At this polling station, U.S. Army soldiers are serving as poll workers, since the state of Virginia is under federal military rule. In 1867, the Radical Republicans, now in control of Congress, passed the Reconstruction Acts, dividing all the seceded states except Tennessee into five military districts and putting federal troops in charge of Southern elections. Under the command of a former U.S. Army general, each state had to draft a new state constitution, ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and grant Black men the right to vote. Virginia was designated Military District Number One, under the command of General John Schofield. The delegates to the convention ratified the new constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment in 1869, and Virginia returned to Congress in 1870.
The wife of one of the Black voters has joined her husband for this historic event. She can’t vote herself - women did not gain the right to vote until 1920 with passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and voting rights weren’t guaranteed to Black Southerners of either sex for many more decades, until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Black people trying to vote in Southern states after Reconstruction faced poll taxes, literacy tests and racial terrorism. But all along Black women felt that the franchise applied to the whole family, and they often spoke out in public. They attended – and voted at – mass meetings held by freedpeople to debate pressing political issues and forcefully voiced their opinions at Republican Party conventions. Women saw enfranchisement of Black men as a gain for the entire race and encouraged men to adhere to the wishes of the family in voting. They often accompanied their husbands to the polls and helped to protect them from hostile whites.
These men represent white Southerners who fought for the Confederacy and are strongly opposed to the idea of Black men voting. Changes that Radical Reconstruction brought about met with vicious resistance from many white Southerners. They found giving voting rights to Black men especially appalling, and many of them refused to take part in the 1867 elections. To fight back against freedom for Black people, some whites began to form vigilante groups. In 1866 a group of Confederate veterans organized the most notorious, the Ku Klux Klan. Pledging to reinstate white supremacy, the Klan committed acts of terrible violence and humiliation against Blacks. Freedpeople responded by taking measures to protect themselves, forming armed militias, particularly in areas where they outnumbered whites. The Republican-led federal government under President Ulysses S. Grant passed a series of laws known as the “Ku Klux Klan Acts,” bringing a temporary halt to the Klan’s reign of terror and some relief from the horrific violence against Black communities.
At the beginning of the Civil War, the federal government excluded Blacks from the army, but in 1862-63, as the need for soldiers grew, the government scrapped the prohibition and welcomed Black soldiers. By the end of the war, 180,000 African American soldiers had fought for the U.S Army, and the voices of freedpeople in the North advocating for voting rights for Black men were growing louder. In 1864, the National Convention of Colored Men in Syracuse, New York, called for the right to vote, arguing that if Black men were good enough for “bullets,” they were good enough for the “ballot.” In 1867, 105,832 freedmen registered to vote in Virginia, and 93,145 voted in the election that began on October 22, 1867.
This new voter has very little money or belongings, but he has gained his freedom. After passage of the Reconstruction Acts, thousands of politically energized freedmen, rich and poor, registered to vote, aligning themselves overwhelmingly with Republicans. Voters in the 1867 elections sent 265 African American delegates to state constitutional conventions, including two dozen from Virginia. In February 1869, Congress approved the Fifteenth Amendment, assuring that a citizen’s right to vote would not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” African American men played a critical role in its passage. The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870.
Before the Civil War the majority of free Black people lived in the South, where they couldn’t testify in court, learn to read, or travel without restrictions. But they survived and thrived as craftsmen, business owners, teachers, religious leaders, and in many other professions. Some owned property, and many worked to abolish slavery. In 1861 free Blacks in Virginia made up about 44 percent of the free Black population in the South. Many African Americans who had gained their freedom before the Civil War became leaders during Reconstruction. Born free in 1829, John Mercer Langston became the first African American to win a seat in Congress from Virginia, in a disputed election in 1888. He is also known as the great-uncle of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.
In 1856 members of an anti-corruption committee in San Francisco discovered evidence of alleged election fraud in the form of a “stuffer’s ballot box” that had a false bottom and sides to conceal pre-marked ballots. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published an article about the box, complete with a diagram, and a short time later a New York music store owner named Samuel C. Jollie created a glass ballot box, bringing literal transparency to the voting process. Voters inserted ballots through a small hole on the top of the box so that all ballots were visible. Pictures of Jollie’s box appeared in dozens of publications, and the New York Times endorsed it, saying, “The arrangement enables every vote to be seen as deposited, and prevents the possibility of false bottoms.”
This man is one of the few African Americans who has already cast a ballot. In 1865, shortly before the end of the Civil War, a group of about a thousand Black men in Norfolk, Virginia formed the Colored Monitor Union Club. Their manifesto, The Equal Suffrage Address, which they distributed nationally, called for “the right of universal suffrage to all loyal men, without distinction of color.” When a local election was held about a month later, on May 25, 1865, members of the club came out to vote in a demonstration of political will. Although most of them were turned back, a few were allowed to vote, in what may be the first instance of African Americans voting in the South.