There were several ways that African Americans were denied the right to vote in the late 1800’s. After the 15th Amendment was passed in 1867, no one could be denied the right to vote on the basis of race. In the late 1800’s, other laws were passed to try to keep African Americans from voting. First, there were poll taxes. These were taxes that had to be paid in order to vote. Since African Americans were the poorest group in the south, this kept many African Americans from voting. There were also literacy tests. A person would have to pass a test to prove he could read and write in order to vote. Since African Americans were the least educated group in the south, this kept many African Americans from voting. Many times these tests were rigged to make sure African Americans would fail. To allow poor, illiterate white people to vote, grandfather clauses were passed which said that any person whose father or grandfather could vote before 1867 did not have to pay the poll tax or take the literacy test. White men could vote before 1867, so their descendants did not have to pay the tax or take the test. African Americans were not allowed to vote before 1867 so their descendants had to pay the tax and take the test. Finally, even if African Americans could pay the tax and pass the test, there were groups such as the Ku Klux Klan that used violence and the threat of violence to keep African Americans from voting.
There were a few major devices used to prevent blacks from voting during this general period of time:
- The literacy test (or understanding test). Here, blacks were required to read and/or explain some certain text to a white official. The official would decide whether the black person was sufficiently literate or whether the black person actually understood things like the Constitution. Blacks were prevented from voting because A) they were illiterate or B) the officials used their discretion to simply say that the blacks had not understood the passage correctly.
- The poll tax. Many places required people to pay a tax in order to vote. Since so many blacks were poor, this prevented many of them from voting.
- Grandfather clauses. These didn't actually prevent blacks from voting -- they allowed whites to vote even if they couldn't pass the literacy test or pay the poll tax. They would typically say that if your grandfather was eligible to vote, so are you. Whites' grandfathers generally were, blacks' grandfathers weren't.