Saturday, November 28, 2009

Kentucky Freedmen Call for the Right of Suffrage

In March of 1866 a convention of freedmen (First Convention of Colored Men of Kentucky) gathered in Lexington, Kentucky to attempt to define where they currently stood politically, economically, and socially, and where they wanted to be in the future. At this meeting they outlined a number of resolutions. Included among these resolutions was one related to voting.

The freedmen fully understood that they had only recently been released from the bonds of slavery, and knew the constraints that slavery had placed upon their ability to receive a worthy education. Thus, they did not immediately seek the right to vote. While they claimed all other rights and privileges afforded to United States citizens, they knew that they would meet great resistance from whites of the Commonwealth if they sought the right of suffrage this soon after emancipation. They stated that sentiment clearly; "waiving for the time being, the ballot box and the doctrine of equality before the law..." But, they also made clear that they did "ask the opportunity, we demand the privilege of achieving for ourselves and our children, under regulation of impartial State and Federal law, the blessings which pertain to a well ordered and dignified life."

Just over a year later, another call for a convention of freedmen went out. The summer of 1867 saw smaller informal gatherings in preparation for a large state convention to be held in November in Lexington. The tone of these meetings and the subsequent state convention had changed dramatically over the past year. What they had "waived" in 1866, they now demanded in 1867."

So, what had developed over the period from the spring of 1866 to the summer and fall of 1867 that made freedmen make more bold calls for equality? In a word...lots!

In April of 1866 Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This new law gave freedmen the right to make contracts, sue and be sued, give evidence in court, and inherit, lease, purchase, sell, and hold real and personal property. Penalties for violating the law could be punished by a fine up to $1000 and or a year in prison. The Act was vetoed by President Johnson, but Johnson's veto was quickly overturned by Congress; creating bad blood between the executive and legislative branches of government during the early Reconstruction years.

In June 1866 Congress proposed the 14th Amendment. This potential change to the Constitution would make it constitutional law that former slaves were now citizens and were to be afforded equal protection under the law as that received by any and all other citizens. Although the amendment was not ratified and thus become effective until the summer of 1868, those Kentucky freedmen surely saw its chances of success as good under a Radial Republican congress, and the potential it held to their future improvement.

Finally, in March of 1867 Congress wrested control of Reconstruction policy away from President Johnson. Congressional (or Radical or Military) Reconstruction divided up the South into five military districts and placed demands upon the states in order to be admitted back into the Union, one of which included black suffrage.

All of these events contributed to the Kentucky freedmens' calls for the right of the ballot box and to the jury box. One assembly of Commonwealth freedmen (many former soldiers among them) in July 1867 petitioned Congress to "grant us the right of suffrage." They made the argument that without the ballot and right to testify that, "Colored men have frequently been murdered in cold blood by white citizens, and as we have not the right to testify against them, the criminals go unpunished."

These freedmen made an interesting case. They said that, "It is objected by the opposers of Republicanism that we Negroes are too ignorant to prudently exercise the great boon of freedom" [suffrage]. But, they used history to explain that back in 1837 Governor Clark had claimed that one-third of the adult white population was illiterate, but had not been barred from participating in elections. In their final statement they said, "It is feared by friends and boastfully claimed by opponents, that if enfranchised, the negro would vote against the party that saved the Government. It is answered that many of your petitioners were Soldiers; they think that they were on the right side; they see no reason to change sides and vote against the Liberty for which they fought. It is believed by your petitioners that their enfranchisement will arrest the cruel spirit of robbery, arson and murder in Kentucky, as it most evidently has done in other Southern States."

In the convention held that fall of 1867, President W.F. Butler of Jefferson County exclaimed their demands even more forcefully. "We had the cartridge box, now we want the ballot box, and soon we'll get the jury box...We went out and fought the battles of our country and gained our liberties, but we were left without means of protecting ourselves in the employment of that liberty. We need and must have the ballot for that purpose."

It wouldn't be until 3 years later, in 1870, that the 15th Amendment was ratified and established universal male suffrage as constitutional law. Events would develop after Reconstruction that saw the newly acquired right to vote removed from African Americans in the South. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses all were used in the "Jim Crow" years of segregation to keep political and thus social and economic equality away from African Americans. Many of those practices would last well into the 20th century.


  1. Benjamin Tibbs was my Great,Great grandfather

  2. Benjamin Tibbs was a Trustee Historic St Paul AME Church in Lexington, KY property purchased in 1827.