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One of America's Most Hotly Contested Elections - 1877 Version!

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

When you are a DC resident you can't help but be confronted by politics every day, which can be both thrilling and exhausting. The last several months leading up to this election is no exception, and as we are in the thick of counting the final ballots I'm reminded of another election that was equally controversial. We have yet to see the downstream effects of the election of 2020, but the effects of the election 1877 were felt for several generations and contributed to the changing face of DC as well.

A little background: Before 1877, the Republicans controlled the north and were the party fighting for unity and the abolishment of slavery. The Democrats ran the south, and up until the end of the Civil War considered themselves champions of states rights, including the right to slaves (the parties would flip their social progressive alliances during the Civil Rights era, in case you were curious). After the end of the Civil War came the era of Reconstruction, when the Republicans enforced equanimity between black and white citizens by installing garrisons in the southern states, and ensuring the African Americans were enfranchised. This period led to a rise in black local and state representatives being elected to office. The first black Senator to spend a full term, Blanche K Bruce, was elected by Mississippi in 1875! While in DC serving in office he lived near Blagden Alley, and his home is where I start my #HistoricAlleyways tour

The Reconstruction era was not long lived however, because of the too-close-to-call election between Rutherford B. Hayes on the Republican ticket, and Samuel Tilden, on the Democrat ticket. Tilden had 184 of 185 required electoral college votes, but the Republicans accused the Democrats of intimidating voters in three southern states: Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, the only southern states remaining with Republican governments. There had been skirmishes at the ballots in South Carolina that threw doubts on the validity of the results. Supporters of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wade Hampton, a former Confederate general, had used violence and intimidation to confront the African-American voting majority. Other fights in Oregon threw more doubt on who the winner would be.

(Blanche K. Bruce's House)

A commission was stood up that included both Republicans and Democrats, to resolve the dispute. However, a separate group of Republicans went to the Democrats secretly to strike a deal: If the Democrats conceded the Presidential race to Hayes, the Republicans would pull federal troops out of the south and leave the local southern governments to maintain the Reconstruction Amendments , which guaranteed the rights of blacks to citizenship and the vote, on the honor system. They also promised that Hayes would bring a few Democrats on his cabinet and in key positions. The Democrats agreed, Hayes became President, and Reconstruction essentially (Rutherford B. Hayes) came to an end. Almost immediately the Democrats reversed everything that had been accomplished to guarantee equal rights for black citizens short of actually re-installing slavery, and ushered in the era of Jim Crow Laws. Surprise to anyone? No.

After 1877, African Americans started a gradual migration from the south to the rest of the country to escape segregationist laws and the oppressive southern society, culminating in the Great Migration of the early 20th century. Many came to DC where they heard there was a strong and flourishing African American community that had access to schools, jobs in federal government (at least until the Wilson administration), and influence in local politics. Some moved into the extensive alleyway system, and I talk about their lives during the Historic Alleyways tour, mentioned earlier. Shameless plug once again:

That the results of ONE election could have the power to essentially roll back an entire decade and a Civil War's worth of social progress may blow some people's minds. Looking around today, some may not be so surprised. A handful of votes and some backdoor deals can in fact have a deep and lasting impact on literally millions of people. Something to keep in mind in these nail biting times.

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