What is the “grandfather clause” and how does it relate to the Native American/”free colored” citizens of Granville County?
Let’s jump right in!
The Grandfather Clause was an important component of the 1900 constitutional amendment restricting North Carolina’s class of eligible voters. The disfranchisement amendment provided that voters must be able to read and write a section of the state constitution in the English language and to pay a poll tax. Far from attempting to encourage literacy, however, the primary goal of the amendment, as admitted in the Democratic Party’s pro-amendment campaign in 1900, was to eliminate African American voters as a factor in North Carolina politics. The large number of poor illiterate black males, as well as the bias of white Democratic registrars, ensured that the literacy test and the poll tax would be used to reduce the electorate.
The drafters of the amendment were aware of the politically unacceptable fact that illiterate whites could also be excluded by the literacy test. The answer to this problem was the grandfather clause, which stated that no one should be denied the right to register and vote because of the literacy requirement if he or a lineal ancestor could vote under the law of his state of residence on 1 Jan. 1867, provided that he registered before 1 Dec. 1908. The 1867 date was important because it preceded any federal prohibition of racial discrimination; therefore very few blacks were eligible to vote. In practical terms, it meant that illiterate whites were absolved of the embarrassment of a literacy requirement and blacks were not, thus enhancing the discretionary power of Democratic registrars.
“Free people of color” in North Carolina had the right to vote and hold office until 1835, when North Carolina adopted a new constitution that disenfranchised ALL free people of color. With the new state constitution enacted in 1900, North Carolina adopted a policy of “poll taxes” which essentially made it impossible for people of color to vote. As you read in the above summary, these poll taxes also made it difficult for “poor whites” to vote because many were illiterate and could not afford to pay the poll tax.
As a result, North Carolina adopted a “grandfather clause” starting in 1900 which allowed for men to list themselves or a direct lineal male ancestor who could vote on January 1, 1867 (or earlier). By identifying themselves or an earlier direct ancestor as an eligible voter in 1867, these individuals were exempt from the poll tax.
Free people of color and those descended from free people of color took advantage of this grandfather clause in order to circumvent these literacy tests that were required to become an eligible voter. African Americans descended from slaves however were unable to take advantage of this grandfather clause because their ancestors for the most part were not eligible voters on January 1, 1867 (or earlier). However, free people of color had ancestors who were eligible voters in earlier times, so this grandfather clause provided a way to become registered to vote.
In 1902, 1904, 1906, and 1908, residents of Granville County who were eligible for the “grandfather clause” registered to vote. These lists are available to researchers for every county in the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh. A fellow researcher and friend, Dr. Warren Milteer, provided me with un-transcribed copies of the Granville County list. A huge thanks to Dr. Milteer for sharing this incredibly valuable information. Not only do these lists provide the names of all who applied for the “grandfather clause”, they are also helpful genealogical documents since individuals named earlier direct ancestors. The voter lists are a great way to verify suspected earlier ancestors of the person you’re researching. And if you hit a genealogical road block, these lists may help you push through to identify an earlier ancestor.
WORD OF CAUTION: Just like all historical documents, you may find both intentional and unintentional errors in these documents. So they should be seen as just one of many clues to help you identify earlier ancestors. I have noticed a couple of errors in the lists for Granville County. For example, Hawkins Kersey (also known as Hawkins Tyler) listed his adopted father Baldy Kersey as a direct ancestor. Baldy Kersey was most definitely known as Hawkins’ “father”, but was not his biological father. Another example is found with Sandy Guy. On every census, marriage, and death record, Sandy is consistently identified as “Sandy Guy”. However on his voter registration, he listed himself as “Sandy Chavis”. I have no idea why he used a different surname for his voting application but I can assure you that Sandy Chavis = Sandy Guy.
Below is a table chart which lists all free people of color (and those descended from people of color) in Granville County who registered to vote using the “grandfather clause”. I only transcribed the records for free people of color, so this list does not reflect all people who applied using the “grandfather clause”. The first column is the name of the applicant, the second column is their listed age, the third column is the ancestor they claimed descent from, and the fourth column is the township they resided in. I added an additional column where I provided my own research notes to help you identify exactly who these individuals are. As you will see there are a couple of individuals who I’m still working on researching. I will update this list if I come across additional information. Also please note that this list is only for Granville County. Many people within the Granville County Native American community lived in Kittrell and Henderson townships and those townships became apart of Vance County in 1881. Therefore residents of those townships will be found in the Vance County list. What you will notice is a heavy concentration of individuals living in Fishing Creek township which is where most of the community resided.
After the list, you will see a few photos I added of the people who applied to register to vote under the “grandfather clause”. On a personal note, I was very delighted to see my great-great grandfather James E Howell registered to vote. I hope this information is valuable to your research.
Granville County Voting Registrations: