In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s day I was inspired to concentrate on my own Georgia ancestors. I revisited one of the documents that I found early on in my research that shows Gabriel Neal, (my third great-grandfather), on the 1867 Return of Registered Voters for Banks County, Georgia.
“WE CERTIFY to the correctness of the above Return,”
Board of Registration
P. P. Casey
J. G, Stringer
C. W. Beal
J. B. S. Davis
Source: Microfilm, Georgia State Archives
Contributed by Jim Davis
Transcribed 2005 by Jacqueline King
Professor Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. presented a similar document to U.S. Congressman John Lewis on an episode of Finding Your Roots that brought him to tears. I also feel that same tug at my heart and sense of pride that my great-grandfather only two years out of slavery recognized the importance of his vote. I’ve stared at this document numerous times searching for a deeper understanding of what it must have meant to Gabriel and my other family members to finally be able to participate in this process.
But in 1867, what exactly was the process for newly freed African Americans?
Congress passed the first Reconstruction Act on March 2nd, 1867 which divided the Confederacy into five military districts each governed by a Union general. The first two Reconstruction Acts were followed by a series of supplementary acts that authorized the military commanders to register the voters and supervise the elections. As a result of these measures all of the states had returned to the Union by 1870.
While some sources describe that as many as 700,000 Blacks were registered by 1868, it made me wonder how many of them would cast a vote in the next election. And if they did make it to the polls, would they be educated enough to make their own choice, or were they being coerced by political agendas? Blacks would only have a short time to celebrate the Fifteenth Amendment ratified in 1870, and would soon meet with opposition from Southern states in the form of Jim Crow laws, intimidation and violence.
My ancestors in Banks County, Georgia were proud farmers, and even 13 years later on the 1880 census only one of Gabriel’s daughters could read and write. I believe that Gabriel took a strong leap of faith to make a better life for his children and grandchildren in signing his voter registration. In that step he would attempt to ensure his family’s freedom for generations to come.
When I voted for the first African American president in the last 2 elections I kept Gabriel and his sacrifices in my thoughts. I worked as a volunteer to register new voters, donated financially and continue to work as an advocate in Washington, D.C.
The words of Dr. King resonate also continue to resonate with me in my genealogical research. The foundation of my study requires me to “sift and weigh evidence” and to maintain a level of integrity in my work. It is therefore equally as important for me to give back, educate, and enlighten others on the joy of finding their own ancestors.
“To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” Martin Luther King, Jr.,-The Purpose of Education
Bragg, William H. “Reconstruction in Georgia.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 10 January 2014. Web. 20 January 2014.