Poll Tax Déjà Vu

Excerpt from a Letter to a Granddaughter

To Jesse, my dear girl:

Recently I have been looking at my accumulation of old family papers, with an eye to what should be kept, and what recycled. I came across a number of documents relating to my grandfather, Rufus Crispinius Sadler, Jr. (I shall call him Rufus), who died in Santa Cruz before I was born when his horse bolted and he was thrown from his buggy.

I was taken with the idea of writing a biographical sketch of Rufus, in which I would attempt to provide a bridge across five generations – from Rufus to my father Anthony Wayne, to me, to Annie, and from Annie to you. That moves us from the leisurely pace of horse-drawn vehicles to our streak-of-lightning cars of today. To commence:

Gareth W. Sadler

Rufus C. Sadler, Jr., was born in Logan County, Arkansas, in 1850. His parents, Rufus C. Sadler, Sr. and Elizabeth Candace Murphy Sadler, owned a substantial farm located on a tributary of the Arkansas River in northwestern Arkansas, which was planted in cotton. There Rufus was born and grew up. The Civil War ended with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April of 1865, when Rufus was 15 years old.

Two months later, in June of 1865, Rufus, Jr., and his mother, Elizabeth, sat down together and wrote a document entitled “List of Negro Slaves Freed by President Abraham Lincoln Emancipation Proclamation of 1861-65.”

It read in part: ”(Slaves) belonging to R.C. Sadler, Sr. and his wife Elizabeth C. Sadler.” It then lists the names, ages, and worth of 21 men, women, and children. One entry: “Charles (aged) 29 mechanic (worth) 2000.” Another entry: “Priscilla aged 26 years worth $1250”. Another entry: “Maud (aged) 2 (worth) 250.” The total worth of the 21 persons was given as $15,750. That sum is equal to about $300,000 in present day dollars. The final sentence in the document reads: “When the U.S. Government decides to pay for these slaves that were freed by it, the ones belonging to Lucinda Murphy (mother of Elizabeth Candace Murphy Sadler) will be inherited by Elizabeth C. Sadler…”.

It is difficult to understand how anyone in the South in 1865 could have imagined that the vengeful abolitionists who controlled Congress, and who were pledged to destroy the slave-owner class, would have paid a penny to any slave owner. There is a remote possibility that Rufus and his mother might have had in mind the proposal which President Lincoln had indeed made – that the Union should purchase all of the slaves in the Confederacy. But that was a strategy by which Lincoln intended to shorten the war, and never implemented. In any event, there is no record of any use being made of that list, with its heart-wrenching entry: Maud, age 2, $200.

Despite the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution which abolished slavery, despite the 14th Amendment which gave citizenship to African-Americans, and despite the 15th Amendment which gave African-Americans the vote, by 1877, when Reconstruction ended, the white population in the old Confederacy had succeeded in subjecting African-Americans to a form of peonage which effectively deprived them of both their economic and their political rights. This was accomplished by the Jim Crow laws, backed up by intimidation and violence. It is estimated that at least 3,000 African-Americans were lynched in the period from 1882 to 1920.

One of the many measures making up the Jim Crow laws was the poll tax. Evidence that a man had paid the tax was required in order to vote in any primary or general election. Virtually no African-Americans even attempted to pay the tax. And although the poll tax was primarily intended to block African-Americans from voting, it also served to discourage poor whites, who could not afford to pay. But members of the white middle class of course did dutifully pay the tax, and thus controlled all branches of state governments, at all levels.

By 1880, Rufus was a wealthy man by Arkansas standards, owning hundreds of acres of land planted in cotton, lying along a tributary of the Arkansas River in Yell County, Arkansas. He was a pillar of the local Baptist Church. He was proposed as a candidate for county sheriff. He was a member of the local gentry. And of course he paid the tax. This is a photo of his receipt for 1908. I believe most people today would find it hard to believe, but the poll tax continued to be imposed in many states in the South until it was outlawed by the 24th Amendment to the Constitution in 1964 – a century after the Emancipation Declaration.

By all accounts, Rufus was a devoted son, a loving husband and father, and a man respected and admired by his friends and neighbors. However, in our family, we have to face the unpleasant truth that Rufus was part of the establishment which kept African-Americans as second-class citizens and deprived them of the rights which the Constitution guarantees. There is nothing we can do to alter that history. We can only keep in mind that in our own times we must resist efforts to deprive any of our citizens of their rights, and most critically, we must oppose efforts to intimidate citizens or interfere with their right to vote.

Today, those efforts are being made in state after state across the country. In an editorial on September 22, 2012, the New York Times stated: “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits intimidation or interference in the act of voting, but the penalties are fairly light. Many states have tougher laws, but they won’t work unless law enforcement officials use them to crack down on the illegal activities – handed down from Jim Crow days – of True the Vote and similar groups.”

Rufus and Nancy left Arkansas in 1910 and moved to Santa Cruz, California, together with their youngest son, Wayne, who was then 18. After Wayne married my mother, Genevieve – always known as Brick – they lived on a farm in Soquel, just south of Santa Cruz. Then, in 1920, Brick and Wayne, and their two seven-year-old boys, traveled to Yell County, Arkansas, where for the next seven years Wayne worked very hard trying to make a success raising cotton on land which he had inherited from Rufus. Brick’s book, Muzzled Oxen, is her running account of those seven years. She dedicated it “to the share-croppers and cotton-pickers of the South.”


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