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CONTENT WARNING: Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; religion; sex; and sexual orientation and gender identity.

“We have a great heritage of freedom and equality for all men, sometimes called "the American way." Yet we cannot avoid the knowledge that the American ideal still awaits complete realization.”

To Secure These RightsThe Report of the President's Committee on Civil Rights, 1947.

Earlier this week we explored some of the many ways that African American voters were disenfranchised before and after the passage of the 19th Amendment. These impediments were put in place purposefully, and it took purposeful work by activists over decades to remove some of these obstacles.

Grandfather Clauses

One of the first barriers to be dismantled was one of the most blatant, the grandfather clause. A 1915 Supreme Court case, Guinn & Beal vs. United States struck down Oklahoma’s grandfather clause on the grounds that it violated the 15th Amendment which barred discrimination on the basis of race. Although grandfather clauses did not mention race explicitly they still made it front and center by legislating who could vote based on their ancestry. The Supreme Court ruling struck down laws in many southern states. However, Virginia was confident in its many layers of bigotry. The Alexandria Gazette reported that Virginia Attorney General (later Governor) John Garland Pollard surmised that the ruling “might go so far as to restore negro domination” in some states, but that the adverse effects to Virginia would be “remote.” [1]

Alexandria Gazette, June 22,1915.

Virginia had a grandfather clause that allowed those who had served in either the United States or Confederate Armies, or whose fathers had served, to register to vote without any other requirements. It also put in place other measures to ensure that if the grandfather clause was ever stricken the balance between white and black votes would still fall in the favor of white power. Pollard continued in the Alexandria Gazette article that “The effort was to eliminate the negro from control and at the same time disfranchise as few as possible white men… The real safeguard against negro domination is the poll-tax provision.”[2]

White Primaries

Just because a Black man or woman qualified to register to vote did not guarantee they would be able to cast their ballot in all elections. Although race could not be used as a restriction on voting in elections, the Democratic Party in Virginia and other states sometimes set up primaries that were limited to white voters. This allowed the party to control the candidates that reached the general election without input from Black voters. In his 1930 filing to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia, James O. West’s lawyers pointed out that he was “a taxpayer, and a citizen of the United States over the age of twenty-one years and a resident of the commonwealth of Virginia, in which he had resided for more than two years prior to April 3, 1928; that he had duly registered as a voter in the first precinct of Madison ward in the city of Richmond, Va., in which he had resided for the required time; that he had paid all the poll taxes required of him by law; that he was a qualified voter in the Democratic party;” yet he had still been denied a vote in Richmond’s Democratic primary for mayor and alderman.[3]

The judge decided on appeal that the Democratic Primary in Richmond was acting unconstitutionally since it had used state funds in order to run its whites-only primary, therefore making it subject to the 15th Amendment. However, in other states, primaries were run strictly with funds from the political parties, not the government, and it took until the 1944 decision of the Supreme Court case Smith vs. Allright for the practice to be abolished nation-wide.

Richmond Planet, June 15, 1929.

Poll Taxes

Resistance to the poll tax was immediate. The short-lived, biracial Readjusters party was against the implementation of a poll tax and sought to abolish it. However the party itself, along with many of its aims and achievements, was quickly overrun by the opposition.

Mrs. Evelyn Butts, State Sen. Henry E. Howell Jr. and Joseph A. Jordan Jr. on April 7, 1967.

S.H. Ringo, Courtesy of the Virginian Pilot.

Poll taxes were outlawed at the Federal level in 1964 with the passage of the 24th Amendment; however, it was not until 1966 that the Supreme Court outlawed all poll taxes after a group of Virginia residents, including Annie E. Harper and Evelyn Thomas Butts, filed suit in Virginia in a case that came to be known as Harper vs. Virginia Board of Elections. Evelyn Thomas Butts was a civil rights activist from Norfolk with a long history of fighting racial injustice. She filed her case, Butts vs. Harrison (Albertis Sydney Harrison was the governor of Virginia at the time) with Norfolk lawyer and activist, Joseph A. Jordan. Their case was combined with that of Annie E. Harper and three other individuals from Gum Springs, Virginia in Fairfax County who had filed with the help of the ACLU.

