2020 is a year to celebrate two major milestones in voting rights equality, with the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning racial discrimination in voting, and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment extending these protections to women. The road to claiming the-all important right to have a voice in our government was a complicated one for these groups and it started early on.
Voting in Early America
Like many of America’s laws, American voting laws have roots in laws that came over from England during the colonial period. During the colonial years and after the Revolution, at times ownership of land and personal property were tied to the right to vote, meaning for the most part, only land-owning white men were eligible to vote. There were exceptions. For example, women in New Jersey could vote as early as 1776, but since married women couldn’t own property, that meant only property-owning single women and widows could vote. States began lifting many of these requirements in the early decades of the 1800s, but again, this benefit was still for white men.
A Joint Effort
In the 1830s and 1840s as abolitionists mobilized to end slavery, they teamed up with suffragists and temperance advocates, joining forces to work to accomplish their missions. In 1848, a group of women organized a convention on women’s rights. Key organizers included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, and Mary Ann M’Clintock. Held in July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, there were around 300 people in attendance. At that convention, they drafted the Declaration of Sentiments, which was framed by Stanton in language that was very similar to the Declaration of Independence. 100 of those in attendance signed the declaration – 68 women and 32 men. It went on to list the reasons why the rights of women were impeded by the fact that they had no say in their democratic government. Unfortunately, the efforts of African American women in the movement were often marginalized.
Frederick Douglass was one of the 32 men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments at that convention in Seneca Falls and he delivered a speech there as well. He was one of the most recognizable advocates for the abolition of slavery, pressing for racial equality and suffrage for women and African American men and women in the United States. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, he escaped in 1838. Largely self-educated, he settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was a well-known asylum for fugitives. After addressing a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Slavery Society in 1841, he became a paid lecturer for the organization, becoming increasingly involved in both the abolition and suffrage movements, touring to lecture for equality, publishing in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, and then founding and publishing his own newspapers – The North Star, and later, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and finally the New National Era.
Born into slavery in New York sometime in the late 1790s, Isabella Baumfree, as Sojourner Truth was then known, escaped with her daughter shortly before New York finally phased out slavery within the state. With freedom, she became involved in the fight for abolition. During a time when abolitionists and women’s suffrage supporters were split over whether the vote should first go to African American men, before the right to vote for women, Sojourner Truth fought for suffrage equality for everyone.
While she wasn’t always welcome on the stage with white suffragists, she made headlines when she spoke at an 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Despite objections by some organizers, her powerful speech helped propel her into the public spotlight. She was persistent in her beliefs and worked to support herself in any way she could to continue her crusade for equality for all, including selling cartes de visite bearing her image. Her strength and dedication to her mission helped change history.
Henry Highland Garnet
Henry Highland Garnet was another passionate abolitionist, whose family escaped slavery in Maryland in 1824 and made their way to New York via the Underground Railroad, where he received an education. Although he was only about 9 years old when the family left Maryland, he had witnessed the horrors of slavery and before he was even 20 years old, he was active in abolition and suffrage organizations. His radical positions sometimes caused rifts, including with Frederick Douglass, but as early as the 1830s, he was speaking out for the enfranchisement of free black males in the North.
Successes in 1870 and 1920, but More to Do
When the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870, securing suffrage rights for African American men nationwide by banning racial discrimination in voting, it spurred suffragists to redouble their efforts, pushing for an amendment to the Constitution. However, that fight would last another 50 years until the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. While many of those early suffragists and abolitionists did not live to cast their ballot, they energized generations of new activists into action.
Although African American men were granted the right to vote via the 15th Amendment, successfully casting a vote proved anything but easy. Following the country’s retreat from Reconstruction, southern states, including through a series of constitutional conventions beginning with Mississippi in 1890, started to implement poll taxes, literacy tests, and other discretionary measures aimed at blocking African American men from casting ballots. Grandfather clauses enacted in some southern states meant that many white voters weren’t held to the same standard because they had voted in previous elections when most African Americans were still being held in bondage. Voter suppression, terrorist violence, and intimidation through threats of violence were also deterrents. Another two generations of activists continued the fight for equality until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally removed barriers that had effectively disenfranchised African Americans throughout the former Confederate states.
Generations of Americans have taken up the mantle of activism throughout the years to secure our rights to make our voices heard by our government representatives. And when we walk into a voting booth, those generations are there with us.
Tips for Finding African American Ancestors
There’s never been a better time to research your African American family history. There are many resources readily available that hold the stories of our ancestors.
- Census records offer a glimpse into your ancestor’s household every 10 years. Although enslaved people weren’t often named in censuses before 1870 (free persons of color were included), they were named in other records.
- Birth, marriage, and death records can include the names of parents, taking you back a generation, and providing additional insights.
- Mortality schedules included the names of enslaved persons who had died in the year preceding the census, and even a few rare slave schedules in 1850 and 1860 included names.
- Probate and property records of owners often include the names of enslaved persons in wills, bills of sale, and other documents.