Thomas Peterson never forgot the vote he cast on the last day of March 1870, and people still talk about it 150 years later.
He was a longtime janitor and handyman in Perth Amboy, N.J., an ordinary man doing an ordinary activity – but the circumstances were special.
“I was working for Mr. T. L. Kearny on the morning of the day of election, and did not think of voting until he came out to the stable where I was attending to the horses and advised me to go to the polls and exercise a citizen’s privilege,” Peterson told a newspaper.
The election was for a local issue, revising the town’s charter or scrapping it. Peterson was one of 230 voters in favor of revising vs. 30 for scrapping. Nothing special for anyone outside Perth Amboy.
What was special about Peterson’s vote wouldn’t be discovered until a short time later: He had become the first Black man to cast a vote after the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
This amendment protects the right to vote for citizens of any “race, color or previous condition of servitude” and gives Congress the power to enforce the right through legislation.
WHAT’S IT MEAN?
Voting in public elections is the foremost tool for citizens to voice how their cities, states and countries are run. Until the late 1860s, this right was kept from most Blacks in America.
“Free negroes” who owned property could only vote in the state of New York. Earlier, “free negroes” could also vote in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but those two states rescinded the right in 1808 and 1838, respectively.
Following the Civil War (1861-65), the U.S. passed Constitutional amendments and other laws that extended civil and political rights to newly freed African Americans who’d been enslaved in the South, says Tiffany Mitchell Patterson, assistant professor of secondary social studies at West Virginia University.
+ The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, banned slavery and involuntary servitude except for the punishment of a crime.
+ The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first U.S. federal law to define citizenship and affirm that all citizens are equally protected by the law. It was vetoed twice by President Andrew Johnson before Congress mustered a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to allow it to become law without a presidential signature.
At about this point, in 1867, after much argument in Congress, the Republicans (the party of Abraham Lincoln, and a force in the abolition of slavery) used their voting strength to pass laws allowing all male “freedmen” to vote. (Black women, along with non-Black women, wouldn’t have the right to vote until 1920.)
However, the South started figuring out ways to prevent Blacks from voting using laws called “Black Codes.” The response from Congress included two more Constitutional amendments.
+ The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship and equal protection under the law to all people born in the United States, as well as naturalized citizens – including all previously enslaved individuals.
+ The 15th Amendment asserted that neither the federal government nor state governments could deny voting rights to any male citizen. Congress ratified it Feb 3, 1870, but didn’t go into effect until March 30, when it was approved by the last of the required number of states.
Unfortunately, districts controlled by racially prejudiced officials continued to fight Black voting rights Act through poll taxes (fees required to vote), literacy tests, biased registration and voter laws, and outright harassment and mob violence.
Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, voter suppression is still happening, says the American Civil Liberties Union. After the record turnout for the 2008 election that put Barack Obama in the White House, 30 states introduced suppression legislation ahead of the 2012 election. Then there was the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, for which observers said Black people were removed from voting rolls ahead of the election so they’d be inconvenienced by re-registering, and polling places for Black neighborhoods were located fewer and farther between than those in White neighborhoods.
Thanks to the 15th Amendment, these actions can be and have been prosecuted, but it often takes people with money to hire attorneys to battle in court.
MR. PETERSON’S LEGACY
Though Thomas Peterson wasn’t the first Black man to cast a ballot in a U.S. election, he was identified as the first Black man to vote after passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870.
After the accomplishment was discovered, he became a local hero. He grew active in his local Republican Party and Prohibition Party, and was Perth Amboy’s first African American to serve on a jury, according to BlackAmericaWeb.com.
In 1884, his townspeople raised $70 (about $1,800 today) to present Peterson with a gold medal inscribed with his name and accomplishment. He died in 1904. Today, his medal resides in the collection of HBCU Xavier University in Louisiana.