The case was eventually heard by the Supreme Court in January of 1966. Thurgood Marshall, then solicitor general of the United States, filed an amicus brief (or “friend of the court” brief) in support of eliminating the poll tax and participated in the oral arguments. The poll taxes in Virginia and in other states were found to be in conflict with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Although not much is publicly known about Harper, a retired domestic worker, and the other plaintiffs from Gum Springs, Butts and Jordan were longtime community leaders and politicians in Norfolk. Butts organized voter registration drives and founded Concerned Citizens for Political Education. Joseph A. Jordan was elected the first Black member of the House of Delegates from Norfolk.

The Voting Rights Acts of 1965

The many obstacles to voting since the 15th Amendment were slowly being invalidated by the court system one at a time. However, there was always a new method to take the place of one deemed unconstitutional. And there were some methods, such as the use of threats and violence, which were harder to legislate away. The Civil Rights Acts of the 1950s and 60s led the way to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In addition to outlawing the more egregious discriminatory practices left on the books, such as literacy tests for federal elections, the VRA hoped to solve some of the harder-to-legislate issues by preemptively reviewing changes in southern voting laws to examine them for possible effects on minority voting numbers.

With the abolition of many of the legal barriers to registration, organizations like Crusade for Voters in Richmond worked hard to register new voters and support local candidates. The hard work of such activists in conjunction with the VRA resulted in Virginia’s Black voter registration rising from 38.3% in 1965 to 55.6% two years later.[4] The increase scared many in the white power structure who now had less methods available to restrict Black votes.

The Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Acts also made it easier for the federal government to pursue cases of injustice on a local level. One such case from Virginia under the VRA was Holt vs. City of Richmond. Curtis Holt charged that Richmond’s annexation of parts of Chesterfield County in 1970, as a means of replacing white voters lost due to white flight from the city, had diluted the Black vote in Richmond and cost him his election to city council. At that time all the councilmembers were “at-large,” not attached to any particular district. This meant that the influx of 44,000 white voters significantly diminished the odds of a Black councilmember being elected.

``Honor Dr. King. Richmond, Va.``: Richmond Welfare Rights Organization, 1970.

Library of Virginia Broadside Collection

Further Reading

The suit had support from many white former-Chesterfield County residents who had disagreed with the annexation to begin with. Some disliked being added to the Richmond Public School system and feared the desegregation of their local schools.

Although the court did not reverse the annexation, it did recognize that expanding Richmond’s boundaries had violated the Voting Rights Acts by not getting preapproval on the voting-related changes caused by annexation. After multiple suits, including one that reached the Supreme Court as City of Richmond vs. United States (1975), and a similar case, City of Petersburg vs. United States (1973), both cities implemented a ward or district voting based system in order to ensure that Black voters were represented.

In 2013, Shelby County vs. Holder nullified part of the Voting Rights Act that required southern states to get Federal approval before making changes to their voting laws. This has made it easier for states to introduce new regulations such as Voter ID laws that have made voting more difficult for some citizens.

However, other measures, like the restoration of the franchise for those formerly incarcerated (which will be addressed in a future blog post), have added more voters to the rolls in Virginia.

Although they worked well after the passage of the 19th Amendment, women like Evelyn Butts are suffragists too and voting activists are still hard at work in Virginia, doing everything possible to extend the franchise to all.

This is part of an ongoing blog series titled Unfinished Business that explores the history of voting rights beyond Woman’s Suffrage. Be sure to visit the Unfinished Business online exhibit. 


[1] “Opinion Does Not Affect Virginia.” Alexandria Gazette, June 22, 1915.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bliley et. al vs. West (Circuit Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit. June 13, 1930).

[4] JULIAN MAXWELL HAYTER, The Dream Is Lost: Voting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia (S.l.: UNIV PR OF KENTUCKY, 2019).

Header Image Citation

Trikosko, Marion S., “[Marchers with signs at the March on Washington, 1963]”, 1963 Aug. 28, U. S. News and World Report Magazine Photograph Collection,  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Jessi Bennett

Digital Collections Specialist