Written in observance of the 150th anniversary in 2020
At the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, a celebration of great magnitude was held in New York’s Greenwich Village the evening of February 18, 1870, to celebrate the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. This Constitutional amendment guarantees citizens the right to vote
irrespective of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
An enthusiastic crowd of 1,200 filled Mother Zion Church also known as the “Freedom Church,” the oldest Black church in America having been founded in 1796 to discuss an appropriate celebration to “rejoice in a free Republic as was intended by our fathers.”
Gathering to plan a celebration in the heart of the Black community at Mother Zion is significant as this was the first hard fought struggle won since emancipation. A mere seven years earlier, New York’s African American community faced riotous Whites angered by the Civil War draft. They burned homes and murdered Blacks throughout the city. Even the Black Orphan Asylum, a home and school for parentless children was a mob target. Church members and the greater Black community experienced the fear, loss, anger, and grief of these senseless crimes. Zion faced the loss of a young 23-year-old member who was lynched by the mob as he attempted to protect his mother in their home. Undoubtedly, this memory and pain was present and alive within the crowd during this meeting and later when they celebrated as a community.
If there was concern in the air regarding the rights of Blacks to vote, it was not apparent in the reports of the speeches given at the meeting that evening. Optimism for the future of the Black race, for equality, advancement and collective power flowed freely. “A new era in our lives has dawned—an era that our fathers and our mothers prayed for, groaned for, agonized for—and now their offspring live to see it.” The group gleefully looked onward to a new day dawning that would be a time where African Americans would take their rightful place at the table as free, equal, and enfranchised men and women. The Constitution, one speaker cited, made it such that their rights are permanent and protected. “We have now become part and parcel of the Constitution of the United States, and no one has the right to take it away from us.”
Beyond celebrating the passage of the amendment, the group tasked themselves with educating the Black community about the amendment by establishing a “sidewalk committee” that would help spread the word about voting. The sidewalkers would “inform each colored man of the benefit he receives from the act and compel him to march in the procession.” This activity illustrates the power of community and the belief in collective work and responsibility held by Black New Yorkers of the day.
After much planning, Black New Yorkers gathered for a grand celebration in honor of the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment on Friday, April 8, 1870. Military and civic organizations assembled to march as a collective with pride in keeping with the sentiments expressed at Mother Zion. “We have got to be men and have got to be women, and we must move on like a mighty avalanche until we are practically as well as theoretically the equals of our countrymen.”
The event held in the heart of Greenwich Village at the Washington Parade Grounds (Washington Square Park) attracted thousands. As the day progressed, the processional moved on to Union Square where large crowds of both men and women gathered to the sounds of marching bands and they delighted in speeches from local leaders. Activist and pastor, Henry Highland Garnet reminded those in attendance of the loss of Black lives, homes, businesses, and benevolent institutions just a few years prior during the draft riots. Garnet told the crowd that “many had lost faith that this day would ever come.” Furthering his point, Garnet explained to the assemblage that his heart was swollen with joy considering “the rapid progress of the American people in the cause of freedom.”
Convictions from various speakers are as follows:
- No money can purchase our votes
- Now we have peace and equal rights through the Fifteenth Amendment
- We ask nothing but a fair race in life
- Give us the rights of education without distinction of color
Despite the passage of the 15th Amendment, Jim Crow polices restricted Black men from exercising their right to vote. And women did not gain voting rights until the passage of the 19 Amendment in 1920. Neither the 15th or the 19th Amendment would fulfill the promise of the vote for Black men and women. These rights were not realized until the passage of 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA).
Today, African Americans and people of color are still fighting efforts to dismantle the VRA. The 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder eliminated the need for states with a history of voting discrimination to obtain federal approval before changing their voting laws. Now, voters who believe they have been discriminated against bear the burden of proving that they have been disenfranchised. As a result of the ruling, states freed from the oversight of the Federal Government have enacted strict laws and practices that are obstacles which make it more difficult for people of color to vote. These barriers to voting consist of purging voter lists, strict voter ID laws, the closing and moving of polling places and a host of other tactics that suppress voting and particularly disenfranchise people of color.
In the spirit of the African Americans that gathered at Mother Zion to begin educating the Black community about voting and to celebrate their newly acquired rights, we cannot take the right to vote for granted. While we remember and commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, let us not forget the hard-fought battles and remain vigilant. Use this history to teach young people about a participatory citizenry and help them gain understanding regarding why voting matters. Voter education and participation is key—the struggle continues.
Photo: New York Public Library. A.M.E. Zion Church on Bleecker and West 10th Streets
The Fifteenth Amendment- Celebration by Colored Citizens of the Day of Jubilee, New York Times February 18, 1870, Pg. 1, Vol XIX, No. 5744
Fifteenth Amendment Jubilee–The Colored Men’s Procession, New York Times, April 7, 1870, pg. 8, Vol. XIX, No. 5785
Free and Equal, New York Times, April 9, 1870, pg. 8, Vol XIX, No. 5787
Brenancenter.org, The Promise and Pitfalls of the 15th Amendment Over 150 Years, Accessed 1-4-2021