MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - This presidential election saw a record number of voters head to the polls. An overwhelming number of them were Black.
In Alabama, 96% of all eligible Black residents in the state were registered to vote, compared to 91% of all eligible white Alabamians.
So, how did we get here? It wasn’t easy.
WSFA 12 News is wrapping up its series of stories re-examining Black history in Alabama in conjunction with the Alabama Department of Archives & History with a look at reconstruction.
Following the Civil War, a plan to free enslaved residents was underway, and for the first time, Black residents in Alabama were getting a chance to vote.
In May 1865, fighting ended and more than 400,000 enslaved Alabamians came closer to freedom - with a chance to be reunited with their families.
“So we know that one of the most insidious aspects of slavery was the breakup of families,” said Derryn Moten of history and political science at Alabama State University.
As Black Alabamians looked for families they also looked forward to securing new civil rights. When Andrew Johnson was appointed president after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, he would carry out his predecessor’s plan to end slavery but would give each Confederate state the power to do so.
“And that is so offensive to some Republicans and the North at the time who said we’ve just fought a four-year war to undo secession and to secure the rights of African American people. Now you’re handing control back over to the people who control the system in the first place,” said Steve Murray of the Alabama Department of Archives & History.
“I think President Johnson’s attitude reflected the attitude of many whites in this country at that time,” said Moten.
In 1865, Johnson appointed native New Yorker Lewis Parsons as Alabama’s provisional governor to oversee reconstruction. During the same year, during a state convention, delegates declared secession null and void and abolished slavery, settling on language written by William Mudd of Jefferson County declaring “The institution of slavery had been destroyed in the state of Alabama,” and it was thus “null and void.”
The beginning of the second phase of the reconstruction wasn’t promising. The 14th Amendment that gives all formerly enslaved men equal rights failed three times in the state Legislature.
It would take a statewide referendum on a constitutional convention to ratify the 14th Amendment and to give the formerly enslaved political rights. And this time, all qualified men, Black and white, were to register to vote.
“Persons who had picked cotton now picked mayors could now pick governors could now pick national offices,” historian and author Richard Bailey said of why African Americans were seen as a threat.
Black registrars were appointed, and despite violent retaliation, the number of Black men registering to vote outpaced white registrants, many of whom boycotted the process. According to records by the state department of archives by the referendum, there were more than 104,500 Black male voters and more than 61,200 white males registered voters.
“Now that doesn’t mean that life here was rosy for anybody and especially African Americans during this time because in addition to the official government process and policies during reconstruction, there were extra-legal ways of influencing what happened now and I’m speaking specifically of the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations that become prevalent,” Murray said.
Alabama saw its most diverse constitutional convention in 1867. Eighteen of the 99 delegates elected were African American.
However, once federal troops left, white supremacy groups started destroying Black businesses, schools and intimidated Blacks from voting.
It took 103 years before Alabama elected an African American to the Legislature.
As recent racial unrest hit the country, the state archives confronted its role in what it calls systemic racism. It admits early on it focused only on the history of the Confederacy.
For more information on history in Alabama visit alabamahistoryhome.org.