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Darryl Paulson: Black Voter Discrimination in Florida: Civil War to Reconstruction

First of a six-part series about black voting in Florida.

Blacks comprised almost half of Florida’s population at the end of the Civil War.  Like other Southern states, most blacks in Florida were slaves and none had the right to vote.

As a condition for rejoining the Union, Florida and the rest of the Confederate states had to draft new constitutions protecting the political rights of the newly freed slaves. Along with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Federal Constitution that ended slavery, protected against state discrimination and guaranteed blacks could not be denied the right to vote because of their race, these amendments and Federal laws produced an explosion in the number of black voters and black elected officials.

Despite common perception, the 15th Amendment did not guarantee blacks the right to vote. It is stated in the negative. It says the right to vote cannot be denied because of race.  The distinction is critical. It allowed the South to develop barriers to voting that would eliminate blacks without coming into conflict with the 15th Amendment.

Soon after the Civil War, there was an explosion in the number of black voters (male only) and black elected officials.  Nineteen blacks were elected to the 76-member Florida Legislature and Josiah Wells, a former slave and Union soldier from Alachua County, became Florida’s first black member of Congress when he won election in 1870.  Wells would also be the only black member of Congress from Florida for the next 116 years.

By 1876, Reconstruction was over and Florida politicians would adopt many provisions to eliminate the black voter.  The Sunshine State would “legally” eliminate black voters without violating the 15th Amendment.  Between laws passed by the Legislature and the adoption of the 1885 Constitution, almost every black voter was eliminated.

Florida, like every one of the former Confederate states, adopted a white primary, grandfather clause, poll tax, literacy test, long residency requirements and other obstacles to black voting.  It was a virtual fail-safe system.  If one barrier failed, there would always be another to stop them from voting.

In addition to the voting barriers mentioned above, Florida was a leading innovator of discriminatory barriers to voting.  Some Florida counties used tissue ballots or under-sized ballots in areas where there were significant numbers of black voters.

Election officials would stuff the ballot boxes so there would be more ballots than legal voters. To remedy the problem, election officials would pull out the excess ballots.  Not surprisingly, they pulled out the tissue or under-size ballots that had been given to blacks.

Another Florida innovation was the “multiple ballot box” or “eight-box” law of 1889.  This law required voters to place eight separate ballots into eight ballot boxes.  Since blacks were denied an education and 40 percent were classified illiterate in 1900, they could not read to know which ballot was supposed to go in which box.

Even the secret ballot, a hallmark of democracy, was used in Florida to discriminate against blacks.  Because of their high illiteracy rates, blacks needed assistance in casting their ballot.  Under the guise of preserving the integrity of the ballot, Florida either denied assistance to illiterates or limited the number of illiterate voters a person could assist.

Part II: Floridas white primary

Written By

Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg.

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