La. voter registration test is mystery for historians

A Philadelphia historian sparked a days-long — and so far fruitless — archival search when she challenged her blog readers to take an “impossible” test purportedly once given to prospective black voters in Louisiana.

The test, which asks the taker to “spell backwards, forwards” among other tasks, went viral on the Internet after it posted on a noted civil rights history website. The Tennessee State Archives put a copy in its collections. Teachers are using it in their history lessons. However, history experts in Louisiana do not have a copy of it.

“I suspected that was a hoax,” Andrew Salinas, reference archivist for the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, said Wednesday.

A former civil rights worker who insists the test was given offered another explanation. Jeff Schwartz said Louisiana might have been reluctant to preserve an embarrassing chapter in its history.

No one disputes that tests designed to prevent black residents from registering to vote were given in Louisiana during the 1960s. The Amistad Center has several examples on file. They include multiple-choice quizzes on the name of the first president, a mail carrier’s employer and the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court.

What Amistad, the Louisiana State Archives, LSU and the National Civil Rights Museum do not have is a copy of the brain teaser that Philadelphia-based historian Rebecca Onion found on the Internet.

Onion, who writes a history blog for Slate, asked readers in June to take the test after finding it on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans’ website.

Days later, Onion posted an update in which she said she wanted to see an original copy.

In a telephone interview, Onion said the test is interesting because of the mystery surrounding it.

“I’ve leaned toward being transparent about the difficulties in tracking down the real story, while making the point that some of the events surrounding civil rights struggles are hard to document definitively,” she said.

Bruce Hartford, who runs the Civil Rights Movement Veterans’ website in San Francisco, said the test he posted came from Schwartz, who took a break from college in Ohio to work as a volunteer for Congress of Racial Equality in Louisiana one summer during the 1960s.

CORE sent volunteers to Louisiana in 1964 to help register black voters. At the time, white politicians were using poll taxes and constitutional literacy tests to prevent black residents from adding their names to the voter rolls. The Louisiana effort was a less publicized companion to the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project that included the deaths of three civil rights workers.

Hartford said Schwartz re-created the test from his memory after tutoring black residents in Louisiana on how to pass it and register to vote.

“We’re not even sure if this was a statewide test or whether this was implemented in one or two parishes,” Hartford said. “What people don’t understand is there was a lot of variation.”

Schwartz, who now lives in Hawaii, said he found a test online that looked similar to the one he remembered from the summer of 1964. He said he did not recreate it, but linked to it because he did not carry away a copy of it from his time in Louisiana.

“As a matter of history, it ought to have been kept,” Schwartz said. “Maybe someone was embarrassed by it eventually.”

Complicating the search is the fact that the Louisiana State Archives did not exist in the 1960s. Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Tom Schedler, said all archives workers can verify is that a test was given and that there were 10 forms of it.

Longtime political historian Frank Ransburg, 70, said he had to write the preamble to the constitution when he registered to vote in 1964. He said other black residents had to figure out how old they were to the month and the day in order to pass the voter registration test.

“They didn’t do it by standardized thing everywhere. Some people tell me ... they were asked how many bubbles are there in a bar of soap,” Ransburg said.

Harriet Sensley, who lives in Wilson, said she had to answer questions about the constitution when she registered to vote in East Feliciana Parish in 1959. Now 76, Sensley said she kept a copy of the test because she knew it was not fair.

“You had to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t,’ ” she said.

In a newspaper article from 1960, Jewell Wade, of Jackson Parish, told the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that he failed because he underlined “Mr.” instead of circling it on his test.

A federal court later kicked out Louisiana’s constitutional literacy test. Original copies of the test apparently did not go into the state’s archives but stayed with registrars of voters.

Schedler said in a statement that the historical mystery demonstrates the need for archives.

“Finding records from our past can require a tremendous amount of time and energy, but ultimately it allows us to reflect on our past and learn from our history. It also reminds us of the importance of preserving our public records now, in modern times, so that others might look back at some point in the future and understand the actions of our state government and its officials,” Schedler said.

Indiana State Archivist Jim Corridan, who also is the president of the board of the Council of State Archivists, a professional organization, said sometimes people years ago did not understand the significance of the documents, which is a reason why collection procedures and standards these days are more encompassing.

“There is a loss. If there are things that bear on history, people are still alive to tell the story, but 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, there could potentially be a hole in history, if the records don’t exist,” Corridan said. “… Because there’s a potential hole here, the people of Louisiana can never be sure what actually happened back the in 1960s.”

Mark Ballard of the
Capitol news bureau
contributed to this report.