This year’s theme for Black History Month is: “African Americans and the Vote.” The theme honors the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment (1920) granting woman’s suffrage and the sesquicentennial of the 15th Amendment (1870) which outlawed discrimination by federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
The 15th Amendment was ratified on Feb. 3, 1870. The following month on March 31, 1870, the first African American vote was cast in Perth Amboy, N.J. by Thomas Mundy Peterson. The first state to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment was Nevada in 1869 and the last state to ratify the amendment was Tennessee in 1997.
Peterson was the son of ex-slave Lucy Green and worked as a janitor and handyman in Perth Amboy. After the Fifteenth Amendment was enacted, Peterson voted in a local election held at city hall over the city’s charter. Along with being the first Black person to vote in America, Peterson was also the first Black person in Perth Amboy to serve on a jury. Peterson died in 1904 at the age of 79.
African Americans were denied the right to vote in the South due to a variety of factors including the poll tax and literacy tax. It would not be until the passage of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 that the majority of African Africans in the South were allowed to register to vote in the South.
Knowing our past helps open the door for the future—one of the many reasons it’s important to celebrate Black History Month. Check out these topics on the History Channel’s website about Black History Month and the history of the 15th Amendment. Also on OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network), you can find videos that honor the civil rights legends who paved the way of the historic Selma-to-Montgomery marches.
Blog by Cheryl McCollum