Update: On the Hunt for the Original Louisiana Literacy Test

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
July 3 2013 1:24 PM

Update: On the Hunt for the Original Louisiana Literacy Test

Last week, I posted about a bizarre and unfair literacy test used as a barrier to prospective black voters in Louisiana in 1964. Since then, several readers have contacted me wanting to know more about the test’s provenance. Here’s an update on my search for an original copy.

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Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Philadelphia. Send her an email or follow her on Twitter.

I contacted Jeff Schwartz, the former volunteer with the civil rights group Congress of Racial Equality, who had recommended that this word-processed version of the test be included on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, which is where I first came across it. Schwartz reported that he originally found this copy on what he remembers as “an educational website” and recognized it as “the same in all material respects” as the test he had seen while doing voter registration and support in Iberville and Tangipahoa Parishes in the summer of 1964.

He pointed me to this blog post about his experiences working in Louisiana, which included reflections on the way that two of the questions on the test could have been differently interpreted by a registrar inclined to block a prospective African-American voter from the franchise.

I’ve tracked down the sources of the other copies of the test that exist on the Web. A version (PDF) hosted by the Tennessee State Library and Archives originally came from the CRMV site. The website of a Advanced Placement U.S. history teacher in Utah named Cher McDonald hosted a typescript copy (PDF) that looks more like something that would have been produced in 1964. McDonald reports that she received the test, along with another literacy test from Alabama, from a fellow teacher, who had been using them in the classroom for years but didn’t remember where they came from. (McDonald added that she tells her students about this uncertainty before using the tests in the classroom.)

After reading my original post, two history professors from Louisiana Tech, Drew McKevitt and David Anderson, pointed me to a Louisiana District Court decision from November 1963 (PDF), which ruled that tests based on interpretations of the Constitution (such as the 1963 version of the Louisiana test also posted on the CRMV site [PDF]) were unfair and unconstitutional. This might provide a historical explanation for the existence of the test I posted, which uses questions of the “brain-teaser” type rather than trivia about civics and the Constitution—a significant departure from previous practice.

I am still in the process of contacting archives in Louisiana, historians who work on civil rights, and oral history collections that contain reminiscences of civil rights workers and prospective voters from the time period to see if I can get any closer to an original copy of the test. I am also hoping to learn more about the way the test was made: Could it have been adapted from an Army intelligence test from WWI, as one commenter on the original post posited? Or was it derived from another kind of IQ test?

I will update as I find out more. If you have any further leads, please be in touch.

Test p 1

From Cher McDonald's AP US History website.