Primary Source
A Collection of Artifacts from the Near and Distant Past

The 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1964, ensuring that the right of citizens of the United States to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.” At the time, five southern states—Virginia, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi—still enforced poll tax requirements. In the years after the Civil War, states across the South instituted poll taxes, disenfranchising African Americans and poor whites across the region.

This artifact from Sumter, Alabama in 1932 acknowledges the receipt of a $1.50 poll tax or $26.09 in 2015 dollars.

In 1932, the average cost of a loaf of bread nationally was seven cents. In other words, Alabama’s poll tax was equivalent to 21 loaves of bread.

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In 1933, Albert Einstein petitioned Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to allow "forty professors and doctors from Germany" to immigrate to Turkey, amid increasing hostilities in their own country. “These scientists are willing to work for a year without any remuneration,” Einstein assured Ataturk. In the 1930s and 1940s, Einstein worked tirelessly to help those threatened by war in Europe.

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Before the culture wars transformed the environment into a political hot button, it remained possible to have rational discussions about impending threats to the planet. On September 17, 1969, President Nixon's advisor and future Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote to John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s Chief Domestic Policy Advisor, about “the carbon dioxide problem."

The environmental movement was bipartisan and ascendant in that moment. Then as now, the United States reeled from news that an oil spill — at the time the worst in the nation’s history — off Santa Barbara, California had despoiled the Pacific Coast.

Just a few months after Moynihan sent his note to Ehrlichamn, the disembodied head of ecologist Barry Commoner floated on the cover of Time Magazine above the caption, “The Emerging Science of Survival.”

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On this day in 1865, four of the conspirators involved in the Lincoln assassination were hanged. More than two months earlier, on April 23, Union soldiers apprehended and killed John Wilkes Booth in the Virginia countryside. Then, at the end of June, a military tribunal tried and convicted eight others implicated in the president’s murder. Four of them — George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt — were sentenced to death. Surratt would be the first woman executed by the federal government in the nation's history.

July 7, 1865 dawned brutally hot and humid in Washington, D.C. By the time the condemned were led to the gallows erected in the yard at Ft. McNair, the temperature had soared over 100 degrees. Still, approximately 1,000 spectators gathered to watch the grisly spectacle. After ministers read prayers, the prisoners were hooded and hanged for more than 25 minutes. Scottish-born photographer Alexander Gardner captured images of the event.

Complexion in Jim Crow America could be a tricky thing. In the spring of 1955, Ebony magazine ran a curious story about the Platts, a family of Florida orange-pickers who had been “barred from the best schools because of a nose, [and] ostracized because of the tint of the skin” despite their claims of being white. According to teachers and law enforcement officials in Lake County, Florida, six of the Platts’ seven children had dusky complexions and “broad noses” befitting Negroes. Thus, the family had no place in the whites only community to which they belonged. Local authorities expelled the Platt kids from Lake’s white schools and forced the family to move out of their white neighborhood and into a house without running hot water and other basic amenities.

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On July 4, 1876, as Americans celebrated the nation’s centennial, rumors of a bloody clash on the frontier began trickling out. Sketchy stories, long on hearsay but short on accurate details, appeared that day in a western paper: George Armstrong Custer, a hero during the Civil War and a minor celebrity in the years since, had, along with hundreds of his subordinates in the Seventh Cavalry, been slaughtered by “Indians” on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. The first report understated the carnage: “The situation now looks serious.”

Not yet knit together by a reliable communications network, the United States, at moments of crisis, felt like a much larger country in 1876 than it does today. The engagement had actually taken place more than a week earlier, on June 25. Two days after that, Alfred Terry, Custer’s commanding officer, sent a report back east.

But the telegraph line between Montana and Chicago was down, and so the Army high command, visiting the World’s Fair in Philadelphia, only learned of the debacle from a newspaper account just before Terry’s dispatch finally arrived on July 6.

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In 1939, a pair of mass rallies revealed the breadth of the American political spectrum on the eve of the Second World War. In February, the German-American Bund staged a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden (top); in September, the Communist Party USA gathered in Chicago (bottom).


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