William Gainer Williams (1869-1953), oldest son of Joshua W. Williams
Currently, there is a lot of discussion around voting rights and potential voter suppression. Many are anxious to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Bill in Congress. Sadly, this is an issue that has been of concern for 153 years since the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. One case in point revolved around allegations of voter suppression in the 1880 congressional election in various Florida counties.
In Live Oak, Suwannee County, where my family lived, the election came under scrutiny because of allegations of behaviors recognized as voter suppression, and in some cases, intimidation, resulting in many registered voters of color not being able to vote. Their complaints, along with those of others in the state, were significant enough that the Republican candidate, Horatio Bisbee Jr., filed a lawsuit and launched a congressional inquiry. The lawsuit and congressional inquiry were known as Bisbee Jr. v. Finlay. 
I gained many insights into the political activism of the community of color in Suwannee County from reviewing the data and testimony of witnesses. Several of the witnesses were Florida Homesteaders and witnesses for the proving up process for other homesteaders.
Elijah Carruthers was one of the original witnesses for the application for homestead land by my great grandfather, Randel Farnell. He was one of the first witnesses to testify in the Bisbee case.
“My name is Elijah Coruthers. I live about four miles from Live Oak. On November 2, I was living about one mile from Live Oak. I was a registered voter at Live Oak, precinct No. 1. I voted at two Presidential elections, General Hayes’ and General Garfield’s. I did not vote at the regular poll at district No. 1, on November 2, 1880. The way was so crowded when I came at one o’clock in the afternoon, there was about fifty men in the line when I came – that is the crowd I speak of. I did not get no [sic] nearer the ballot box than the corner of the house, and there was twenty-five or thirty behind me when the poll closed who had not voted. A white man by the name of Granger came to the poll with me and got in the line just ahead of me, and he came out and went under the gangway, … and was allowed to vote. He voted the Democratic ticket. … About half hour before sundown W. H. Reding came to the line after he had voted, who is No. 324 on the poll – list, and asked us if we had voted, and we told him no, and he said I have just come and I have voted, and that we may just as well get out for we would not get to vote. … Mr. Reding was a Democrat. I do not know of any Democrat that did not get to vote, but I know of a good many Republicans that did not get to vote.” 
William Evans was another of the witnesses on Randel Farnell’s Homestead application who gave testimony.
“I came to the poll at Live Oak precinct, district No. 1, Suwannee County, Florida, about 1 o’clock, and John Fraser came between 4 and 5 o’clock, and went round us from the line and voted, while I did not get my vote in at the regular poll at all, though I had been there since 1 o’clock; I was entitled to vote, being a regular voter: if I had have voted I would have voted the Republican ticket, for H. Bisbee for Congress ; which ticket I did vote in the hall of the court-house at night on the 2d of November, 1880.”
Henry was a Florida Homesteader and a witness for my great grandfather Randel Farnell’s final proof for his homestead claim. Henry told a similar story to Elijah Carruthers’ testimony.
“I was not allowed to vote at the regular poll at said voting place. If I had have been allowed to vote I would have voted the Republican ticket, and H. Bisbee, Jr., for Congress; which ticket I did vote at night, in the hall of the court-house … . I went to the poll about 9 o’clock in the morning and staid [sic] there all day, and did not get a chance to vote. The reasons I did not vote at the regular poll on said election day are the same as those given by other witnesses on yesterday at this examination and also today.”
Other witnesses included homesteader Ned Wilson, and Randel’s half-brother, Henry Farnell. However, for me, the most interesting of the testimonies was that of Joshua W. Williams, my other great grandfather.
Joshua W. Williams
Joshua W. Williams was a Republican “inspector,” or poll watcher for the 1880 election. He was interviewed about the events at the election. He explained in more detail what happened.
“My name is Joshua W. Williams. I was present from 8 o’clock on the morning of the general election on the 2d day of November, 1880, until about 2 o’clock that night, at the Live Oak precinct, district No. 1, Suwannee Count, Florida. I was a Republican inspector at the Live Oak poll. About 9 o’clock in the morning there was a crowd standing in front of the poll window. I was setting next to the window, and about that time there had been about twenty white votes cast and about two colored votes cast, when the colored voters complained that they could not get to the poll on account of there being so many white voters crowding around the window. I spoke to Mr. Blount and Mr. Mosely, the other two Democratic inspectors, and they stopped receiving votes to listen to me. I said that there must be some arrangements made by which one colored and one white man could come and vote together. They said that the sheriff and marshal would attend to that outside, and they commenced voting again. This stopped the voting [for] about five minutes, and the white crowd continued at the window voting until I called the attention of the other inspectors to it the second time. Then Mr. Blount, the Democratic inspector, spoke to the marshal and said, make those men stand back from the window. Then they commenced voting one white and one colored man alternately. Up to this time there had been only two or three challenges. After that almost every colored voter was challenged, which consumed ten or fifteen minutes each until the closing of the poll. About three hours and a half was wasted in challenges by the Democratic representative men. Colonel White and the clerk of the poll wrote the questions and answers. I saw white men come under the banister as policemen and vote any how outside the regular. I saw the policemen take off their badges and give them to citizens so that they might come up and vote out of their regular turn. About the time the managers were going to close the poll I saw a large number of Republican voters who had not voted, and I protested against closing the polls until they voted, but they over-ruled me and closed the polls; some white Democrats outside, before the table was moved back from the window, shoved down the window. (Signed) J. W. WILLIAMS.” 
