By Jameelah Nasheed
On February 3, 1870 — 150 years ago today — African American men were given the right to vote with the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which declared that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” This major milestone would appear to have empowered Black men by implying their voices mattered in this American democracy.
Instead, this date was just one major milestone in an ongoing fight for equality at the polls. It’s a fight that in 2020 — as the Black vote is a topic of serious discussion a century and a half later — still persists. To help understand our modern battle of voting, it’s helpful to look back at this 150-year-old breakthrough.
Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, during the 12-year period referred to as the Reconstruction Era, a series of amendments were ratified to provide constitutional protections for the formerly enslaved Black population. There was the 13th Amendment, in 1865, which outlawed slavery. Three years later, in 1868, the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to every-one born or naturalized in the United States (prior to this amendment, a Supreme Court decision stated that descendants of enslaved people could not be citizens). Then there was the 15th Amendment, which enfranchised some of these newly freed citizens — but not for long.
For a brief time after the 15th Amendment’s ratification, Black men’s voices were being heard. Thomas Mundy Peterson cast the first known ballot by an African American on March 31, 1870. Hiram Revels was appointed in 1870 to be the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate, but his qualifications came under dispute.
As remembered by the Senate itself on its website, members of Congress were able to disguise racist backlash to working with a Black colleague by claiming Revels hadn’t been a citizen for the nine years required to be a senator because, as a Black man, he’d only been technically legally considered a citizen for four years since the Civil Rights Act of 1866. These changes weren’t embraced by many white Americans, who had been beneficiaries of the country’s deeply ingrained racist roots.
As a result, Reconstruction was followed by a period of time that was referred to as “Redemption” — a time in which violence, terror, and the legal system were used by white Southerners to dismantle the gains made for African Americans during Reconstruction and to reinforce white supremacy.
In the recent book Stony the Road, historian and literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., described this period of Redemption as a time “when the gains of Reconstruction were systematically erased and the country witnessed the rise of a white supremacist ideology that, we might say, went rogue, an ideology that would long outlast the circumstances of its origin.”
During this decades-long time period, which began in 1873, political pressure to go back to a pre-Reconstruction society was enforced by violence as pro-Reconstruction politicians and Black Americans were attacked and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the Red Shirts. Famous historian and activist W.E.B. DuBois put it poetically when he wrote, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
In addition to the violence that was inflicted upon Black Americans to keep them from voting, state laws were put into place to effectively institutionalize new forms of discrimination at the polls. Black men were subject to impossible literacy tests, poll taxes, and other legal hurdles.
As a result, in Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered to vote after 1890, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. By 1904, in Louisiana there were only 1,342 registered Black voters — a drastic reduction from the more than 130,000 Black voters that had been registered in 1896.
Seemingly providing further clarification and proof that these laws were established specifically to prevent Black men from voting, a half dozen states passed laws in the early 1890s to protect poor Southern whites who may have lost their voting rights due to the barriers put in place. These laws declared that men who had been able to vote prior to the 15th Amendment (i.e., white men) and their lineal descendants (children, grandchildren, and so on) wouldn’t be subject to onerous requirements in order to vote — a measure that has been referred to as the grandfather clause, which spawned the phrase “grand-fathering in.”
In response, the NAACP convinced a U.S. attorney to challenge Oklahoma’s grand-father clause passed in 1910 in a case summarized by NPR. According to Harvard Law professor Michael Klarman’s book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, in 1900, only 57 of Oklahoma’s more than 55,000 Black citizens came from states that had permitted African Americans to vote before the 15th Amendment’s ratification, meaning tens of thousands of potential Black voters would still face tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests. In 1915, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Guinn v. United States* that the grandfather clause was unconstitutional. Despite that, a variation of the grandfather clause remained legal in Oklahoma until a Supreme Court ruling in 1939.
These tactics were very effective at keeping Black people out of the government. From 1870 to 1901, there were 20 Black U.S. representatives and two Black senators, but from 1901 to 1929, there were no Black representatives or senators, as noted by The Atlantic.
The 15th Amendment also faced opposition from suffragists who had been known abolitionists — specifically, white women who refused to support the amendment due to its exclusion of women. The famous activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared that “virtuous white women are more worthy of the vote.” While at a meeting with fellow American Equal Rights Association (AERA) member Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
Frederick Douglass agreed that women should have the right to vote but supported the 15th Amendment and felt the right to vote was more urgent for Black men than it was for women. “When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lampposts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own,” he said about the issue.
There was a group of women that both endured the suffering described by Douglass and sought the right to vote — Black women, who faced the compound prejudices of anti-Blackness and misogyny. But neither factor deterred them from injecting their voices into the electoral process. By organizing political societies and participating in political meetings, Black women were involved in the U.S. political system since long before they could legally cast a ballot.
The power of this persistence is illustrated in a study released by the National Historic Landmarks program, which quotes a report ahead of the 1872 election from a local paper called the Georgia Weekly Telegraph as saying, “[Black women] were seen everywhere, talking in an excited manner and urging the men on. Some of them were almost furious, showing to be part of their religion to keep their husbands and brothers straight in politics.”
While their activities may have predated our modern notions of intersectional feminism, Black suffragists faced harassment and sexual violence from white men and fought back against it. The movement’s leaders, such as Mary Church Terrell and Sojourner Truth, faced the pervasive racism of their era because of their Blackness while also having their voices ignored because they were women. Their work is what truly moved the U.S. closer to equality at the polls. In fighting for themselves, they were fighting for everyone. Instead of choosing between the fight for suffrage for African Americans or for women, they focused on human rights and universal suffrage.
“African American suffragists always saw the vote as part of a much broader range of social, economic, and political issues surrounding their communities. Theirs was an intersectional vision which linked race, class, and gender, in contrast to white suffragists, who often approached the issue from the lens of gender only,” Harvard University’s Susan Ware, a historian who specializes in women’s suffrage, told Teen Vogue last year.
When white suffragists celebrated after the ratification of the 19th Amendment (which gave women the right to vote), Black women weren’t done fighting. The 19th Amendment was a milestone, but like the 15th Amendment before it, it effectively meant that Black women now faced the same discrimination at the polls that Black men had faced since 1870. It wouldn’t be until 95 years later, after decades of pressure and activism and in the midst of the civil rights movement, that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made voting more accessible to Black men (and women).
Despite the protections this law put into place, the Black vote is still being suppressed. Over the years, the effort to suppress the minority vote has only evolved. Today, it looks like gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter purges, the closing of polling locations in minority communities, and the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that eliminated a vital part of the Voting Rights Act — the requirement that historically discriminatory states receive clearance from the federal government before changing their voting laws.
Black leaders like former attorney general Eric Holder and Georgia’s most famous Democrat, Stacey Abrams, are just two of the forces in today’s fight against voter suppression.
It’s a fight that, 150 years after the 15th Amendment passed, feels just as vital as it did at the time of the amendment’s ratification and even before then. It is a fight that is proof that those in power have recognized (and oftentimes feared) the power in the Black vote for years. And it’s a fight that won’t end until Black Americans are respected participants in this American democracy.