I’ve met many people on my quest for family. The stories of their lives have left me with varied emotions, and I’ve come to realize that they were as different and as complex as the results of my ethnicity reports. They are people worship places. I rejoice with them when they rejoice over the birth of a baby or celebrate a wedding, and I grieve with them when they grieve over the loss of a loved one or the loss and destruction of property. They are the life blood of the fabric of my being and that of my descendants, so I passionately search for them to restore honor and respect to the memory of their lives.
Those same memories flooded my mind on December 12, 2017, as I stood in my voting place to cast my choice for United States senator. The race had received unprecedented media attention, and millions of people had watched as the last hundred years had seemed to roll back to a time of Old South Jim Crow bigotry and racism during the heated senatorial race. After the polls closed, people across the world watched with anticipation for the final results; and the entire world was stunned when Alabamians, led by an unprecedented turn-out of African American females, had unified in electing the first democratic senator from the state since 1992.
As I had cast my vote, I had wondered how many of my ancestors, standing as emancipated citizens to cast their votes, had yearned for and anticipated change. Later, on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, I began to contemplate the roles my ancestors might have played in civil rights, voting rights, freedom rides, and the march across Edmund Pettus Bridge. The thought was exhilarating, and I began to search my family history for clues. As a historian, I am familiar with post-Civil War history and the Reconstruction Act passed on March 23, 1867, requiring all male citizens 21 years and older to register to vote before September 1, 1867. Black men across the nation had rushed to register to vote just as I had remembered my parents had done in 1966. I imagined that my ancestors were among the excited, formerly disenfranchised citizens, eager to register and take the loyalty oath in exchange for the vote.
VOTERS IN PEACHTREE, ALABAMA 1966
The caption reads, “Negroes flock to this polling place in rural, Blackbelt, Alabama 5/3, as they vote in large numbers for the first time in history. Typical of rural polling places is the “Sugar Shack” a small store in Wilcox County where Negroes outnumber whites almost 3 to 1.” National Archives, Records of the United States Information Agency Retrieved 1/27/2018
Electoral history in my family tree
Reviewing my family tree, I found a note to self to research a name on my Norwood branch. The name was Ella Norwood. Oral history suggested that she may have married a local politician. To my amazement, I found Ella on my research tree married to Jerry Haralson in 1870. I had overlooked the fact that “Jerry” was the same Jeremiah Haralson who had been among the first ten African Americans to serve in the United States Senate. His rise to political office had been as volatile as that of the recent Senate race between Doug Jones and Roy Moore.
Jeremiah was born a slave in Muscogee County, Georgia on April 1, 1846. In 1859, he was purchased by an attorney, John Haralson, from Selma, Alabama. After Jeremiah was freed in 1865, he taught himself to read and write. Before he married Ella Norwood on June 18, 1870, he had already entered the political arena as a controversial figure. Instead of joining the Republican party as most black men had done, he joined the Democratic Party that was hated by freed blacks because they viewed the party as being comprised of former slave owners, Confederate soldiers, and the institution that had wanted them to remain in bondage. Some have suggested that Jeremiah was a double agent, acting to recruit people away from the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. Although Haralson made his first unsuccessful bid for Congress at age 22 in 1868 as a Democrat, by 1869, he had formally switched parties.
In 1870, the Republican Party selected Haralson to preside over the district convention. Benjamin S. Turner, also from Selma, Alabama, was nominated and became the first African American from Alabama to serve in Congress. By 1872, Jeremiah Haralson had been elected as a Republican member of the Alabama State Senate after serving in the Alabama House of Representatives from 1870 until 1872. He navigated a civil rights bill through the state senate that was ignored by the Alabama State House of Representatives. Nevertheless, Haralson was on solid ground for the United States senate race and was described by a local newspaper as “…perhaps feared more than any other colored man in the legislature in Alabama.” 1
In 1874, campaigning on a civil rights platform, Haralson won the Republican nomination in the district formerly represented by Representative Turner, which stretched across western Alabama including Selma and a large portion of central Alabama’s Black Belt. Haralson became a member of the Forty-Fourth Congress and the third African American Republican congressman from Alabama. However, Haralson lost the 1876 campaign upon the expectation of violence, federal troops at the polling places, gerrymandering, and a split Republican ticket between Haralson and another former black Representative, James Rapier from Montgomery, Alabama.
In 1878, Haralson returned to favor and won the nomination of the Republican Party. However, according to the Chicago Daily Tribune, the racial prejudices in the district were so extreme, white Democrats preferred “to see the Devil himself in Congress rather than Haralson.”2. Consequently, Haralson lost the election to Democrat Charles M. Shelley. Shelley was a former Confederate general and the sheriff of Selma, Alabama. When Haralson complained that his ballots had been thrown out, Shelley supporters jailed Haralson’s witnesses, falsified charges, and attempted to imprison Haralson and his lawyer. Haralson fled for his life to Washington, D.C. after he was attacked on the road between Selma and Montgomery. Eventually, Haralson returned to Alabama around 1912, but later moved westward to Colorado where he died in 1916 as a result of being attacked by wild animals. No death certificate was ever filed.
Although the struggle has been difficult, black men and women continue to register to vote. Many of these brave people are my ancestors. They have established themselves as strong leaders leaving a legacy for generations to come.
- Schweninger and Fitts, “Haralson, Jeremiah,” ANB. Quoted in Christopher, Black Americans in Congress: 134, and Middleton, ed., Black Congressmen During Reconstruction:116.
- “Alabama,” 14 October 1878, Chicago Tribune: 2.
History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, “HARALSON, Jeremiah,” http://history.house.gov/People/Detail/14507 (January 25, 2018)
http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-3270 (January 25, 2018)
History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, “Black Americans in Congress,” http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/BAIC/Black-Americans-in-Congress/ (January 27, 2018)
Alabama, Select Marriages, 1816-1957, Jerry Haralson and Elen Norwood, https://search.ancestry.com/
Alabama, Voter Registration, 1867, https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/63917452/person/34347159726/facts
1870 United States Census, Dallas County, Orville, p.31.
Image of Jeremiah Haralson courtesy Library of Congress (January 25, 2018)