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Gomillion, Charles G.(1900–1995) - Civil rights activist, Chronology

tuskegee vote attended blacks

Charles Goode Gomillion is best known as a community activist with a strong interest in voter rights. His active involvement in voter rights for black Americans in the late 1950s, and eventually the lawsuit that led to the landmark Supreme Court case known as Gomillion v. Lightfoot , affected the nation and the South in regards to redistricting designed to circumvent the black vote.

Gomillion was born in Johnston, South Carolina in Edgefield County on April 1, 1900. His grandparents were born in slavery. His father, Charles, was born a slave in 1855 and remained a slave until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. His father married his mother Florence, who was twenty-two years his junior. Charles was the oldest of four children, having two sisters and a younger brother.

Gomillion’s early education was limited. He attended the public schools from first to third grades only three months of each year. During the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, he attended school for five months. The public school system paid for three months and his parents paid for two months. In the seventh grade, he attended only four weeks and decided to drop out because he had problems with arithmetic. The next year he went back and was in the eighth grade. He attended only five weeks and dropped out because he was the only student.

Although his father never attended school or learned to read or write, his mother had gone through the third grade and was very interested in her children’s education. After Gomillion dropped out of the eighth grade, his mother decided he knew enough to be home schooled. She borrowed old magazines and newspapers from neighbors, and encouraged all her children to read. Gomillion saved for two and a half years in order to attend Paine High School in Augusta, Georgia, to complete eighth grade. He also attended Paine College until 1922, when he married his college girlfriend, Hermyne Jones, then dropped out to help support his parents, both of whom had become disabled. For about a year, he worked in Philadelphia as a postal worker, then moved to Georgia to teach middle school. After about a five-year absence, he returned to Paine College and received his bachelor’s degree at the age of twenty-eight.

Gomillion was hired as a faculty member at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1928. He moved there with his wife and two daughters, Vernita and Mary Gwendolyn. After a year, his wife left him, and he received custody of his daughters, ages five and six. Gomillion’s co-workers described him as an intense man who always seemed to be concentrating deeply. In addition he earned the respect of onlookers for raising children alone. He remarried in 1936 and his second wife helped in the rearing of his two daughters.

In 1933, an old Paine College professor invited Gomillion to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee to conduct sociological research. At Fisk, Gomillion studied under the best sociologists of the time—Bertram W. Doyle, E. Franklin Frazier, and Charles S. Johnson. Under Johnson, he learned as much as he could about working with whites in the South and trying to bring blacks and whites together in order to lay a foundation for improving race relations. He took a year’s leave of absence from Tuskegee Institute and returned in the fall of 1934 when he began teaching in the college’s sociology department.

Gomillion returned to Fisk in 1936 for further studies in sociology. Gomillion also studied briefly at ChicagoUniversity and later attended Ohio State University where he received his doctorate in sociology in 1959.

In 1934, Gomillion was not considered a radical or an activist. However, after his return from Fisk, Gomillion became active in the Men’s Club of Tuskegee, which was established in1910 to help improve public services around Tuskegee Institute. (Under Gomillion’s leadership women were included in 1941.) The Men’s Club consisted of faculty members from Tuskegee, teachers from the local school, and other local professional men. Members addressed community concerns such as sewerage, drainage, streets, credit institutions, and voting issues. As a club member Gomillion encouraged people to register to vote. He believed that many problems could be solved with increased political participation. But blacks were obstructed from participating by various strategies, for example the poll tax; white primary, intelligence tests; and the voucher system.

The poll tax was enacted in 1901 by the Alabama Constitution to keep blacks from registering to vote. The intelligence test purported to measure understanding of the United States Constitution; the test asked people to read or write portions of the Constitution. In 1875, white supremacists wrote a new constitution in Alabama that supported the white primary and manipulated the black vote for nearly twenty-five years. The voucher system required one or more white persons to vouch for the character of blacks who applied to register to vote. Gomillion expended a lot of effort trying to register to vote, but he was held up since people who agreed to vouch for him started backing out. In 1939, he applied again after a white contractor approached him about building a house. Gomillion agreed to let him build the house if he would vouch for him. The contractor agreed, and Gomillion became a registered voter after paying back poll taxes from 1928 to 1939. Gomillion’s second wife became a registered voter in 1940 and also had to pay poll taxes of $1.50, covering the period from when she came to Macon County in 1936 to 1940.

In 1941, the Men’s Club broadened the scope of its mission and changed its name to the Tuskegee Civic Association (TCA). Its main goals were to improve public services, to get equal opportunities for public education, and to heighten blacks’ awareness of all community concerns. Gomillion believed that the citizens of Tuskegee had a civic duty to register and vote. The TCA started an active campaign to get blacks registered, pay their poll taxes, and make informed voting choices. At the start of the campaign there were about 75 registered black voters in the county. Over a period of nearly twenty years, the number increased to about 410. This increase was alarming to the white political powers of Alabama.

Chronology

1900

Born in Johnston, South Carolina on April 1

1922

Marries Hermyne Jones

1928

Graduates from Paine College in Augusta, Georgia; joins the Tuskegee faculty

1934

Additional studies at Fisk University; leads effort to register blacks to vote

1936

Remarries

1939

Registered to vote in Macon County, Alabama

1941

Creates the Tuskegee Civic Association (formerly the Tuskegee Men’s Club)

1957

Sues Tuskegee Mayor Phillip Lightfoot over gerrymandering

1959

Receives doctorate in sociology from Ohio State University

1960

The Supreme Court rules that the Fifteenth Amendment rights of Tuskegee blacks are violated by the gerrymander

1970

Retires from public life

1971

Retires from Tuskegee University

1995

Dies in Montgomery, Alabama on October 4

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