Struggles over Immigrants' Language: Literacy Tests in the United States, 1917-1966

By Young-in Oh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5:
The English Literacy Test in New
York State: An Added Way of
Making a “White” America

The history of suffrage in the United States has been a story of expansion. Under the Naturalization Law of 1790, federal suffrage was limited to “free white” property- owning males. Since the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, the right to vote has been extended to adult males regardless of color, to all adults regardless of color and sex by the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, and finally to all citizens over the age of eighteen by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1965.

Scholars have generally avoided the historical sense of expansion and have focused instead on women’s and African Americans’ suffrage. The question of African American suffrage unquestionably dominated the voting rights discussion for the century ranging from the Reconstruction era to the 1960s when America accomplished a de facto universal suffrage.1 The history of voting for African Americans drew such attention since it provided a clear story of the long struggle to gain voting rights in the face of discrimination. One major phase of this struggle ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which curtailed electoral discrimination against African Americans mainly in the South.

Beyond the obvious role of the white-black paradigm in gradual reform and progress in the history of suffrage, historians should not overlook the reality that many other ethnicities had challenged officials to drop barriers to voting in states that banned the illiterate, or those who were “limited” to reading languages other than English. The franchise had presumably been extended to emancipated blacks, but

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