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ON THE SCENE: The struggle for voting rights

Ren Davidson (PROVIDED PHOTO — Naj Wikoff)

Do you vote? Nationally, the average voter turnout in the U.S. is not great. Within the world’s democracies, the United States is in 27th place with a turnout of 55.7%, far below Belgium’s leading turnout of 87.21%. Our poor voting record pales compared to how long it took our nation to provide universal suffrage.

The first self-governing country to provide both men and women the right to vote was New Zealand in 1893, a status expanded on in 1906 by Finland when men and women were given the right to vote and run for office. For us, those rights, sans poll taxes and literary tests designed to keep Blacks and other marginalized people from voting, were only provided with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The struggle to gain voting rights in the U.S. forms the basis of a new exhibit by graphic artist Ren Davidson at John Brown’s Farm, a New York state historic site just outside the village of Lake Placid. Her display consists of nearly two dozen placards tracing the struggle to gain voting rights before the Civil War to now.

Davidson was inspired to create her artwork by abolitionist John Brown’s efforts to enable Black men to achieve the right to vote and a 3,000 miles road trip she and her husband Pete took this spring to visit major civil rights sites throughout the South.

“The farm is a fitting setting for Ren’s exhibit as the Browns came to the Adirondacks because of the voting restrictions put upon African Americans when the New York state’s second constitution was drawn up in 1821,” said Site Manager Brendan Mills. “The law required that African American men own real estate worth $250 to vote, a requirement that disenfranchised nearly everyone. In protest, abolitionist Gerrit Smith donated thousands of acres of his land in the Adirondacks in 1865 to 3,000 grantees of African American descent. They each got about 40 acres of land, which they had to improve through clearing, planting crops, and building a house to increase its value. Brown came to North Elba initially to survey the plots to ensure the grantees had the correct plot and boundaries.”

Brown fell in love with the area, asked Smith for land so he could create a model farm and use it to help train Blacks in the tasks required to upgrade their property, and moved his family to North Elba along with a man who escaped slavery. In time, he got an urgent request from his sons, who were being harassed in the Kansas Territory. His response to their plea in 1855 led to his shifting his focus from educating Blacks in husbandry to ending slavery and his eventual raid at Harper’s Ferry.

“Even so, all the grantees who took advantage of Smith’s offer improved their land and voted,” said Mills. “The community largely accepted them. As an example, there were no segregated schools, no segregated cemeteries.”

In April, the Davidsons April trip to visit civil rights destinations in the deep South included such communities as Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, Atlanta and Macon, Georgia, and Knoxville, Tennessee. The route back swung up the coast to Savanna, Georgia, Buford, Charleston, the Gullah Geechee Islands, South Carolina, and finished visiting the new National Museum of African American History in Washington, DC.

“It was incredible,” said Davidson. “I approached it as a study trip, and I didn’t know what would come out of it, which turned out to be the history I picked up along the way. I tried to synthesize the material down to a digestible thread of the history of voting rights. What stood out was going to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where the four girls were killed by Klansmen who put a bomb under the stairs. Six months earlier, church congregants came out singing and clapping to march downtown only to be met outside by police and troopers with canines and firehoses.”

The Davidsons watched a recorded CBS broadcast of the events narrated by Walter Cronkite. This experience brought it back to when she and Pete were young and saw the events on television. The other experience that stood out was visiting the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Memorial for Peace and Justice. Ren said they feel these two sites are a must-see to truly understand the full horror of slavery and the effort it took to chart a path towards achieving the right to vote.

“My family, being in Alabama, has been denied access to voting for years,” said Benita Law-Diao while viewing the display Monday evening at the exhibition’s opening. “When I think about how hard it was for us to have a voice to enable us to fight for things that are important to us, I value the opportunity to vote. We need to have a voice to address climate change, human rights, or civil rights. Voting is the only way we’re going to have some impact. Frustrating to me are those who do not understand how important voting is; how hard it is to get it. If we lose the right to vote, and it’s already getting harder, we’ll lose a lot.”

“Voting is the only way you have a say in your government,” said Sue Abbott-Jones. “I’m worried that it’s getting harder to vote in some parts of the country.”

“I think it’s not being able to vote that matters more to me than anything else,” said Mac MacDevitt. “I have the right and privilege to go ahead and vote when I want to vote. What galls me is that so many people are being left out of that process. What this exhibit does well illustrating how voting rights have been systematically cut away by the powers that be or by people who feel that they have the privilege to vote, but others don’t.”

The exhibit is free and open to the general public throughout the summer. John Brown’s Day tribute will be celebrated at the farm on Saturday, May 14, 3-5 p.m.

“My hope with this exhibit is people will realize what the right to vote means, and then people will get out and vote,” said Davidson.