Black History Month — The First Black Voter

Today is February 1st … well, okay, by the time you’re reading this it’s actually February 2nd, but right now, as I am writing, it is February 1st.  February 1st marks the beginning of this year’s Black History Month.  Now, obviously I cannot give Black History Month the attention it deserves, but I do plan a few posts throughout the month.  This year’s theme could not be more relevant to the times, and although this post is not part of mine and Jeff’s project, Discord & Dissension, it ties in nicely with our theme this week.  The 2020 Black History theme is African Americans and the Vote.

black-history-2020The year 2020 marks the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment and the culmination of the women’s suffrage movement.  The year 2020 also marks the sesquicentennial of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) and the right of black men to the ballot after the Civil War.  The theme speaks, therefore, to the ongoing struggle on the part of both black men and black women for the right to vote. This theme has a rich and long history, which begins at the turn of the nineteenth century, i.e., in the era of the Early Republic, with the states’ passage of laws that democratized the vote for white men while disfranchising free black men. Thus, even before the Civil War, black men petitioned their legislatures and the US Congress, seeking to be recognized as voters. Tensions between abolitionists and women’s suffragists first surfaced in the aftermath of the Civil War, while black disfranchisement laws in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries undermined the guarantees in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments for the great majority of southern blacks until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The important contribution of black suffragists occurred not only within the larger women’s movement, but within the larger black voting rights movement. Through voting-rights campaigns and legal suits from the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-1960s, African Americans made their voices heard as to the importance of the vote.  Indeed, the fight for black voting rights continues in the courts today.  The theme of the vote should also include the rise of black elected and appointed officials at the local and national levels, campaigns for equal rights legislation, as well as the role of blacks in traditional and alternative political parties.

So, today let’s take a look at the very first African-American to cast a vote in the United States …


America’s first Black vote was cast in New Jersey

On Feb. 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting “the 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” giving Black men the right to vote across the nation.

Just under a month later the first African American vote was cast in Perth Amboy, N.J. on March 31, 1870 by Thomas Mundy Peterson.

Born in 1824 in Metuchen, N.J., Peterson was the son of ex-slave Lucy Green. Peterson worked as a janitor and handyman in Perth Amboy.

After the Fifteenth Amendment was enacted, Peterson participated in Perth Amboy’s local election held at city hall over the city’s charter. A member of the Republican and Prohibition Parties, he cast his ballot in favor of revising the existing charter, making him the first African American to vote in any election in the nation.

Along with being the first Black person to vote in America, he was also the first Black person in Perth Amboy to serve on a jury. Peterson would go on to be one of seven people appointed to make amendments to the charter’s revisions he voted in favor of.

In 1884, in honor of his history-making ballot, the Perth Amboy community raised the equivalent of $1,800 in modern dollars to buy Peterson a gold medallion featuring Abraham Lincoln’s profile.

“Presented by the citizens of Perth Amboy, N.J. to Thomas Peterson the first colored voter in the provisions of the 15th Amendment at an election held in that city March 31st 1870,” the medallion’s inscription states.

Peterson died in 1904 at the age of 79. The medallion Peterson received is housed at the historically Black Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. In 2017, the university loaned the medallion to the City of Perth Amboy for a presentation at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

“During the 19th century, and even up to the present day, many communities have attempted to stop African Americans from voting. Perth Amboy is different, that is, we encouraged the right to vote,” said local businessman and historian John Kerry Dyke. “The Thomas Mundy Peterson medal is more than just an award. It represents the efforts of all good people that want to enfranchise America’s voters. It embodies the concept that all men are created equal.” – Cyril Josh Baker, New York Amsterdam News, 30 January 2020

