who could and couldn’t vote.
Ballot Box about 1850, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
This was the first constitution and the one that made Tennessee a state. It was signed by many famous Tennesseans such as Andrew Jackson and James Robertson.
To vote you had to:
Be an adult
Own 640 acres of land (be wealthy)
Be a citizen (this did not include Native Americans at the time)
Be free (not an enslaved person)
Some African Americans were legally allowed to vote under this constitution. They had to be free and own a lot of land, which was very rare. That made this constitution unique in the country at the time. Who were some groups of people that were not allowed to vote with this constitution?
This constitution made several changes to try to make the government work better. Some changes were made to who could vote as well.
Be a citizen (still did not include Native Americans)
This constitution did give many new people the right to vote. Now you didn’t have to own land or be wealthy. But that progress was only for white males. All African Americans had their right to vote taken away. Which other groups of people were still left out of voting?
This constitution was written after the Civil War. It had many of the changes that were required by the 13, 14, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Be a citizen (still not including Native Americans)
The biggest changes were for African American males. Slavery had ended with the 13th Amendment. Now everyone was legally free. The 14th Amendment expanded citizenship to African Americans. The 15th Amendment granted African American males the right to vote. Did you notice that there is still one large group of people left out?
The Right to Vote -vs- The Ability to Vote
Just because the right to vote expanded to a new group of people didn't always mean that they could actually vote if they tried. Once African Americans were granted the right to vote, many southern states, including Tennessee, passed laws that kept Black citizens from voting. These laws were called Jim Crow laws. Some Jim Crow laws were poll taxes that you would have to pay before you could vote. Since African Americans were more likely to be poor, this kept many from voting. There were also literacy tests. People had to prove they could read before they could vote. Since African Americans weren’t allowed to learn to read during slavery, they most likely wouldn't have been able to pass these tests. Another law stated that if your grandfather couldn’t vote, then you could not vote. Since most African Americans’ grandfathers were enslaved and not able to vote, that meant that they couldn’t either.
Laws weren’t the only ways people were kept from voting. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) used threats and violence to keep people from voting. These groups used anything to scare people out of voting. Sometimes this included burning a family’s house down, destroying someone’s business, beating people, or even killing someone. These methods were designed to terrorize people from using their new rights. There were always some people that would stand up against groups like the KKK and vote even if it was dangerous. They knew how important voting was.
What About Everyone Else?
You may have noticed that there are a couple of groups of people that we haven’t mentioned yet. Other groups were granted the right to vote even later. This came from changes to the U.S. Constitution, U.S. laws, and state’s laws.
Women had been pushing for the right to vote since the beginning of the United States. They held conventions like the one in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 to discuss equal rights and how to fight for them. Women held marches, gave speeches, and talked to legislators to push for the right to vote. Finally, in 1920, women won the right to vote across the entire country when the 19th Amendment was passed. This amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was passed by one person’s vote in Nashville, Tennessee on August 18, 1920. You can learn more about that story here. Finally, it sounds like everyone can vote now, right?
Women’s Suffrage Banner, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Not quite. Even though the right to vote had been expanded to people who didn’t own land, African Americans, and women, that didn’t include everyone. You still had to be a citizen in order to vote. Native Americans and Chinese Americans weren’t yet considered citizens of the United States. Chinese Americans were able to vote starting in 1952. Native Americans couldn’t vote in every state until the 1960s.
The right to vote and choose the people that make laws is just as important today as any other time. People have fought, and even died, just to be able to vote. Even though the changes to who could vote haven’t always been for the better, more people can vote in elections now than ever before. When you turn 18 and vote for the very first time, think of the long history that you are participating in.
Constitution – A constitution is a document that tells how a government is set up and organized. There is a constitution for the United States as well as one for each individual state.
Enslaved – Someone who is owned by another person is enslaved. Enslaved people have no rights at all and are treated as property.
Progress – Forward movement. Progress is usually seen as continuing to improve or make things better.
Citizen – A citizen is someone that is legally a member of a country. Citizens usually have certain rights and responsibilities within their country.
Who could vote under the first Tennessee State Constitution?
What amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote?
Out of the following groups, who had the right to vote first? Who was last?
African American Women
African American Males
Why is the right to vote so important that groups of people have fought for it throughout history?
Learn more about the fight for the right to vote here.
Read more about Tennessee’s role in the passage of the 19 Amendment here.
Christopher Grisham is the K-12 Education Manager at the Tennessee State Museum.