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J. J. Wright museum exhibit explores voting rights issues
A lawsuit from 1911 inspired the exhibit created by Terry Miller (left), executive director of the Wright Museum.
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By PAMELA GOULD
Terry Miller knew she had the inspiration for her next exhibit after Spotsylvania Circuit Court clerk Pamela Williams contacted her about the century-old lawsuit she discovered in courthouse records.
Miller is executive director and curator of the John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum, which was created to tell the story of the education of African-Americans in Spotsylvania. But the museum also produces exhibits telling a broader story of the county.
When Miller read the lawsuit filed on May 19, 1911, by a black man who had been denied the right to register to vote, she knew she had a timely exhibit to celebrate the museum's second anniversary, which is Sunday.
"It just brings tears to your eyes," Miller said as she thought about what Prestin Despot and others endured to gain the right to vote.
Despot went before registrar J.H. Biscoe at the Peakes precinct on May 16, 1911, to become a registered voter in the county's Livingston District.
He filled out an application attesting that he was 35 years old, having been born on Oct. 24, 1875, and that he had lived his entire life in Spotsylvania County, was a farmer by occupation and had never voted before in Virginia, Spotsylvania County or the Livingston District.
The suit states that Despot, whose first name was changed from his spelling--Prestin--to Preston, also states that he had been paying "nearly Five Dollars taxes annually" for two small farms as well as poll taxes for the previous three years.
In 1902, Virginia amended its constitution to require people to pay a poll tax of $1.50 for three years preceding an election to be eligible to register, a move that denied most African-Americans as well as anyone else of limited means the ability to vote.
Biscoe looked over the application and seemed satisfied, but then proceeded to ask a series of questions he claimed--falsely--were required by law.
The questions included: who was the first president, who is the state's attorney general, how long do governors hold office, and how many congressional districts are in the state.
Despot "asked the registrar for a copy of his application and the list of questions as soon as he was refused registration but Mr. Biscoe refused to give him one," the lawsuit states.
WHAT: "The Psychological Power of Voting" exhibit WHERE: The John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum at 7565 Courthouse Road, Spotsylvania WHEN: The free exhibit will be on display through January. Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thursday through Saturday. MORE INFO: Call 540/582-7583, ext. 5545, or go online to: jjwmuseum.org.