In late July of 1995, Michael and I packed everything we owned into the back of a U-Haul and headed south to Gainesville, Florida. As newlyweds and poor graduate students, we rented an apartment on the outskirts of part of Gainesville called Porters Quarters. The upstairs garage apartment was spacious, surrounded by beautiful live oaks, and while only a couple of miles from campus, was considered to be in the poor part of town.
One of the first things we did when we got settled was to change our drivers’ licenses and register to vote. I grew up in a family that valued voter participation and I have fond memories of going with my parents to the little Methodist church in Austin, Ohio which also served as a polling place. In addition to the cloth covered voting booths, what I remember most about that place was the excitement in the air and the homemade pie that the church ladies sold to benefit the congregation.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when Michael and I ventured out to vote on Tuesday November 5, 1996, but it ended up being something that we had never encountered before.
We received notification in the mail for where our voting precinct was located and so on that sunny November day we drove what was probably no more than two or three blocks to a church to vote. The street was narrow and crowded with lots of cars parked along both sides of the street which made it impossible to drive any further. We parked, got out, and walked up to the church entrance. There were lots of people milling about in their Sunday best and we felt a bit out of place because of our casual attire of t-shirts, shorts, and Tevas. We approached a couple of older gentlemen sitting in lawn chairs outside of the entrance and they politely told us that the polling place had been moved at the last minute. They gave us the address of the new location, and described using landmarks like - turn left by the Piggly Wiggly and right by Shady Grove Baptist Church - how to navigate our way to the correct locale.
Given our temperaments both Michael and I were more than mildly irritated at the inconvenience and perceived incompetence of the county election board to provide accurate information to registered voters. We eventually found the new venue, confirmed names and address, and with no need to produce our drivers’ licenses or show any other form of identification, we voted.
What we didn’t realize until much later is that we had just experienced an attempt at voter suppression. You see, Porters Quarters is a historically Black neighborhood located in a highly segregated Gainesville. Those people milling around in their Sunday best, were all African Americans and as white Americans we were the minority who lived and voted in this precinct.
The neighborhood was established in 1884 by Canadian physician, Watson Porter, who sold lots exclusively to African American families who worked in the nearby railroad and industrial sites. Shady Grove Baptist Church, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, served as a meeting place for the NAACP during the civil rights era to plan for the integration of Gainesville public schools.
What we had written off to being just another idiosyncratic feature of life in Florida was really an attempt at voter disenfranchisement that began after the passing of the Military Reconstruction Act in March 1867. This act permitted Black men in the South to vote for delegates to write new state constitutions which in turn, confirmed the right of Black men to vote.
Historian and professor of American History at Boston College, Heather Cox Richardson writes about the systematic efforts of former slave holding states to suppress Black voter participation beginning with the terrorist acts of the Klu Klux Klan to former President Ronald Reagan conquering up images the “Welfare Queen (a Black woman who stole tax dollars through social services fraud), to Tea Party members calling our first Black president a “socialist,” and most recently with Trump voters claiming to react to “economic anxiety.” Sam Sanders an NPR correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders notes, “Trump's presidency has always been about race and reacting to a nation more diverse than it has ever been.”
In her March 28, 2021 newsletter Heather Cox Richardson wrote, “Today, Republicans talk about “election integrity,” but their end game is the same as that of the former Confederates after the war: to keep Black and Brown Americans away from the polls to make sure the government does not spend tax dollars on public services.”
She goes on to write that Georgia House Bill 531 which makes it illegal to pass out food or water to those waiting in line to vote among other restrictions, is one of more than 250 measures in 43 states designed to keep Republicans in power no matter what voters want. The ability to exercise our rights as US citizens is being used as a political weapon against the wishes of the American people.
As Adam Cohen writes, “Supporters of tough voter ID laws are not afraid of vote fraud - they are afraid of democracy.”
I hope you exercise your right to vote in the upcoming local election.
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.