Original Document
Original Document
W.E.B. Du Bois, "Negro Suffrage," 1899.

The Significance of the Experiment.–The indiscriminate granting of universal suffrage to freedmen and foreigners was one of the most daring experiments of a too venturesome nation. In the case of the Negro its only justification was that the ballot might serve as a weapon of defence for helpless ex-slaves, and would at one stroke enfranchise those Negroes whose education and standing entitled them to a voice in the government. There can be no doubt but that the wisest provision would have been an educational and property qualification impartially enforced against ex-slaves and immigrants. In the absence of such a provision it was certainly more just to admit the untrained and ignorant than to bar out all Negroes in spite of their qualifications; more just, but also more dangerous.

Those who from time to time have discussed the results of this experiment have usually looked for their facts in the wrong place, i. e., in the South. Under the peculiar conditions still prevailing in the South no fair trial of the Negro voter could have been made. The "carpet-bag" governments of reconstruction time were in no true sense the creatures of Negro voters, nor is there to-day a Southern State where free untrammeled Negro suffrage prevails. It is then to Northern communities that one must turn to study the Negro as a voter, and the result of the experiment in Pennsylvania while not decisive is certainly instructive....

To-day the government of both city and State is unparalleled in the history of republican government for brazen dishonesty and bare-faced defiance of public opinion. The supporters of this government have been, by a vast majority, white men and native Americans; the Negro vote has never exceeded 4 per cent of the total registration.

Manifestly such a political atmosphere was the worst possible for the new untutored voter. Starting himself without political ideals, he was put under the tutelage of unscrupulous and dishonest men whose ideal of government was to prostitute it to their own private ends. As the Irishman had been the tool of the Democrats, so the Negro became the tool of the Republicans. It was natural that the freedman should vote for the party that emancipated him, and perhaps, too, it was natural that a party with so sure a following, should use it unscrupulously. The result to be expected from such a situation was that the Negro should learn from his surroundings a low ideal of political morality and no conception of the real end of party loyalty. At the same time we ought to expect individual exceptions to this general level, and some evidences of growth.

Some Bad Results of Negro Suffrage.–The experiment of Negro suffrage in Philadelphia has developed three classes of Negro voters: a large majority of voters who vote blindly at the dictates of the party and, while not open to direct bribery, accept the indirect emoluments of office or influence in return for party loyalty; a considerable group, centering in the slum districts, which casts a corrupt purchasable vote for the highest bidder; lastly, a very small group of independent voters who seek to use their vote to better present conditions of municipal life.

The political morality of the first group of voters, that is to say, of the great mass of Negro voters, corresponds roughly to that of the mass of white voters, but with this difference: the ignorance of the Negro in matters of government is greater and his devotion to party blinder and more unreasoning. Add to this the mass of recent immigrants from the South, with the political training of reconstruction and post-bellum days, and one can easily see how poorly trained this body of electors has been....

The able-bodied, well-dressed loafers and criminals who infest the sidewalks of parts of the Fifth, Seventh and other wards are supported partly by crime and gambling, partly by the prostitution of their female paramours, but mainly from the vast corruption fund gathered from officeholders and others, and distributed according to the will of the party Boss. The Public Ledger said in 1896:

"It is estimated that the Republican City Committee realized nearly if not all of $100,000 from the 1 1/2 per cent assessment levied upon municipal officeholders for this campaign. Of this sum $40,000 has been paid for the eighty thousand tax receipts to qualify Republican voters. This leaves $60,000 at the disposal of David Martin, the Combine leader."

How is this corruption fund used? Without doubt a large part of it is spent in the purchase of votes. It is of course difficult to estimate the directly purchasable vote among the whites or among the Negroes. Once in a while when "thieves fall out" some idea of the bribery may be obtained; for instance in a hearing relative to a Third Ward election:

William Reed, of Catharine street, below Thirteenth, was first on the stand. He was watcher in the Fifteenth Division on election day.

"Did you make up any election papers for voters?" asked Mr. Ingham.

"I marked up about seventy or eighty ballots; I got $20 off of Roberts' brother, and used $100 altogether, paying the rest out of my own pocket."

"How did you spend the money?"

"Oh, well, there were some few objectionable characters there to make trouble. We'd give 'em a few dollars to go away and attend to their business." Then he addressed Mr. Ingham directly, "You know how it works."

"I'd give 'em a dollar to buy a cigar. And if they didn't want to pay for a cigar, why, they could put it in the contribution box at church."

"Was this election conducted in the usual way?" inquired Mr. Sterr.

"Oh, yes, the way they're conducted in the Third Ward–with vote buying, and all the rest of it."

"Did the other side have any money to spend?"

"Saunders had $16 to the division."

"What did your side have?"

"Oh, we had about $60; there was money to burn. But our money went to three people. The other fellows saved theirs. I spent mine–like a sucker."

James Brown, a McKinley-Citizen worker, began his testimony indignantly.

"Election? Why Reed and Morrow, the judges of the election, run the whole shootin' match," he declared. "It was all a farce. I brought voters up; and Reed would take 'em away from me. When we challenged anybody, Reed and the others would have vouchers ready."

"Did they use money?"

"There was a good deal of money through the division. We wasn't even allowed to mark ballots for our own people who asked for help. The judge would ask 'em if they could read and write. When they said 'yes,' he'd tell 'em they were able to mark their own ballot. There were even some people who wanted to mark their own ballots. Reed would simply grab 'em and mark their ballots, whether they liked it or not."

