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Wenxi Li '10 Researching Historical Shift in African-American Voting Patterns

By Laura Bramley
Posted August 12, 2008
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When it came to the black vote after the Civil War, Wenxi Li '10 (Acton, Mass.) says, "The Republicans had everything on their side." In the 1860s it was Republican President Abraham Lincoln who had signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves, while the southern Democrats were pursuing a policy of restricting black rights. However, by 1936, that had changed, Li says, and the Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the majority of black votes.

The question of why exactly this shift occurred is one that is occupying most of Li's energy this summer. She is one of 18 students who are spending the summer pursuing research funded by the Levitt Research Fellows Program. The students work on their projects in collaboration with a faculty member, researching an issue related to public affairs.

Li is collaborating with Professor of History Douglas Ambrose, traveling from her home in Acton, Mass., to meet with him and discuss the project several times throughout the summer. Her research focuses specifically on the actions and rhetoric of the Republican Party, to investigate what the party's role was in the shift. Using a mixture of secondary sources and primary documents such as newspaper articles and editorials, electoral maps, and party platforms, she will attempt to determine how black voters might have been alienated by Republican policies.

So far, Li says, she finds many different influences on the shift other than the GOP's stance, such as black disenfranchisement, urban industrialization, and other economic factors. She notes, however, that Republican ideology was important in determining how the party dealt with black votes. The Republican Party's priority to obtain national unity after the Civil War may have also played a part in determining their stance towards African Americans.

Although she says she has always been interested in civil rights and race relations, Li came to this particular project through the current political issues of the upcoming election. "With a real chance to have the nation's first African American president," she explains, "the current Democratic stronghold on African American votes intrigued me." A member of the class of 2007 who had previously received a grant encouraged her to apply for one, as well, and Li, a government major and math minor, welcomed the chance to research a topic in history, which is another of her interests.

This is Li's first summer research, and she is enjoying the chance to devote her attention to one project. "I like the fact that I have no obligations but the project this summer and I can focus all of my energies on it," she says. One simultaneously interesting and challenging part of research, she finds, is degree of flexibility needed to pursue a large research project. "Sometimes, you're reading a secondary source and you realize that the thesis you had in your head is completely wrong, says Li. "Then, you have to regroup and come up with something else."

Li plans to continue her project in the coming spring, which she will spend participating in Hamilton's Program in Washington D.C. She hopes to use the time in Washington to examine her question from a political rather than historical standpoint. After Hamilton, she plans to attend law school and become a practicing attorney. 

--   by Laura Bramley

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