Counting backwards to Jelly Beans

Doreen Stratton Photo

“We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot but there are those in power doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting…”

–remarks by former President Barack Obama’s eulogy at the late Congressman     John Lewis’ funeral last July 2020

The Jim Crow tactic of guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar was a popular voter suppression tactic even after the 15th Amendment allowed people of color to vote. Instead, jelly beans in a jar and other suppressive methods succeeded in denying people that look like me the Right to Vote.

In an October 30, 2020 article by Paducah KY Journalist Chris Yu of NBC Affiliate WPSD, he referenced an 1895 copy of a poll receipt provided to him from Brent Taylor, an Associate Professor of History at West Kentucky Community and Technical College. The receipt–for $2.50–was the amount many Blacks were required to pay before they could vote at their polling place.

Registering to vote was yet another hurdle often denied Blacks. In the same article Yu interviewed a Washington, DC artist who shared the experience his father had endured in a 1940 Tuskeege, Alabama literacy test. The question the applicant must correctly answer: How many windows are there in the White House?

Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature, as if not terrified enough of losing their seats by carving Legislative Districts that look like Rorschach tests, has proposed 14 separate bills designed to eliminate our Right to Vote.

Published on the Brennan Center for Justice website is a comprehensive report titled, “Voting Laws Roundup: February 2021”. Among the proposed assault on our Right to Vote, Pennsylvania’s list of 14 includes eliminating no excuse mail voting; eliminating permanent early voting lists; prohibiting ballot drop boxes; and the rejection of absentee ballots.

Dear Republicans Legislators in Harrisburg: How many jelly beans are in THIS jar? (HINT: 5″ tall; 3″ in diameter)

Doreen Stratton Photo

Difficult, right?


The Power of Voting

As Pennsylvania Primary Day approaches, this seems the perfect time to share a true story about how over a hundred years ago William King, a Presbyterian minister instilled the power of voting to freed slaves living in Canada. The story I share is one depicted in my Underground Railroad presentations–Out From Slavery.

Reverend William King

Rev. William King  1812- 1895

William King was a recent graduate from Scotland’s University of Glasgow when  in 1833, he along with his six siblings and parents sailed to America. The following year the Kings settled in Delta, Ohio.

In 1835 King accepted a teaching position in the south to children of slave owners where he met Mary Phare, the daughter of a wealthy Louisiana plantation owner. On their marriage four slaves accompanied Mary into their household. King witnessed first hand slavery’s  inhumane treatment, converting him into an  outspoken advocate against the system.

After the deaths of Mary and their two children, King returned to Scotland, completing his studies to become a Presbyterian minister. The church assigned him to Canada and after his arrival there in 1846 he learned of his father-in-law’s death that included the inheritance of 15 slaves. Traveling back to Louisiana he retrieved the slaves, granting them their freedom before journeying north to his family’s farm in Ohio. By that time the farm was a station on the Underground Railroad remaining that way until the end of the Civil War. From there King and the 15 freed slaves struck out for Canada. He was determined to establish a colony that would be safe for these freed slaves and other fugitive slaves that were now pouring over the border.

With the support of the Presbyterian Church Reverend King’s dream began to happen. Initially known as the Elgin Association–named after Governor General Lord Elgin–through an Act of the British Parliament the Elgin Settlement was formed in 1850. Located in the Canadian town of Buxton, Ontario this was just one community of a few that became havens for fugitive slaves crossing into Canada.

One of the Elgin Settlement’s founders was a Member of the British House of Commons–Thomas Powell Buxton–an abolitionist who supported the settlement and whose name was given to this community that included whites and free Blacks. These newest Canadian citizens became farmers, shop owners and created a self-sufficient community that thrives today with descendants of the original fugitive slaves.

Fergus M. Bordewich’s Underground Railroad book, Bound for Canaan includes a section about the Elgin Settlement. Bordewich describes how in 1857, when a racist Parliamentarian, Edwin Larwill, in his bid for re-election was determined to remove the freed Blacks from Canada, Reverend King “… organized the registration of hundreds of new Black voters.” As citizens in Canada, it was the former slaves first time to vote. They overwhelmingly succeeded in replacing Larwill with an abolitionist candidate.

When spider webs unite they can tie up a lion  —  Ethiopian proverb

School children of the Elgin Settlement c. 1900s

School children of the Elgin Settlement c. 1900s

Beginning in the 1700s Blacks fled slavery in search of Freedom. The Jim Crow laws supposedly banished with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The discrimination against people of color is like abnormal DNA embedded in the memory of each consecutive generation of racists. Jim  Crow laws are gone but have been replaced with either Voter Photo IDs, manipulated voting districts, closed polling sites or reduced opportunities to cast a ballot of choice.

On Tuesday April  26 thousands of first-time registered voters in Pennsylvania and a few other states will march to the polls. Joining them are disgruntled registered voters who’ve been staying away instead of exercising their rightful privilege. These dillydallying voters explained their absence with the excuse: “My vote won’t make a difference.” Among these procrastinated registered voters are 60 to 80 percent who rarely showed up for their local or regional elections. Now they’re back, energized by a contentious presidential campaign yet failing to grasp how their past absences from voting has created the frenzy currently raging throughout America.

Voting Matters. Always did, always will. Every time.