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Auction Finds

Right to vote is as precious as a gem

I don’t know Frederick Holland Jr., have never met him. But I have a lime-green case with papers and photos from his years serving in the U.S. Army in the 1940s, enrolled in a beauty school, hanging out at a nightclub and even a few postcards of landmarks he apparently visited as a soldier in Paris.

I found his papers about two years ago on an auction table, and I brought them home to sift through them. Going through these remnants of his life, I came across one very important document – one that gave me some kinship to him as an African American:

His voter registration card.

African Americans voting

The front and back of Frederick Holland Jr.’s voter registration card issued in 1942.

Holland was issued the card on March 28, 1942, by the city of Philadelphia Registration Commission. He listed himself as a Republican,  the party of Lincoln the emancipator and the choice for many black people for decades. I don’t know how often he voted, but by December 1943, he had entered the military (and was discharged three years later after World War II).

If he had lived in the South at that time, he would’ve been subject to the silly Jim Crow-era poll tax and literacy tests designed to deny him as a black person the right to perform a duty afforded other citizens. The poll tax (here are some receipts) was abolished in 1964, giving everyone the right to vote freely.

African Americans voting

Frederick Holland Jr. “Somewhere in Holland,” according to an inscription on the back of the photo.

His home state of Pennsylvania does not have clean hands, either, on the issue of black disenfranchisement. Free black men could vote up until 1838 when the legislature took away the right. One opponent of that new law argued that black men “had fought for their country: ‘to deprive them of their votes’ was ‘a poor way to pay them.'” The right was restored with the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870. The process, though, was still difficult and violent – even in Philadelphia, which was known for its abolitionist movement. Activist Octavius Catto, a Republican who had agitated and advocated for freedoms for blacks, was killed in 1871 on his way to vote in Philadelphia.

Now, Pennsylvania legislators are acting like we’re back in the 1940s with their campaign to institute voter ID regardless of the consequences. When opponents filed suit against the law, some African American voters in Philadelphia were featured in the media and on websites noting that they had been casting ballots since the 1940s, apparently unfettered and without obstacles.

Fortunately, a judge postponed enactment of the law for this election, but the issue has not died.

African Americans voting

African Americans at voting booths, circa 1945. Photo from Library of Congress.

So, as I head out to the polls today, I choose to remember people like Holland who understood the importance of registering and voting, and believing then that his country would someday live up to its ideals. One of those is the uncluttered path to the White House for anyone who wants to become president of the United States regardless of their color.

It’s an ideal that far too many people are not willing to accept as they work to move our country backward rather than forward.


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