Altogether, eighty-nine men were interviewed and provided testimony. As an aside, it should be noted that unlike Henry Farnell, Ned Wilson, Elijah Carruthers, and Henry McGee, Joshua Williams was literate and could sign his own name. This is not surprising since the 1880 census noted that he was a “teacher.” He would also go on to become postmaster. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that despite illiteracy, these men, and others like them, had registered to vote and showed up ready to vote! In fact, there was a large “colored” electorate. While there were 536 registered white voters, there were also 569 “colored” registered voters. Among them were homesteaders and witnesses, Randel Farnell, Alexander Gainer, Caleb Simpkins, and Isreal Whitehurst, in addition to those already named. 
Voter suppression is always about fear, the fear of those who seek to suppress others that they will not be able to compete fairly. Thus, rather than promote a fair agenda and strong candidates which voters could endorse or not, those who fear they will lose control seek to change the rules or break the rules, rather than risk losing control. Despite these efforts to prevent voters from casting their ballots, these “colored” voters, just ten years after being granted the right to vote in the Fifteenth Amendment, were not intimidated and were willing to advocate for themselves by bearing witness to the injustices they experienced.
The unfair treatment of the “colored” voters in precinct one in Live Oak was also witnessed by the sheriff, a white man, W. H. Slate, who stated that he was a Republican. He described how he saw about thirty-five “colored” voters challenged by the Democratic inspectors, grilling them about whether they were sure they were in the right precinct and threatening them with arrest if it was discovered they were not registered in that precinct.
“I am positive that the number [of colored voters challenged] was quite large. This system of challenge on the Democratic side was almost entirely confined to colored voters. I think that I am safe in saying that this challenging and the writing down by the clerk of questions and answers consumed two hours; this is rather under than over the estimate. … I know the most of the colored men that were challenged, and they were regular voters at this precinct, and I think were all entitled to vote. All those colored men were told the law, and that they would be liable to arrest and indictment; this took up a good deal of time. I protested against this frivolous challenging and delays which I have referred to, but it did no good to the inspectors. The Republican inspector, Joshua Williams, would sometimes join me in this protest and some times he would protest against it alone.” 
Fortunately for these voters of color, the chairman of the board of county commissioners, George Rixford, a white man and Democrat, also made note of the irregularities and injustices. 
“About the time the poll was about to be closed by the inspectors I went in to the room and protested against it, and demanded that the polls be kept open so that every man be allowed to vote. The demand was refused, and, as chairman of the board of county commissioners, I protested against their closing the polls. At the time the poll was closed the line of voters was quite full, and I judged that there was about one hundred voters who had not voted when the polls closed; there was not more than half a dozen white men in this line. … The usual vote at this precinct has been about 450 votes, and at this election the number of votes polled at the regular poll for Congressman was 346” (emphasis mine).
He recommended that a special election be set aside so that those who had been denied the opportunity to vote on the regular election day would be able cast their ballots.
“I felt so dissatisfied with these men losing their votes that I advised the opening of another ballot-box, which was done after the election was closed, in the court-house hall, where about eighty men cast their votes.”
The suggestion was taken, as referenced by William Evans above. 
Thank you, Sheriff Slate and Commissioner Rixford, and all the witnesses who came forward, including my great grandfather, Joshua W. Williams, for standing up for democracy!
 House of Representatives, Bisbee Jr. vs Finlay, Index to the Miscellaneous Documents for the House of Representatives for the First Session of the Forty Seventh Congress, 1881-1882 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office), Volume 1(11), 765-798.
 Elijah Coruthers Testimony, in Miscellaneous Documents, pp. 771-772.
 William Evens Testimony, in Miscellaneous Documents, p. 786.
 Henry McGee Testimony, in Miscellaneous Documents, pp. 779-780.
 Joshua W. Williams Testimony, in Miscellaneous Documents, pp. 775-776.
 Miscellaneous Documents, pp. 787-798.
 W. H. Slate Testimony, in Miscellaneous Documents, p. 767.
 George Rixford Testimony, in Miscellaneous Documents, pp. 783-784.
 William Evens Testimony, in Miscellaneous Documents, p. 786.