NC student’s senior thesis selected as top paper sheds light on little-known victory over Jim Crow

Historians in the News
tags: Jim Crow, voting rights



It’s a story pulled from today’s headlines: Black voters turn out on election day only to learn that their names have been stricken from the voter rolls. The Republican Party walks a tightrope, struggling to court Southern white conservatives without alienating African-Americans. Democrats worry about losing local elections as the national party shifts left.

But you won’t find this story on Fox News or CNN. This narrative documents events from the 1930s, exhaustively researched and eloquently recounted by an NC State student. And it’s been selected as the best undergraduate history paper of the year in North Carolina.

“I’ve always wanted to study history with the aim of demonstrating how we cannot separate ourselves from our past,” says Micah Khater, the paper’s author, who graduated in May with a degree in history.

She’s done that and more. Drawing on the only surviving transcript of a court proceeding, old newspapers, an 80-year-old diary and numerous archival documents, Khater uncovers a forgotten event in North Carolina history: a rare civil rights victory orchestrated by African-Americans in the Jim Crow era.

The fascinating tale, spun with a historian’s eye for detail and a storyteller’s gift for prose, won this year’s Hugh T. Lefler Award from the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. The paper, titled “There Will Be Political Dirty Work: Gendered Expressions of Black Resistance in United States v. John Cashion (1936),” is Khater’s senior honors thesis. 

Blocked at the Polls

The event that sparked the federal court case at the heart of Khater’s research paper occurred on Oct. 27, 1934, when about a dozen African-Americans attempted to register to vote at precinct No. 1 in Wilkesboro, county seat of rural Wilkes County, North Carolina. The white registrar, John Cashion, jotted down their names on a piece of paper but never transferred them to the registration rolls. To their dismay, none of the black citizens was allowed to vote on election day. They had been disenfranchised — illegally and without warning.

In her paper, Khater tells the stories of three African-Americans who successfully spearheaded a legal challenge against the registrar and testified against him in federal court: schoolteacher Mozelle Cundiff, World War I veteran Claude Petty and college professor William H. Hannum.

While lawsuits asserting civil rights are common today, they were rare — and risky — in the Jim Crow South. But the challengers, backed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, bravely pursued justice.

... Loath to see his party lose reliable black votes, U.S. District Judge Johnson J. Hayes, a prominent Republican, found the white registrar guilty of unlawful discrimination against black voters in May 1936. ...




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