Baltimore and Voter Registration


Archaeologists working in advance of the construction of the Intercounty Connector project encountered an unusual situation at the Jackson Homestead site (18MO609) in Montgomery County. The site was the location of a 19th-century home that was completely destroyed by fire around 1910, while still occupied (Furgerson et al. 2011). The Jackson family apparently had very little time to remove their possessions, so archaeologists working inside the house foundation discovered essentially a time capsule frozen in place by the fire.  One of more interesting artifacts they recovered was a campaign button from the 1860 election between Republican Abraham Lincoln and three other Democratic presidential candidates—John Bell, John C. Breckinridge,[i] and Stephen A. Douglas.  Lincoln, and his running mate Hannibal Hamlin, emerged victorious in this contest.

Figure 1. Lincoln Hamlin medal recovered from the Jackson Homestead site (18MO609).

You heard this familiar refrain over and over again in the months leading up to our national election: “Register to vote”; “Make your voice heard by registering to vote”.  We all know that the ability to exercise our constitutional right to vote in any United States election rests in registering your name with the local election board. In fact, it—and getting a library card—are two of the first things I do when I move to a new area.  But what sounds like a simple, straightforward process is not always the case.  Over the history of the United States, voter suppression has bedeviled our country, a challenge that continues to this day.  So it should probably not surprise you that voter registration issues have also had a long and contentious history in Baltimore.

Faced with the challenges of a growing population in Baltimore and the increased likelihood of voter fraud, the Maryland legislature authorized the city in 1821 to pass a voter registration system. Voting rights, property ownership and public education became tied in the following years and it was not until 1829 that the city extended voting rights to free white males without requisite property ownership (Crenson 2017:127, 132).

Voter registration systems, although appearing to be a way to insure more citizens get a voice, has often been a tool of voter suppression. After the 1829 Baltimore decision, voter registration was limited to only three days in October—a move that led to long lines, discouraging many men in the laboring class from taking time away from work to register. Voter registration systems in many American cities were also designed to disenfranchise immigrants and people of color (Keysarr 2000).  Beginning in the early nineteenth century, Baltimore had the largest concentration of free blacks in the United States (Rockman 2009:166).  Before the Civil War, Maryland had more free blacks than any other state in the nation and 92% of African Americans in Baltimore were free in 1862 (Hayward 2008:3; Rockman 2009:166).

Figure 2. Medal from the 1860 campaign of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin.

After the Civil War, corruption in Baltimore’s voting system was particularly egregious in its dealings with African American voters.  Great efforts were made to suppress black voting, including paying voters to stay at away from the polls and arranging outings on election day to lure voters out of the city (Crenson 2017:295).  Literacy tests and poll taxes were other means used to reduce African American voting rates in the late nineteenth century (Daniels 2020).  In the early twentieth century, two defeated amendments—the Straus and the Digges amendments—tried to create legislation that would disqualify many African American would-be voters by setting stringent voter registration requirements (Crenson 2017:339).

Voter suppression, unfortunately, is still with us today. In 2013, the U. S. Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act, which mandated that states and localities with histories of voting discrimination receive federal approval before changing election laws.  As a result of this decision, numerous states changed regulations in ways that unfairly targeted people of color, removing them from voter rolls or making it more difficult for them to meet the requirements of voter registration.  Despite these obstacles, African American voters turned out in record numbers for the 2020 election.

The medal from the Jackson Homestead was found in the parlor and when the house was burned, it dated back fifty years.  Its antiquity and its placement in the most formal room of the house suggest that it was a family heirloom—perhaps serving as a reminder of the administration responsible for emancipation and the beginnings of a long, still extant road towards equal voting rights.

References

Crenson, Matthew. Baltimore; A Political History.  Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2017.

Daniels, Gilda. Uncounted: The Crisis of Voter Suppression in America.  New York University Press, New York, 2020.

Furgerson, Kathleen, Varna Boyd, Carey O’Reilly, Justin Bedard, Tracy Formica, and Anthony Randolph, Jr.   Phase II and III Archaeological Investigations of the Fairland Branch Site and the Jackson Homestead (Site 18MO609), Intercounty Connector Project, Montgomery County, Maryland. Prepared by the URS Corporation for the Maryland State Highways Administration. SHA Archaeological Report No. 426., 2011.

Hayward, Mary Ellen. Baltimore’s Alley Houses; Homes for Working People Since the 1780s.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008.

Keysarr, Alex. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. Basic Books, 2000.

Rockman, Seth.  Scraping By; Wage Labor, Slavery and Survival in Early Baltimore.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2009.


[i] As an interesting aside, John C. Breckinridge was the great-grandfather of Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson, who donated Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum to the State of Maryland in 1983.

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