Florida voter rolls during reconstruction

Every now and then especially on Holiday weekends I explore through Florida Memory, the outstanding site from the Division of Library & Information Services. This weekend I came across this gem from the Reconstruction era –  The voter roles for the state from 1867. 

The Fifteenth Amendment had yet to be ratified but  Republican-led reconstruction governments in the South but the military government in Florida had enforced universal suffrage for males. While some of the motivation for this was to give emancipated slaves the right to vote, part of the Republicans agenda was to create a base to support candidates of their party – carpetbagger white Republicans were never going to win the votes of white southern male Democrats, but newly registered African-American male voters certainly would vote Republican as they did almost universally during the period. Eventually white Democrats would resort to violence throughout the south to restore one-party and one-race rule to the region.

Historically the reconstruction era has been seen as mistake in the south – thanks in large part to the efforts of Ivy League elites to pain white southerners of the period as victims.

The so-called Dunning School of history which grew out of Colombia University in the early 1900’s was a way of “reconstructing” the legacy of reconstruction and the disloyal behavior of southern whites.
 Quoting Wikipedia:

The Dunning School refers to a group of historians who shared a historiographical school of thought regarding the Reconstruction period of American history (1865–1877). The Dunning School viewpoint favored the conservative elements (the Redeemers, rich landowners, businessmen, and Northern Democrats) and disparaged the Radical Republicans in the South (a coalition of blacks, Radical Republicans, Carpetbaggers and Scalawags) . The views of the Dunning School dominated scholarly and popular depictions of the era from about 1900 to the 1930s. Adam Fairclough, a British historian whose expertise includes Reconstruction, summarized the Dunningite themes:

All agreed that black suffrage had been a political blunder and that the Republican state governments in the South that rested upon black votes had been corrupt, extravagant, unrepresentative, and oppressive. The sympathies of the “Dunningite” historians lay with the white Southerners who resisted Congressional Reconstruction: whites who, organizing under the banner of the Conservative or Democratic Party, used legal opposition and extralegal violence to oust the Republicans from state power. Although “Dunningite” historians did not necessarily endorse those extralegal methods, they did tend to palliate them. From start to finish, they argued, Congressional Reconstruction—often dubbed “Radical Reconstruction”—lacked political wisdom and legitimacy.

It can be said that this “intellectual” support for racism and revisionism with regards to reconstruction led indirectly to lynchings and deaths of African-Americans. Backed by “scholars,” racism was suddenly “sophisticated” thanks to the Dunning School. The “Radical Republicans” of the 1860’s and 1870’s were by the early 1900’s branded as troublemakers who disrupted the nation’s harmony while white southern Democrats and conservative midwestern white Republicans were seen as those who had healed and rebuilt the nation.

The reality is while the “radical” wing of the Republican Party might have used the military and other disruptive means to achieve their ends, the ends they sought were noble and just, while the other side represented here in Florida by the establishment white Democrats were not. As time has worn on in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, the views of those “radical” Republicans are now treated more seriously, as a real effort to achieve some degree of equality 100 years before the political winds forced such changes.
Regardless of your view of the era, it is a treat to see these voter roles and also celebrate the fact that African-Americans could vote in Florida at the time.

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