Today in History

Today in History: January 23

The Poll Tax: Twenty-Fourth Amendment Ratified

Do you know I've never voted in my life, never been able to exercise my right as a citizen because of the poll tax?

"Mr. Trout."
Homer L. Pike, interviewer,
Atlanta, Georgia.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Projects, 1936-1940

Over twenty years after Atlanta textile worker "Mr. Trout" lamented his inability to vote to a WPA interviewer, collection of poll taxes in national elections was prohibited by the January 23, 1964, ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Passage of the amendment affected voting in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and Virginia.

At ceremonies formalizing ratification in February, President Lyndon Johnson noted that by abolishing the poll tax the American people:

…reaffirmed the simple but unbreakable theme of this Republic. Nothing is so valuable as liberty, and nothing is so necessary to liberty as the freedom to vote without bans or barriers…There can be no one too poor to vote.

Farmer and His Son On Election Day
Farmer and His Son On Election Day,
Stem, North Carolina,
Jack Delano, photographer,
May 1940.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Black-and-White Photographs from FSA-OWI, 1935-1945

Adopted by many Southern states in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the poll tax circumvented the Fifteenth Amendment, disenfranchising many blacks and poor whites. In the 1890s, the Populist party momentarily succeeded in uniting poor black and white Southerners on the basis of common economic interest. Some historians argue that this threat to the Democratic Party and upperclass control of Southern society led to the institution of poll taxes and segregation laws.

With his history of union leadership and his chronic poverty, Mr. Trout was exactly the kind of man the poll tax was intended to disenfranchise.

On five separate occasions in the 1940s, the House of Representatives passed anti-poll tax legislation, only to be blocked or filibustered in the Senate. In 1949, Senator Spessard L. Holland of Florida initiated efforts to abolish the poll tax by constitutional amendment. The Senate finally approved the measure in 1962 by a vote of 77 to 16. The amendment was submitted to the states for ratification on September 14, 1962.

Voters at the Voting Booths,
Voters at the Voting Booths,
circa 1945.
Copyprint, NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
Courtesy of the NAACP
African American Odyssey

Elizabeth Blackwell

I do not wish to give [women] a first place, still less a second one—but the most complete freedom, to take their true place whatever it may be

Handwritten letter
Elizabeth Blackwell to Baroness Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron,
Letter concerning women's rights and the education of women physicians,
March 4, 1851.
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years

On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from Geneva Medical College. She was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.

While Blackwell had been studying medicine on her own for four years when she began applying to medical schools, Geneva Medical College, a forerunner of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York, was the only institution to accept her application. She entered the college in 1847 and graduated at the head of her class two years later, despite having endured ostracism by students and townspeople for daring to challenge barriers against women in the field of medicine.

In 1851, after completing graduate studies at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, Blackwell returned to the United States. Barred from practicing in city hospitals, she opened a small dispensary in the tenement district of New York City. In 1857, Elizabeth, her sister Emily, and a third female colleague opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, a hospital staffed entirely by women.

Hobart College buildings
Hobart College,
Geneva, New York,
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991