Wake County

Voting rights, voting struggles on display at Raleigh City Museum

A sample of the literacy tests given to voters in Wake County in 1964 is part of a new exhibit on voting history opening Friday at the City of Raleigh Museum.
A sample of the literacy tests given to voters in Wake County in 1964 is part of a new exhibit on voting history opening Friday at the City of Raleigh Museum. jshaffer@newsobserver.com

As late as 1964, when certain citizens came to the polls in Wake County, they got handed a piece of paper with instructions to copy Article 1, Section 29, of the state Constituion – an obstacle designed to trip them up.

You can see the results spelled out in black ink: the names of would-be voters, their attempts at writing down the legal definition of treason, and the test-giver’s check mark in the box at the botttom.

Failed.

It’s one thing to read about literacy tests or see them in a grainy documentary, but it’s another to see the actual documents as evidence of voter discrimination from a not-so-distant past.

On Friday, the City of Raleigh Museum will put these samples on display along with a range of items that show the region’s elections through the last century, highlighting the hurdles overcome and the broad expansion of voting.

“The thing I hope people take away from this: it’s been a fight and a struggle,” said Ernest Dollar, museum director. “Look what people have done to get to this point where you exercise your right to vote.”

The exhibits – one temporary, one permanent – aim to draw youth deeper into the voting process both past and present as Election Day nears, particularly the smallest, most localized races that typically see less attention.

Raleigh council candidates do not campaign this year, but young visitors get a chance to mimic their roles at a replica of their table in City Hall, which features an interactive set of buttons that let them weigh in on municipal matters, such as whether to spend funds to build a ballpark. As they visit, they figure out which council district they live in and drop a token in a slot to see which district draws the most. There’s also a collection of ground-breaking shovels on display – the tool for any aspiring city official.

“When you’re 18, it’s a magical thing to be able to vote,” said Gary Sims, director of the Wake County Board of Elections, a partner in the exhibit. “In some cases, these kids can go back and educate their parents.”

Exhibit items include an AVM automatic voting machine that likely dates to the 1960s. Levers that voters pulled behind a checkered green curtain are still set to Gov. Jim Martin’s race against Lt. Gov. Bob Jordan in 1988.

Also included, unearthed from the county’s records in 1944, is a letter from white voters in Raleigh asking to be assigned to a different precinct so they wouldn’t have to encounter black election judges around Hargett Street – then a bustling area for black businesses.

“We want to get our youth to understand,” Dollar said, “how this right was earned on the backs of so many people.”

Museum hours

The City of Raleigh Museum at 220 Fayetteville St. is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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