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Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Dec 23

African American Voting and Thomas Eugene Allison

Posted on December 23, 2019 at 3:40 PM by Jenny Levins

“African American Genealogy in Iredell County” will be the subject of a special Lunch & Learn program on Wednesday, Feb. 21, from 12:00 to 1:00 pm at the library in Statesville. Joel Reese, the Local History Librarian at the Iredell County Public Library will be giving instructions and information on how Black families can research their family tree from the records available in the library. This is free program with dessert and beverages provided by the Iredell Friends of the Library. 

Newspapers are an excellent source for family information given in obituaries, wedding announcements, births, and community news. Unfortunately, most of the early newspapers in Iredell leave out news on the Black community and only mention an African American if they have been in an accident or arrested. One exception though was the Statesville Record started in 1931 by the Statesville Printing Company with Ben Scronce as editor. On Nov. 4, 1932, a column appeared in the Record by James C. Caldwell called, “News of Colored People of Statesville.” The next appearance of the column was on Feb. 14, 1933, and is written by Thomas Eugene Allison Jr., who will write the column until the date of its last appearance on Feb. 18, 1938. 

The library’s Local History Department has made copies of all the “News of Colored People of Statesville” columns and placed them in the history room along with an index created by volunteer Jean Moore. This column is a gold mine of information on the activities of the Black community in Statesville in the 30s. Allison reports on schools, churches, funerals, sports teams, music groups, social gatherings, and even civil rights and politics. Allison does not shy away from mentioning the NAACP (started in 1917) or Negro History Week which began in 1926 as the second week of February and later becomes Black History Month.  

Thomas Eugene Allison, Jr. was born in Iredell County on Aug. 21, 1897 to Thomas M. Allison and Nettie Stockton of Statesville. His younger sisters included Vivian Louise, Mary Oats, Thelma, and Nettie. In the 1900 Federal Census they are shown living on Stockton Street. On Thomas’s World War I Draft Registration card recorded in Sept. 1918, the family is living at 120 Walker St., Statesville and Thomas is listed as a musician. By the time he starts writing the column in 1933 he is a college graduate, a salesman for the Winston Mutual Life Insurance Company, and president of the local Excelsior Civic League. 

Allison’s byline is, “By T.E. Allison, Jr. The Record Correspondent and a Member of the Associated Negro Press.” At times he refers to himself as Prof. Allison as he is a qualified teacher. In the 1940 census Thomas is 42 and living with his father on Garfield St. He is still listed as a salesman, but by 1942 his World War II draft registration card lists him as an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture. After serving in the war he returns to Statesville in 1945. Thomas’s sisters Mary, Nettie, and Vivian relocate to New York and it is in the Bronx, New York that Thomas passes away on July 15, 1966 at the age of 68. His funeral was held in Center Street A.M.E. Zion Church in Statesville with burial in Belmont Cemetery.  

Allison’s column in the 1930s was in the midst of the Jim Crow era that required separate bathrooms, water fountains, bus seating, and more for African Americans. A state constitutional amendment passed on Feb. 21, 1900 took away the voting rights of almost all African Americans in N.C. through a literacy test. In Iredell-Piedmont County, Iredell County historian explained that, “During the first years of the 20th Century Negroes in Iredell were effectively stopped from voting, not so much because they could not read or write as because of the way the regulations were enforced by the registrars. It was well understood that a black just did not register to vote, that the registrar would not pass him on the literacy test.” 

On May 5, 1934, Thomas E. Allison and Robert W. Dockery attempted to register to vote in the Democratic primary in Iredell County, but were refused by registrar C.R. Sharpe. On July 30, 1934 The Landmark reported that the two men had brought suit for themselves “and all other persons similarly situated,” on the ground that they were wrongfully deprived of the privilege of registering for the June primary election by C.R. Sharpe, registrar of ward 2, Statesville. The article named (Hugh Mitchell) the chairman of the Iredell county board of elections and the chairman of the State board, Major L.P. McLendon, of Greensboro, as co-defendants. Allison and Dockery set out in their complaint that they complied with the requirements by writing excerpts from the constitution as required by the registrar “in a plain, legible and readable manner” and that the registrar turned them down with the statement, “You don’t satisfy me.” 

Both Allison and Dockery were over 21, had been residents of the state for many years, and were college graduates with teaching certificates. After the decision of the registrar was upheld in local court the two men appealed to the state Supreme Court. In their complaint they declared that C.R. Sharpe “acquired or derived his authority to disfranchise these plaintiffs from article six, section 5,939 of the election laws, consolidated statutes of North Carolina which reads in part as follows: “Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the constitution in the English language, and shall show to the satisfaction of the registrar his ability to read and write any such section when he applies for registration, and before he is registered.” 

The two men asked that the literacy test be declared unconstitutional noting that the section saying, “shall show to the satisfaction of the registrar,” basically, “permits registrars to arbitrarily disfranchise any citizen without due process of law,” since there is no appeal from the decision of the registrar.” As The Landmark noted on May 22, 1936, “Registrars vested with “discretion” have robbed Negroes of their voting rights by refusing them the privileges of registration because their scholarship did not “satisfy” the registrar. The usual failure to “satisfy” the registrar was easy to understand. The Negro applicant knew too much and the white registrar generally too little to “satisfy” anybody.” The Supreme Court refused the men’s appeal, but declared they would have had a good case if they had based it on the registrar’s abuse of power.

The suit of Allison and Dockery failed, but their efforts helped bring about change. The Landmark on Feb. 7, 1936 noted that, “There is apparently little doubt anywhere that the Negro citizens had the right to vote.” In May of 1936, Chairman L.P. McLendon, of the State Board of Elections warned that registrars must not arbitrarily refuse to register Negro voters noting that “One case from Iredell County, has recently been decided by the N.C. Supreme Court and is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and this week a registrar in Wilkes County is being tried in the Federal Court on criminal indictment.” Educated Black men and women would continue the efforts of Thomas E. Allison Jr., resulting in the signing of the Federal Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965. 

Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library

This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Black History Month: Learn about genealogy at Wednesday’s event” on Feb. 20, 2018