A new exhibit at the Carver 4-County Museum, “Firsts As Citizens,” celebrates early local voting pioneers, women and men of color who took hold of the hard-fought freedom while ever-striving for equality.
It’s available for virtual view at carver4cm.org or in-person, by appointment, at The Carver Center in Culpeper County.
Among those featured are 16 women of color who were the first to register to vote in Culpeper County shortly after American females won the right to vote with ratification of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 18, 1920.
Cursive hand-written records unearthed by exhibit curator Terry Miller show the women were required to take “a poll test” before being granted the right to vote locally.
The new voting-themed exhibit also features the names and stories of some of the more than 2,800 Black men who went to the polls for the first time in Culpeper, Orange, Madison and Rappahannock in 1870 with passing of the 15th Amendment.
“The 50-year span between African American men and women getting the vote is shown powerfully in their full quest for citizenship,” said Hortense Hinton-Jackson, history vice chairwoman with the George Washington Carver Regional High School Alumni Association.
Hinton-Jackson, a former student of the Black regional high school—and now, historic site—along U.S. 15 in Culpeper County, noted of particular interest in the exhibit was an essay, “Black Women and Reform,” by prominent activist, educator and Orange County native Nannie H. Burroughs. The piece was published in The Crisis magazine in August, 1915 when women still couldn’t vote.
Burroughs ended her column, “The ballot, wisely used, will bring to her the respect and protection that she needs. It is her weapon of moral defence (sic.). Under present conditions, when she appears in court in defence of her virtue, she is looked upon with amused contempt. She needs the ballot to reckon with men who place no value upon her virtue, and to mould healthy public sentiment in favor of her own protection.”
Teacher Leila Lightfoot was Culpeper’s first Black woman to register to vote at the age of 43 on Sept. 22, 1920—a month after the 19th Amendment became law. Another Culpeper teacher and woman of color, 25-year-old Annie Payne, registered on Sept. 30. She was followed shortly thereafter by 24-year-old teacher Lucy Henry Brown, 35-year-old merchant Margaret Johnson and 45-year-old postmistress and merchant Annie Fields, according to Miller’s research.
Brandy Station schoolteacher Sallie Washington Chinn was among the 16 women. She educated elementary students at the Brandy School from 1920-1926, according to research by Miller.
Washington, born 1867, just two years after the end of the American Civil War, had ties to this area as her mother, Mary Washington, was from Madison County. Her husband, Charles Chinn, was a Kentucky native and U.S. Army veteran.
Local female voting pioneer Rose Wilhoite, of Buena in Culpeper County, had to answer three history questions before her voter registration was accepted on Oct. 2, 1920, records show. They were: Who is President? Who is Governor, and Who is Vice President?
Wilhoite answered correctly: President Woodrow Wilson, Governor Westmoreland Davis and Vice President (Thomas) Marshall.
Another local first-time voter featured in the new exhibit was Ida Virginia Thompson, born 1866 in Rappahannock. She was a local teacher as well, educating students in Amissville 1893-94 and in Jeffersonton the following year before retiring to start her own family.
Thompson registered to vote Oct. 2, 1920 at the age of 54. This was less than two years after her 18-year-old son, Charles “Allie” Thompson, was tragically murdered by a mob by lynching. Her occupation when she registered to vote for the first time was housekeeper, according to Miller’s research.
“Isn’t that an amazing record?” said the exhibit curator, author and genealogist of the documents recording local voting history.
Miller found the voter registration and poll test documents in the Virginia Library Archives Annex in Richmond, “stuck inside old polls books,” she said. Miller spent three days going through voting records from 1902-1950.
The women’s display incorporating those records is located on the center table at the Carver Museum and is organized according to issues of concern. Miller’s research showed the following 12 issues for women 100 years ago: poverty, caring for elderly parents, home ownership, racial injustice, women’s healthcare, chronic diseases, single parenthood, small business desire for better job opportunities, aging & Social Security, childcare and providing a quality education.
“The point is how little issues have changed over the years,” the curator said.
There are several special artifacts on display as well including a skirt made with quilted fabric (still has blood stains on the bottom front); an iron; a black Victorian blouse and two vintage seed packets.
The new exhibit also features voting records and stories about the area’s Black veterans, men casting ballots in the “Reconstruction” years following the end of the Civil War and slavery.
For example, Robert Watkins of Gordonsville was a servant in the Virginia Light Artillery led by Confederate Commander Charles Fry, Miller’s research found. The battery founded in May, 1861 in Richmond and reported three casualties at Fredericksburg in addition to losing 10 percent of the 80 engaged at the Battle of Gettysburg, according to the National Park Service.
When allowed by the U.S. Constitution, Watkins registered to vote in Locust Grove, living out his years before passing on in 1933. His family proudly applied for an official military headstone for him in 1933, Miller said.
“The irony is that not only were they registering to vote to acclaim their own freedom, but they had the choice of voting for retired Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, leader of Union forces in the Civil War,” she said of the 1872 election in which voters elected Grant to a second term as Commander in Chief.
More than half-million Black men voted in that election, she said, and in 1870, President Grant had the privilege of speaking to Congress about final ratification of the 15th Amendment. The 18th U.S. President called it “a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free Government to the present day,” granting the right to some 4 million Black men.
“I repeat that the adoption of the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life. The change will be beneficial in proportion to the heed that is given to the urgent recommendations of Washington,” Grant said in a special message to Congress March 30, 1870.
The new exhibit at The Carver Center—the museum is located inside the former school’s library, just off of the lobby—highlights a copy of a letter written by Frederick Douglass and published in the NY Times on April 11, 1870: “We were always men … now we are citizens and men among men.”
It was a beginning.
The exhibit will be on display through February. The Carver 4-County Museum, 9432 N. James Madison Highway, is open for appointments of groups of up to 10 people and with CDC and VDH pandemic guidelines in place. To schedule a time to see the exhibit, contact Charlotte B. Carpenter at 540/547-2530. Online at carver4cm.org.
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