In June 1895, two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia, a Union general arrived in Galveston, Texas to inform slaves of their freedom, that the Civil War was over. That was, get this, two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that freed all slaves.
Now not be presumptuous, but one wonders why it took two and a half years for such landmark news to travel the 1500 miles from the nation’s capital to Galveston. Well, methinks that we may find the answer in a contemporary interpretation of a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Substitute “America” for “Denmark” and the meaning remains the same.
Which brings us to of all things, watermelon seeds. Yes, watermelon seeds.
But first, I must tell you that there are few things more enjoyable for me than a slice of cold, juicy watermelon, especially during hot Georgia summers. I shrug my shoulders at stereotypical images of watermelon eating Black folks that reside in lore and miniscule minds.
So before you slice your next watermelon, take a wild guess as to how many seeds are in that one in front of you. How many? 100?…200?… 300? Your guess is as good as mine.
Next, answer the following questions:
1. How many jellybeans are in a large jar?
2. How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?
3. How many seeds are in a watermelon?
Now brace yourself for the fact that these questions are from an actual “test” ex-slaves had to pass in Alabama before they could register to vote. Oh, and not to be overlooked, before the 1830s, there were restrictions on teaching slaves to read. In fact, after the slave revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831, many slave states passed laws against teaching slaves to read.
Fearing rebellions, “It was unlawful and unsafe to teach a slave to read,” wrote Frederick Douglass in, “Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” On that realization Douglass knew that from slavery to freedom ran through the printed word and that education and slavery were incompatible with each other.” Humm, banning reading? Sound familiar?
So to put this “test” into a historical context understand that similar tests were administered in several states, most of them in the South, during Reconstruction.
Although ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments gave Black people the right to vote, that right was soon weakened by gerrymandering, violence and intimidation. However, voting literacy tests ended with passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which prohibited the use of literacy tests and other methods for excluding Black voters.
Now there’re a couple of other things I need to say about this “test,” so bear with me please.
As my imagination would have it, I envisioned being a “fly on the wall” in the smoke-filled room as a group of “good ole boys” in Alabama heehawed it up as they designed a test that even they could not pass. What would cause them to go to such extraordinary lengths to prevent others from enjoying a privilege they enjoyed? A rhetorical question, indeed.
I then envisioned those now freed illiterate and semi-literate ex-slaves who lined up in large numbers to vote, only to be turned away because they didn’t know how many seeds were inside a watermelon, jellybeans in a jar and bubbles in a bar of soap.
The thought of those ex-slaves walking away heads bowed in disappointment and unimageable humiliation was difficult for me – and I hope for those of you reading this – to fathom.
Need an example of a contemporary “you can’t make this stuff” insanity? Well look no further than Georgia, a state that gained national attention – and mockery- for making it a crime to distribute water or snacks to voters waiting in line in 90-degree temperatures during the 2020 elections.
Now as some will say, the modern approach to voter suppression can be characterized as death by a thousand cuts — minor rules about issues like voter ID, mail voting, limited resources at polling places, reduced voting hours, etc., can add up to create significant burdens, particularly on communities of color.
Yes, progress has been made. We’ll give you that. But let us not get distracted by the continuation of voter suppression and lose sight of aspects of history we’d like to forget and the price paid by many to exercise their right to vote.
Oh, there’s one more thing I want to say about those three questions on the “test” you took at the outset – a segue from the “then” to the “now.” It is this quote by author Willian Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past!”
So in the context of this narrative, where counting watermelon seeds and restricting slaves from learning to read comprised the “then,” today they’ve been replaced by prohibiting water bottles during 90-degree temperatures and banning books in schools and libraries that touch on those sordid realities from our past, the institution of slavery among them.
Now the next time before you take a slice into that sweet watermelon, take a wild guess as to the number of seeds inside, then close your eyes and wonder what that was like for millions of others who desired nothing more than the right to cast their ballot.
And if you lose your appetite and feel feint, we’ll understand …. and won’t deny you a bottle of water! Terry Howard is an award-winning trainer, writer, and storyteller. He is a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, Blackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and third place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.