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?
Homer L. Pike, interviewer,
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,
Stem, North Carolina,
Jack Delano, photographer,
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.
- Search across American Memory on the term poll tax to see a variety of items, including Rhode Island's 1790 declaration that no capitation or poll tax shall ever be laid by Congress, found in The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (Elliot's Debates) in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, 1774-1875.
- In 1756, Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie calculated there were at least a million taxable polls in the colonies. He proposed a poll tax to build a chain of forts during the French and Indian War. Dinwiddie's May 1756 letter to George Washington mentions the proposed forts and is available in George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799.
- Suffrage Limitations At the South is one of many pamphlets pertaining to African-American disenfranchisement in African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907. Search the collection on voting to access these documents.
- Taxation of Women in Massachusetts examines the legal and political status of women in Massachusetts from 1780 to 1871 highlighting the amount women paid in taxes while denied the right to vote. This pamphlet is available through Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921, a collection of artifacts documenting the woman suffrage campaign.
- Learn more about the history of elections in the U.S. by viewing Elections…the American Way, a feature presentation of the Teachers Page.
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
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.
Geneva, New York,
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991
- Learn more about the life of Elizabeth Blackwell and other pioneers in Science, Medicine, Exploration, and Invention and Women's History in the collection Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manucript Division’s First 100 Years. The Manuscript Division holds the papers of the Blackwell Family and has compiled a Finding Aid to the collection.
- The American Memory online publication, American Women: A Gateway to Library of Congress Resources for the Study of Women’s History and Culture in the United States describes other collections in the Manuscript Division related to women’s involvement in the field of Health and Medicine. This guide’s extensive documentation of the Women’s History collections found throughout the Library is an invaluable resource.
- Don't miss Petticoat Surgeon, the autobiography of physician Bertha Van Hoosen, featured in Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910. Van Hoosen's book chronicles her early studies and career in medicine, as well as her extensive travels and encounters with physicians in Europe and Asia. Also highlighted are medical issues debated at the turn of the century such as care for unwed mothers, anesthesia for childbirth, and discrimination against women doctors.
- See the Teachers Page feature Women Pioneers in American Memory, which includes pages on Suffrage and on The Struggle for Equality.
- See Today in History features on the Woman Suffrage Movement, which built on the strides taken by women like Elizabeth Blackwell:
- The National Library of Medicine features the online exhibition, "Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America's Women Physicians". A brief biography of Elizabeth Blackwell is included.
- Additional primary documents on Elizabeth Blackwell (external link) are found in the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Archives. An online biography (external link) also is available.