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Sunday, April 3, 2011

No. 21 "... as much as anybody else in this graveyard!"

Back in the days before widespread social services were offered by the government, political parties and their leaders often stepped in to help their supporters who were down on their luck. In return, they expected loyalty, especially when it came time to vote. Myriads of stories have been told about the “political machine” of the Democratic Party in Carteret County and how it demanded and received the fidelity of voters on the Island. As with some other tales of the Island’s more colorful people and events, these accounts may or may not be real, but they do help to convey the aura that surrounded elections when Harkers Island was part of the “Solid (Democratic) South.”

Polling procedures at that time allowed voters, many of whom may have been functionally illiterate, to have someone accompany them into the voting booth to help them in marking their ballot. Even those who voted on their own often carried a “sample ballot” that included circled or checked names of the candidates endorsed by the party, or by one of its local leaders (bosses).

By the early 1950's Hugh Salter from Sea Level had become the Sheriff of Carteret County and was much loved by many people on the Island - so much so that two of the Island’s most storied characters, Archie & Honeybean, vied with each other to show who was the most faithful when it came to voting the party line. Asserting both how much he cherished his privacy and his relationship with the Sheriff, Archie asserted that, “nobody in the world knows how I voted except for me and Hugh Salter.” Determined to show that he was at least as faithful, and perhaps ever more so, Honeybean quickly responded, “Hell, ain’t nobody knows how I voted but Hugh Salter!”

Another story is told of Tilton Davis, son of one of the Island’s most prominent and demanding bosses, Cleveland Davis. Years after the passing of his father, Tilton accompanied his widowed mother, Mattie, into the voting booth to help her mark her ballot correctly. Once inside, and with the curtain pulled to assure their privacy, Mattie took the occasion to explain to her son that  she could not vote for Gerhmann Holland. Gerhmann was sheriff at that time and was the local party’s “boss of bosses.” He had earlier served as the State of North Carolina’s “Fish Commissioner.” In that position he had overseen the enforcement of fishing laws and regulations, and had also been responsible for the hiring of many or most of the Commission’s officers, including Tilton Davis. It was for that reason that he had incurred the ire of Mattie Davis. She felt he had not been the help he should have been in getting her son assigned to more local duty rather than farther up the Pamlico Sound, causing him to be away from his home, and her, for weeks at a time.

Not wanting to contend with  his mother, but at the same time unwilling to forego the loyalty that he still had to Sheriff Holland, he explained lovingly to his mother, “What we’ll do is put a big ‘X’ in the block right next to his name,” to show the poll takers that we have “Xed him right out!” Doing as he suggested, and after depositing her ballot in the wooden box that lay by the door, the two walked back outside. Mattie then began to express to Tilton some misgivings about having voted against the party leader who had been her family’s good friend for many years. “Don’t you worry,” her son consoled her, “Gerhmann won’t hold it against you, and I won’t either!”

Finally, there is the story told of Tilton’s father, who along with my grandfather, Charlie, was scouring the graveyard one night before an election to get the names of deceased voters who might still be showing on the polling books. This was an oft-repeated ritual done to determine if any “extra” voters could be added to the next day’s tally. When they came across a headstone that was so weathered that neither the name nor the dates could be clearly read, my grandfather suggested to his friend that they leave that one alone, and move on to the next one. Showing his truly egalitarian sentiments, Cleveland retorted, “Not hardly! He’s got just as much right to vote as anybody else in this graveyard!”

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