Paying Poll Tax is Distant Memory  
Thursday, August 4, 2011

Donald A. Wayman was about 7 years old in 1937, but he remembers a special errand that his father, Charles “Buster” Wayman, sent him on.

Recall might relate to the circumstances. It wasn’t like a run to the neighborhood store to buy a loaf of bread. His father pulled a couple of dollars out of his pants pocket, packaged them with his poll tax bill, and sent young Donald downtown, to Webster Town Hall, and to the office of the town tax collector.

The instructions were simple. Pay the bill, get a receipt and return. This recollection brought a bit of research. The poll tax — $2 a year, levied on males only — set a pre-condition to voting, requiring the ability to read. The measure was accepted in some states, Massachusetts being one of them, in the second half of the 19th century. The Bay State was also one of the first to eliminate it around 1891.

Gov. William Eustis Russell, a Democrat, supported a series of pro-labor laws, doing away with the state’s poll tax at the same time, Webster assessor Marc D. Becker said on a recent morning, reading from a computer-generated report.

All of this happened before women’s suffrage, the constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote. Stripped of its antilabor provisions, the poll tax continued more than 35 years, probably as a local option.

It’s why Mr. Wayman’s father, like all males in the state 21 and older, still received a $2 poll tax bill. The tax didn’t extend to women even after they gained the right to vote, meaning an inequity for men.

Webster eliminated its version of the poll tax in 1937, according to Town Clerk Robert T. Craver. There’s no official entry in the municipal records, but booklets listing town voters shows that citizens were considered poll-tax payers through 1937 and town voters after 1938.

Given that the term poll tax was cut from town records some 74 years ago, Mr. Wayman, a veteran of the Korean War, active in Webster-Dudley Veterans Council affairs and a retired letter carrier, may be the only person in town to have paid a poll tax bill, even if it was as a surrogate.

Donald came away from his first Town Hall experience with an opinion: The tax department clerk had superior penmanship!

A legal notice in a town weekly says that Webster is looking for a lot of state money to remove asbestos from the vacant Anthony J. Sitkowski School to facilitate rehabilitation of the big building for elderly housing.

The town agency is also talking about sidewalk reconstruction on Mechanic Street, rebuilding the School Street parking lot and other projects. There’s nothing wrong with asbestos-removal work in the old school, mainly because it will be necessary no matter what happens to the downtown building, even if it’s torn down, according to OCD Director Carol Cyr. The project has been on hold about three years, so a town-only undertaking might be considered in the future.

Another parking lot, for example. There’s a parking area right across the street from the School Street off-street, believe it or not, and it has been ignored so long that few people know it exists. It’s right behind the newly opened pharmacy on Main at High Streets.

If this isn’t downtown Webster, what is?

There’s a date to stamp the “exempt” lot, and place it across from the proposed OCD parking reconstruction project. The date might as well be decades ago, which it is, but it was once the town’s leading entertainment venue. This OCD renewal site is actually the lot to the so-called Engine Building, with the Fire and Police stations on opposite ends. A meeting hall and town offices were on the second floor.

Music Hall, first a vaudeville hall and last a movie theater, burned down Feb. 2, 1922, or 2-2-22, to offer it as a more easily remembered date.

The town highway department built the off-street lot from the cellar hole to the venue after World War II, and it went from inattention to largely forgotten.

Maurice Healy of Dudley, representing three Civil War-era families — Healy, Redman, and Bergner — reports that a ceremony observing the departure of the Slater Guards for Civil War service 150 years ago will be held Aug. 20 in Webster Town Hall.

A cornet band will replicate selections played when the Guards left Webster all those years ago, added Mr. Healy.
-Courtesy Of
Telegram & Gazette

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