NEW ORLEANS, La—The Fourth of July and Juneteenth are federally recognized days, where groups of Americans celebrate their freedoms. The act of voting in a republic is perhaps the most vital piece in what we call democracy. However, the right to vote is not written in the U.S. Constitution; certain amendments are designed to prevent voter restrictions based on age, race, and gender.
Despite the 15th and 19th Amendments, there is a long history of voter suppression and voter victories in the state of Louisiana and the country as a whole.
As Louisiana celebrates the 4th of July, we also come upon the anniversary of the New Orleans Massacre of 1866, where freedmen were arguing for the right to vote and were attacked because of it.
At the end of the Civil War, progressive republicans came into power briefly in Louisiana. Each state now had the task of writing a new constitution to include the right to vote. However, years before the 15th Amendment was composed, the Massacre of 1866 broke out at a location that is currently the Roosevelt Hotel. At this time, it was the Mechanics Institute. Ex-confederates unexpectedly showed up at the Mechanic Institute, where the Louisiana Constitutional Convention reconvened.
The purpose of the convention was to examine Black Codes, which denied the rights of African American citizens because of their race. Black Codes used racially specific language and would eventually be overturned in the 1700’s to make way for new laws that did not use racially specific language in their texts but denied the rights of groups of citizens just the same.
Outside of the Mechanics Institute, freed blacks were attacked. The mob would soon move into the building to attack delegates. When the insurrection ceased, 150 people were injured and 45 were killed.
Libby Neidenbach is the Visitor Services Trainer at The Historic New Orleans Collection and says, “walking down the street before the attack were black Union Veterans and other supporters, men, women, and children are coming down the street in support of the convention at the Mechanics Institute. When they get there, they are met with this group of armed white men, most of whom are part of an all-white police force. The newspapers are calling it a riot, but it was most definitely a massacre.”
By 1867, 83 thousand black Louisianians are voting for delegates and half of the delegates elected are black. The result of these elections allows for one of the most progressive constitutions in a former confederate state in 1868. Civil Rights laws which included integrated schools, public transportation, hotels, and businesses was the new normal in New Orleans. However, these laws would not last very long.
In time, Democrats would regain power. In 1898, democrats introduce racially neutral language laws to allow for poll taxes, literacy requirements, property requirements, a grandfather clause, and a residency requirement. All of the requirements curiously limited the voting rights of only the African American community.
Neidenbach says the residency requirement is a good example of how racially neutral verbiage in-laws, can drastically affect a particular group of people if written to do so saying; “since emancipation, large numbers of formerly enslaved people are moving around the state. Freedom of mobility is one of the things that gives emancipation it’s meaning. African Americans are leaving the plantations and slavers and are finding better jobs and opportunities in urban areas such as New Orleans. This residency requirement has a direct effect on formerly enslaved black men at this time.”
Over the years, into the 1900’s a clause would allow for the all-white primary election. This clause was particularly devastating for black voters.
“The clause says that political parties are allowed to make up their own rules and regulations. They can decide who are members and who can participate in the primary elections. The trick is that there is no opposition party, so any real choice of candidates happens in the primary election. If African Americans were somehow able to make it through the gauntlet of voter restriction laws, the white primary would prevent them from participating in the only elections that mattered,” says Neidenbach.
Perhaps the most difficult voter restriction law was also the vaguest. The understanding clause put power in the local voter registrars. Neidenbach highlights a very disappointing account for the NAACP that happened in New Orleans because of the understanding clause.
“Local activists in New Orleans set out to overturn the understanding clause in the court system. In 1930, the NAACP finds Antoine Trudeau, he was a seventh ward creole and had successfully registered and voted in prior elections. In 1930 he goes to the registrar and is denied voter registration because the register said he didn’t’ interpret the constitution correctly. The NAACP files a case in federal court in 1931. Trudeau’s lawyer argues his denial was violating the 15th amendment. The Judge disagrees and says that the plaintiff has not brought sufficient cause to bring this case to court. This was the beginning of longer and more expensive court cases moving forward as the NAACP fought towards civil rights,” says Neidenbach.
As black men found a brick wall between them and voting white women were allowed to vote by 1920, but would find their own set of voting obstacles.
Libby Neidenbach says one account bears parallels to the voting issues suffered in the previous presidential election.
“In the 20’s and 30’s where you went to vote, was not a welcoming space for women. Polling places were in barrooms, in corner stores, in private homes of political operatives. These places were not safe. This was a matter of voter inaccessibility. There were often men drinking hanging out and sometimes people would show up armed at these polls. the Election commissioners had full control and had all kinds of tricks up their sleeves to make sure their side won. There was a lot of intimidation, harassment, and cigar smoke blown in women’s faces,” says Neidenbach.
The Woman’s Citizen Union would rise up at this time to escort women to the polls. The Union would also argue for voter reforms and achieved a great deal of the reforms they asked for over the years. However, it wasn’t until the Voting Rights act of 1965, when the law would overturn most voter suppression laws to allow the conditions in which modern Louisianians vote today.