People 2 People

WSB-TV Gets Real: A look back at the price Black Americans have paid for the right to vote

ATLANTA — A grandmother is using a historical document to remind people how at one time in this country Black voters had to pay a price in order to cast their ballots. She showed Channel 2′s Tom Jones the piece of paper that allowed her to vote without paying a poll tax.

“Poll Tax Exemption Certificate,” 85-year-old Loretta Green said, as she read the well-worn, yellowing document. “Do hereby certify that Loretta Webb Green is entitled to be exempt from the payment of poll tax.”

The date on the document indicates it was written in 1960. That’s when Black people in several states were required to pay a poll tax or take a literacy test to vote. “They enacted the poll tax where you have to pay one or two dollars and take a literacy test. And some people wasn’t making but one or two dollars a week,” Green explained. “That was a lot of money at that time.”

Green was living in Alabama at the time. Since she was a military vet. The Poll Tax Exemption Certificate allowed her to vote without having to pay. The southwest Atlanta homeowner says she and others still faced threats and intimidation for voting. “They would call you all kind of names and threaten you. They would come out with their sticks and whatever, and in those days black people didn’t have the privileges that we have now,” she said.


Despite having privileges then, Green is still concerned about voter suppression and intimidation of people of color today. She says she sees too many long lines and not enough polling locations. It bothered her to see a group recently standing outside a precinct in Virginia. “People were out trying to intimidate the voters, and that brought me back to the ’50s and ’60s when the same thing was happening then. And that scares me,” she pointed out.

It’s one reason why Green spends so much time educating people about the struggle for voting rights. She goes to polls and shows voters her Poll Tax Exemption Certificate. “I go around through the line and I ask everybody do you know what this is?”

Some voters have no idea people had to pay to vote or take a test. Green’s family knows. “It is something that I’ve actually held in my hand,” her granddaughter, Sterling Jones, explained.

The 22-year-old college student says her grandmother has drilled into her the importance of voting and often shared the history of the certificate. “To me it was my normal. My normal was seeing this poll tax almost every year,” she said.

So, understanding the sacrifice, she makes sure to vote.

Green says there is much work to do to get others to realize the power of their vote and not allow anyone to suppress it. “Use your own mind. Think for yourself. Get out there and vote.”

She says she found the certificate tucked away in a tin box in her home some years ago. Now it is a piece of history she feels it is her duty to share with the public. Especially with an important election coming up on November 3.