Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the 15th Amendment

“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.”

U.S. Constitution. Amendment XV, Section 1. 1870

Last year marked the 150th Anniversary of the 15th Amendment. As one of the last amendments passed during the Reconstruction Era, some lawmakers intended for the 15th Amendment to guarantee voting rights for U.S. citizens regardless of their racial or ethnic identity or a “previous condition of servitude.” In the years immediately following the ratification of the 15th amendment, voter registration and political participation among black men increased dramatically. This trend lasted only a few years before politicians were able to enact laws that “legally” disenfranchised black men. Poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses limited the ability of many black men and poor people to continue to participate in elections. 

The artifacts gathered here reflect sentiments about the 15th Amendment throughout time.

Annual Report of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (1870) 

In this final annual report, members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society reflect on the organization’s 36 years of work towards ending the system of slavery. In their report, they declare their success in their mission, discuss the decision to disband and acknowledge that the fight for sustained equal rights under the law was not over. On voting, they observed:

“Bravely, in the face of imminent peril have they addressed themselves to the performance of their duties. The record of the first election in Virginia where colored men used the ballot, tells the story of many such elections throughout the South. One who witnessed it, reports that on the evening previous to the election, “these loyal-hearted new citizens, devoted themselves in their place of worship, to the high duty before them, with prayer, and the grand old psalm, ‘Before Jehovah’s awful throne;’ then separated to meet at sunrise, and appear in body at the polls.” One hundred men, without a foot of land of their own, and with notices in their pockets, by the old slave-masters, threatening to turn them shelterless from the soils ; there they stook, in the face of the oppressor, and voted for Free Schools, Free Speech and Equal Taxation.” (6)

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass from 1817 to 1882 

In his autobiography, Douglass discusses the proposal of the Reconstruction Amendments. On the 15th Amendment, he noted

“Of course, on such a question, I could not expect to be silent. I was called forward, and responses with all the energy of my soul, for I looked upon suffrage to the negro, as the only measure which could prevent him from being thrust back into slavery” (349)

William Still – An Address on Voting and Laboring, Delivered at Concert Hall, Tuesday Evening, March 10th, 1874

William Still (1821 – 1902) was an African-American philanthropist, abolitionist, business person, historian, and civil rights activist based in Philadelphia. He is best known for his work for the Underground Railroad to help people escape slavery. He documented the stories of the lives and experiences of over 600 people who escaped slavery in his book The Underground Railroad Records (1872). 

In this document, Still responds to criticisms about his vote for an Independent mayoral candidate. He argues that he has not “deserted” the cause and troubles the idea that enfranchised Black citizens should feel a sense of ‘gratitude’ to the Republican party — who championed the Reconstruction Amendments. 

“If a colored voter chooses, upon due consideration, to vote an independent, or non-partisan, or even Democratic ticket, I think he should be free to do do, and, still, further, I think that colored men who have been so long bound down under the yoke, and have been so long compelled to think and act only at the bidding of the dominant race, should be the last people on earth to institute or encourage this kind of political tyranny.” When penning this paragraph, (the most offensive one in the eye of our “distinguished colored leaders”) contained in my late communication, I never thought there would be the slightest room for alleging that I had undergone a change of sentiment with regard to voting, nor do I see now how such a view is any sense whatever in conflict with the Fifteenth Amendment, or antagonistical to the avowed principles of the Republic party.”

An Address on Voting and Laboring, Delivered at Concert Hall, Tuesday Evening, March 10th, 1874

The Black Explosion (College Park, Md.), 1998-10-07

The Black Student Union began publishing an independent newspaper entitled the Black Explosion sometime between 1967 and 1970. Black Explosion staff strives to serve as the “black voice” for the University of Maryland and to bring particular attention to issues that affect the black community at UMD. In this Feature article, Somaree Taru (Editor-in-Chief) discusses the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the failure of the 15th Amendment to guarantee voting rights for all Americans. 

Exhibition by former employee, Kimmi Ramnine

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