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Spotsylvania museum exhibit tells of fight for the right to vote
By PAMELA GOULD
Terry Miller knew she had the inspiration for her next exhibit after Spotsylvania Circuit Court clerk Pamela Williams contacted her about the century-old lawsuit she discovered in courthouse records.
Miller is executive director and curator of the John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum, which was created to tell the story of the education of African–Americans in Spotsylvania. But the museum also produces exhibits telling a broader story of the county.
When Miller read the lawsuit filed on May 19, 1911, by a black man who had been denied the right to register to vote, she knew she had a timely exhibit to celebrate the museum’s second anniversary, which is Sunday.
“It just brings tears to your eyes,” Miller said as she thought about what Prestin Despot and others endured to gain the right to vote.
Despot went before registrar J.H. Biscoe at the Peakes precinct on May 16, 1911, to become a registered voter in the county’s Livingston District.
He filled out an application attesting that he was 35 years old, having been born on Oct. 24, 1875, and that he had lived his entire life in Spotsylvania County, was a farmer by occupation and had never voted before in Virginia, Spotsylvania County or the Livingston District.
The suit states that Despot, whose first name was changed from his spelling—Prestin—to Preston, also states that he had been paying “nearly Five Dollars taxes annually” for two small farms as well as poll taxes for the previous three years.
In 1902, Virginia amended its constitution to require people to pay a poll tax of $1.50 for three years preceding an election to be eligible to register, a move that denied most African–Americans as well as anyone else of limited means the ability to vote.
Biscoe looked over the application and seemed satisfied, but then proceeded to ask a series of questions he claimed—falsely—were required by law.
The questions included: who was the first president, who is the state’s attorney general, how long do governors hold office, and how many congressional districts are in the state.
Despot “asked the registrar for a copy of his application and the list of questions as soon as he was refused registration but Mr. Biscoe refused to give him one,” the lawsuit states.
Despot prevailed in court, getting the right afforded him by the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gives every man the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and was ratified five years before his birth.
EXHIBIT DISPLAYS HORRORS, HINDRANCES, TRIUMPHS
Despot’s story is among those told in the exhibit, “The Psychological Power of Voting,” which opened at the museum during an anniversary celebration Thursday evening.
The exhibit, which runs through January, explores the fight for voting rights of women as well as minorities and includes artifacts that show the extent of efforts to intimidate and thus deny access to the ballot box for all Americans.
Among those harsh reminders are the robe and hood of a Ku Klux Klansman, a hangman’s noose, and a magazine cover showing a hooded man armed with two flaming torches.
There’s also an enlarged copy of the record of the roll-call vote in the U.S. Senate on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It shows that both of Virginia’s senators—Harry Flood Byrd Sr. and Absalom Willis Robertson—voted “nay,” essentially indicating they didn’t support the 15th Amendment.
But the exhibit also includes items that celebrate successes.
One lists the names of the first five black women who registered to vote after women gained that right on Aug. 18, 1920, with ratification of the Constitution’s 19th Amendment.
That list includes Cora Jackson Wright and Jeannette Garnett Wright, the wife and daughter, respectively, of John J. Wright. They registered in the Brents Mill precinct on Oct. 2, 1920.
AN INSPIRING FIND IN THE STATE LIBRARY’S STORAGE
At Thursday’s exhibit opening, visitors filled the museum, which occupies what had been the school’s library.
And as the official unveiling drew to a close, Miller shared a story that captured the imagination of many who remembered their own struggles as well as those of their ancestors.
Miller recounted that she traveled to the Library of Virginia in Richmond about three weeks ago looking for the first voter rolls for African–Americans from Spotsylvania County, records many had thought would never be found.
But there an employee came out with a box containing sealed envelopes that he wasn’t sure if he had permission to open.
Miller pressed him to ask and when he returned, he answered in a whisper, as if it was a message too sacred to say aloud.
“Yes, we can.”
And with that he set about carefully unsealing the envelopes whose contents had last been touched in the 19th century.
Inside, Miller shared, were the names of 607 African–American men whose names had been recorded with pristine handwriting on the voter rolls of 1867, two years after the Civil War.
“Wow,” several in the crowd exclaimed before they walked over to look at copies of the rolls.
“That is very special,” said museum board member Gilbert Garcia, who is pastor of First New Hope Baptist Church in Partlow.
“To be able to find that in that condition and then us get our hands on it, that is very special,” he said.
“As a member of the board, that makes me very proud.”
Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: “The Psychological Power of Voting” exhibit
WHERE: The John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum in the library of the school at 7565 Courthouse Road, Spotsylvania
WHEN: The free exhibit will be on display through January. Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thursday through Saturday.
MORE INFO: Call 540/582-7583, ext. 5545, or go online to: jjwmuseum.org.