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BEAUFORT COUNTY, S.C. — A 108-year-old woman who was originally barred from voting by Jim Crow laws will cast a ballot for the first time in this year's general election.
Joanna Jenkins was born only a few decades after the Reconstruction period ended in 1877. She grew up with Jim Crow laws in place that effectively prevented her from voting for decades after amendments were passed that were supposed to protect her.
Jenkins would legally have been able to vote shortly after the Nineteenth Amendment passed, which in 1920 recognized women's rights to vote. She never registered, though, and barriers in place including comprehension tests and literacy requirements would have prevented her from casting a ballot, anyway.
Even after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Jenkins did not register to vote. She could neither read nor write, and despite the efforts of her cousin, Arinethia Ferguson, 43, she never filled out an absentee ballot — until this year.
The laws segregated whites and blacks in the south and effectively disenfranchised most blacks and some poor whites by requiring poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests and residency proof. As a result, voter turnout in the South dropped dramatically.
Jim Crow laws were abolished in the mid-20th century, first with the help of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that state-sponsored school segregation was unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 abolished the rest of the laws.
"She just got kind of carried away with wanting to vote," Ferguson told South Carolina paper The State.
Jenkins' family thought her lack of state-issued photo ID would be a problem, but voter ID laws in South Carolina do not take effect until the next election cycle. With the help of her doctor and her county's board of elections, she was registered as an absentee voter, according to KIAH-TV.
"It's incredible; she grew up in a time when Jim Crow laws were fully in effect, and minority voter suppression was the norm, and to vote was a fight not a right at that time," Scott Marshall, director of the Beaufort County, SC election, told the station. "So for her to be voting now is a great example to others that it's never too late to vote and you should always exercise your right to vote."
Jenkins said she is voting for Pres. Barack Obama.