16 thoughts on “Black History Month — The First Black Voter

  1. Pingback: Black History Month –John Swett Rock | Filosofa's Word

  2. I never heard of Thomas Mundy Peterson during my long ago school years. In fact it was not until mid 2013, shortly after retiring, that I first learned about him. I was greatly adrift at the time and my sweet neighbor would often invite me over for coffee and some much needed conversation…after 2016 that morphed into Coffee&Politics! During one of those visits she showed me something that she subscribed to that had an article that a student had written about Peterson. Neither of us had previously heard of him. I no longer recall any of the specifics of when or where that had appeared, but it was a greatly detailed history of his life and specifically how he came to vote. One has to wonder how many other African Americans have been dismissed as less than worthy of learning about. Presently, many are being disenfranchised through legal and illegal methods…gerrymandering also comes to mind. Thank-you!

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  3. Very interesting and timely, Jill. I just watched a PBS special on The Reconstruction, narrated by Henry Louis Gates, which described the remarkable story of the way the newly freed and franchised black men changed the young country for the better in the brief eight years before the horror of Jim Crow began. ( See also Ta–Nehisi Coates’s book “We Were Eight Years in Power,” which draws the painful analogy between those years and Obama’s Presidency.)
    These brave men spent nights lying in the fields, waiting for the early hours so they could slip into polling places with less likelihood that they would be driven away—or killed.
    And yes; it is a very good question how much of this is being taught in schools, as we know state education authorities have a huge say concerning content.

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    • I must go in search of the PBS documentary! I have read Ta Nehisi’s books … all of them, I think … but wasn’t aware of the The Reconstruction on PBS. Thanks for the heads up! Isn’t it a shame that so many gave their lives for the right to vote, and yet today some are willing to throw away that right? Sigh. Yes, it is a good question and I’ve made a note to dig into it a bit this month. I suspect I could predict that in the south, very little of it is taught in the public schools, even less in private schools.

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  4. Great post Jill. I never heard of Mr. Peterson before. I’m glad I know who he is now. So many have died for the right to vote. It’s hard to believe we still have states that are trying to do everything they can to keep people from exercising their most sacred and personal right. You’re correct, this post certainly goes to the heart of what you and I are trying to do with our project. The struggle continues. We cannot let them gerrymander/cheat/suppress their way to power. In the end, the people MUST prevail against a bunch of out of touch old politicians. Every citizen deserves the right to vote. Young…old…black..white…gay…It doesn’t matter. And barriers put in place to erode these rights must be reversed. Let’s get to work Jill!!

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    • Yes, so many have died for the right to vote, to have their voices heard. That is why it sickens me today to hear people say they aren’t going to vote because … whatever the excuse. It’s rather like jumping off a bridge when somebody else gave their own life to save yours. Sigh. Sure, the government … or rather the GOP … is working hard to disenfranchise voters, but then you’ve got the arrogant people who think they are smarter than all the rest, who think their silence is going to fix the problems. Sigh. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Yes, my friend, we are going to get to work and maybe we will make a difference in a few minds, maybe we wont, but it surely won’t be for lack of trying!

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      • Nope….no lack of trying Jill. The most consequential election of our lifetimes, in my view. 4 more years of HIM and who the hell knows what we’ll become as a country?

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        • I agree that it is the most consequential in our lifetimes, and would go a step further and say it may well be the most consequential in the future of this nation, for if Trump is re-elected, it may be the last one for a very long time. Sigh.

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  5. A proud year for African History Month but what a shame it’s not a part of American history month,since the black’s are as American as anyone else.

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    • You’ve got that right … as Morgan Freeman is saying in the header image, “Black History is American History”. Too bad about half this nation would like to re-write the history books. Sigh.


      • It is a good question, and one for which I have no answer. But I can tell you that, on the part of the government, not one thing is being done to ensure or even encourage voter participation by minorities or poor. In fact, the GOP-led government is doing everything in its power to deter minorities and poor from voting, for they largely vote democratic.

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    • That’s an excellent question, the answer to which is “I don’t know”. When I was in school … heck, that was too long ago for me to even remember. I’ll see what I can find out, for it’s relevant.

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