Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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African Americans Voting

  • Broadside Showing African Americans Voting, November, 16, 1867
The First Vote depicts African American men, in dress indicative of their professions, in a queue waiting their turn to vote.
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« Return to The Fifteenth Amendment

Broadside Showing African Americans Voting, November, 16, 1867

On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Civil War in Virginia. Less than a week later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and Vice President Andrew Johnson became president. Johnson disliked the Southern planter aristocracy, but he had little sympathy for African Americans. With the end of the Civil War came the end of slavery in the American South, but racial hostilities toward the formerly enslaved African Americans continued throughout the Reconstruction era. Shortly before his death, Lincoln had recommended that some African Americans be permitted to vote. Their struggle to gain and to retain full citizenship and political rights was difficult and sometimes violent. In some of the first Southern legislative sessions after the war, former slaveholders passed Black Codes that placed restrictions on the rights of freedpeople and in some places, including Virginia, were regarded as little more than slavery by a different name. In 1866 Congress proposed the Fourteenth Amendment to define freedpeople as citizens and prohibit states from denying them rights of citizenship. Congress also passed the first of several civil rights acts to guarantee those rights. One required the former Confederate states to hold conventions to write new constitutions, and the army's commanding general in Virginia ordered that African Americans be given the right to vote for and to be elected delegates to the convention. In 1867, 105,832 freedmen registered to vote in Virginia, and 93,145 voted in the election that began on October 22, 1867. Artist Alfred Rudolph Waud depicted "The First Vote" of African Americans in Virginia in the November 16, 1867, issue of Harper's Weekly magazine.

Twenty-four African Americans won election to the 1867–1868 Virginia Constitutional Convention, which created the Underwood Constitution (named for John C. Underwood, the federal judge who was president of the convention) that granted the vote to African American men but disenfranchised some former Confederates. When it was ratified late in 1869 and went into effect in January 1870, the provisions that disenfranchised former Confederates were deleted, and for the first time all adult Virginia men had the right to vote. That ended Congressional Reconstruction in Virginia. That same year, ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibited the states from denying any man the right to vote because of his "race, color, or previous condition of servitude," meaning having been held in slavery.

Between the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 and the end of Congressional Reconstruction in the remainder of the South in 1877, about two thousand African Americans served in local and state government offices, including state legislatures, and as members of Congress. About one hundred African American men served in the General Assembly of Virginia between 1869 and 1890, and hundreds more in city and county government offices or as postal workers and in other federal jobs. White resentment or resistance in the South, especially after Republican leaders in Congress ceased to press for protection of the rights of freedmen, led to the adoption of state laws that made it difficult for African Americans to register or to vote, and some people employed violence or intimidation or corruption to prevent them from voting or being elected to public office. The Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875, the last that Congress passed during the nineteenth century, unconstitutional, and during the final years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth century all of the former Confederate states adopted new state constitutions or passed new election laws to make it even more difficult for African American men to register, vote, and be elected to public office. During that time, African Americans lost most of their federal protection and were frequent victims of violence and oppression by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (organized in 1865) and other white southerners. Later in the twentieth century, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, acts of Congress and rulings of federal courts invalidated many of those restrictions on African American voting.

For Educators

Questions

1) What does this image depict?

2) For what did the 1867 Reconstruction Acts provide?

3) What did the Underwood Constitution of 1869 call for in Virginia?

4) Why did many people in Virginia want to make changes to the state constitution in 1902?

Further Discussion

1. This image, published in Harper's Weekly in 1867, depicts African American males casting their first vote. How were other images, such as political cartoons, used during the struggle for African American suffrage and in the period after it was granted? How do these political cartoons and images depict what whites were thinking during this time?

Links

"Black Voting Rights: The Creation of the 15th Amendment." Harp Week: Explore History

Suggested Reading

Smith, John David. Black Voices from Reconstruction, 1865–1877. Millbrook, Conn.: The Millbrook Press, 1996.

Lowe, Richard. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856–70. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.