A dozen farmworkers entered Windsor Town Hall, quietly following Erwyn Glanz, the local constable who had given them a ride. Most likely, this was the first time the men had ever been to the Broad Street building, a cramped space with narrow halls and bulletin boards plastered with notices.
They were there to register to vote. It was October, 1956, and Connecticut’s congressional elections were fast approaching. The farm hands hailed from Puerto Rico but were presently living at Camp Windsor, a local migrant workers’ barracks where seasonal workers were required to stay.
If they had been living on their home island, the men would not have been able to vote in the upcoming U.S. Senate and House elections. Although Congress had granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917, by law the only way these citizens could use their franchise was if they actually resided in the United States. (Puerto Rico had been a colony of Spain until 1898, when it became a U.S. colony. Puerto Rico’s legislature had voted unanimously in 1917 against this “citizenship,” but Washington was in charge.)
When the Republican Registrar of Voters saw the farm hands enter the office, she panicked. Ruth Stewart knew what was going on: a blatant attempt to increase the Democratic rolls. She was not about to let this happen.
But how could the local Republican Party stop them? Quite easily, as it turned out. Since 1855, Connecticut’s state constitution had required adults to pass a literacy test and a one-year residency rule in order to qualify as a voter. Apparently being a citizen was just not enough for the original framers, and for more than 100 years there was no successful challenge to our own Jim Crow law. Connecticut was the first state to require a literacy test, to keep Irish immigrants from voting. Southern states adopted the tactic after Reconstruction. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called literacy tests “vicious and undemocratic.”
By the 1950s, the Land of Steady Habits was one of only 12 states that still used literacy tests as a means of keeping the vote from people who were deemed to be “ill-suited” to appreciate it. Citing an old English legal principle, literacy test promoters argued that if you were not sufficiently educated, your vote could be too easily manipulated. For centuries this kept immigrants and black citizens– not to mention women– from interfering with the business of politics.
A public hearing was called to sort out the matter. Two hundred people packed town hall, and apparently the good citizens of Windsor were none too sympathetic to the farmworkers’ cause. When local Democrat Charles Mahoney suggested that race prejudice was behind the controversy, attorney H. Meade Alcorn responded with an aristocratic snort: “Charley, you don’t really believe that!” The crowd “roared” with laughter and Mahoney sat down. (Alcorn was the descendant of Mississippi Governor James Lusk Alcorn, a slave owner, Confedrate general and white supremacist.)
A few days later, the Puerto Ricans’ names were wiped from the official voters’ list. In the November election, Connecticut Republicans swept every open Senate and House seat.
The Connecticut literacy test restriction was finally eliminated. But the change didn’t come from a state referendum. Instead, in 1970, civil rights advocates finally succeeded in banning the tests by amending the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act. Windsor held its first-ever voter registration session without a literacy test on July 16, 1970.