Lavinia Brown, colored, of the rear of 1306 Kater street, said that Mr. Bradford was judge on election day, of the Sixteenth Division, and that on the morning of the election she cooked his breakfast. She said that I. Newton Roberts came to the house, and in her presence gave Bradford a roll of notes, at the same time throwing her $2, but she did not know for what purpose he gave it.

George W. Green, colored, of 1224 Catharine street, said he was a watcher at the polls of the Sixteenth Division. He told of fraud and how the voters were treated.

"Were you offered any money?"

"Yes, sir. Lincoln Roberts came over to me and shoved $50 at me, but I turned him down and would not take it, because I didn't belong to that crowd." Continuing, he said: "Seven or eight men were challenged, but it did not amount to anything, because Lincoln Roberts would tell the police to eject them. He also vouched for men who did not live in the ward. This condition of affairs continued all day."...

Among the great mass of Negro voters, whose votes cannot be directly purchased, a less direct but, in the long run, more demoralizing bribery is common. It is the same sort of bribery as that which is to-day corrupting the white voters of the land, viz:

(a) Contributions to various objects in which voters are interested.

(b) Appointment to public office or to work of any kind for the city.

Men accept from political organizations, contributions to charitable and other objects which they would not think of accepting for themselves. Others less scrupulous get contributions or favors for enterprises in which they are directly interested. Fairs, societies, clubs and even churches have profited by this sort of political corruption, and the custom is by no means confined to Negroes.

A better known method of political bribery among the mass of Negroes is through apportionment of the public work or appointment to public office. The work open to Negroes throughout the city is greatly restricted as has been pointed out. One class of well-paid positions, the city civil service, was once closed to them, and only one road was open to them to secure these positions and that was unquestioning obedience to the "machine." The emoluments of office are a temptation to most men, but how much greater they are for Negroes can only be realized on reflection: Here is a well-educated young man, who despite all efforts can get no work above that of porter at $6 or $8 a week. If he goes into "politics," blindly votes for the candidate of the party boss, and by hard, steady and astute work persuades most of the colored voters in his precinct to do the same, he has the chance of being rewarded by a city clerkship, the social prestige of being in a position above menial labor, and an income of $60 or $75 a month. Such is the character of the grasp which the "machine" has on even intelligent Negro voters.

How far this sort of bribery goes is illustrated by the fact that 170 city employees are from the Fifth Ward and probably forty of these are Negroes. The three Negro members of the machine in this ward are all office-holders. About one-fourth of the fifty-two members of the Seventh Ward machine are Negroes, and one-half of these are office-holders. The Negro's record as an office-seeker is, it is needless to say, far surpassed by his white brother and it is only in the last two decades that Negroes have appeared as members of councils and clerks.

In spite of the methods employeed to secure these offices it cannot as yet justly be charged that many of the Negro office-holders are unfitted for their duty. There is always the possibility however that incompetent Negro officers may increase in number; and there can be no doubt but that corrupt and dishonest white politicians have been kept in power by the influence thus obtained to sway the Negro vote of the Seventh and Eighth and other wards. The problem of the Negro voter then is one of the many problems that baffle all efforts at political reform in Philadelphia: the small corrupt vote of the slums which disgraces republican government; the large vote of the masses which mistaken political ideals, blind party loyalty and economic stress now holds imprisoned and shackled to the service of dishonest political leaders.

Some Good Results of Negro Suffrage.–It is wrong to suppose that all the results of this hazardous experiment in widening the franchise have been evil. First the ballot has without doubt been a means of protection in the hands of a people peculiarly liable to oppression. Its first bestowal gained Negroes admittance to street-cars after a struggle of a quarter century; and frequently since private and public oppression has been lightened by the knowledge of the power of the black vote. This fact has greatly increased the civic patriotism of the Negro, made him strive more eagerly to adapt himself to the spirit of the city life, and has kept him from becoming a socially dangerous class.

At the same time the Negro has never sought to use his ballot to menace civilization or even the established principles of this government. This fact has been noticed by many students but it deserves emphasis. Instead of being radical light-headed followers of every new political panacea, the freedmen of Philadelphia and of the nation have always formed the most conservative element in our political life and have steadfastly opposed the schemes of inflationists, socialists and dreamers. Part of this conservatism may to be sure be the inertia of ignorance, but even such inertia must anchor to some well-defined notions as to what the present situation is; and no element of our political life seems better to comprehend the main lines of our social organization than the Negro. In Philadelphia he has usually been allied with the better elements although too often that "better" was far from the best. And never has the Negro been to any extent the ally of the worst elements.

In spite of the fact that unworthy officials could easily get into office by the political methods pursued by the Negroes, the average of those who have obtained office has been good. Of the three colored councilmen one has received the endorsement of the Municipal League, while the others seem to be up to the average of the councilmen. One Negro has been clerk in the tax office for twenty years or more and has an enviable record. The colored policemen as a class are declared by their superiors to be capable, neat and efficient. There are some cases of inefficiency–one clerk who used to be drunk most of his time, another who devotes his time to work outside his office, and many cases of inefficient watchmen and laborers. The average of efficiency among colored officeholders however is good and much higher than one might naturally expect.

Finally, the training in citizenship which the exercise of the right of suffrage entails has not been lost on the Philadelphia Negro. Any worthy cause of municipal reform can secure a respectable Negro vote in the city, showing that there is the germ of an intelligent independent vote which rises above even the blandishments of decent remunerative employment. This class is small but seems to be growing....

Credit: W.E.B. Du Bois, Chapter 17, "Negro Suffrage," in The Philadelphia Negro. New York: Lippincott, 1899.
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