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Fifteenth Amendment

Fifteenth Amendment

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150th Anniversary of the 15th Amendment

Teaching materials and guides on the 15th Amendment’s significance in 2020 — its 150th anniversary and an election year.

The 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment is in 2020, also an election year. This is an ideal time to teach about the long history of the struggle for voting rights and contemporary issues in voting. Toward that end, here is a collection of background readings and resources for the classroom on the 15th Amendment. The Zinn Education Project is partnering with Color of Change on a campaign to teach about voting rights — in history and today — on this 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment. We offer a voting rights toolkit and a three-lesson voting rights unit. We are also offering mini-grants for classroom and school commemorations of the 15th Amendment.

What is the 15 th Amendment?

The 15th Amendment — the third and final amendment to the U.S. Constitution during the Reconstruction Era — was adopted to protect the freedoms outlined in the 13th and 14th Amendments.

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” (U.S. Constitution. Amendment XV, Section 1. 1870.)

In 1870, two years after the 14th Amendment was ratified, Congress and the states responded to another round of racial violence in the South by providing additional constitutional protection for the Black electorate. The 15th Amendment declared that the right of U.S. citizens to vote could “not be abridged or denied” by any state” on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The 14th and 15th Amendments — sporadically enforced until 1876 (the end of Reconstruction), then rarely enforced until 1954 (the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision by the Supreme Court) — provided the legal foundation for the civil rights movement of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. They are part of the enduring constitutional legacy of Reconstruction.

Depiction of advancements made in the U.S. during Reconstruction by Thomas Kelly, 1870. Source: Library of Congress.

In 1857, when Judge Roger Taney announced the Dred Scott decision and dismissed the very notion of legal and even human rights for African Americans, who could have imagined that in a little more than a decade the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments would change the U.S. Constitution? Radical Reconstruction did that and much more. With the passage of the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, Congress opened up new possibilities for U.S. democracy. Over the next nine years, African Americans, poor whites, and others rose to the democratic challenge in the South. [Excerpted from Freedom’s Unfinished Revolution: An Inquiry Into the Civil War and Reconstruction by the American Social History Project (pp. 211-212).]

This Day in History on the 15th Amendment

Lessons, Student Readings, and Children’s/YA Books on Voting Rights and Reconstruction

Film Clips

Facing History | The Reconstruction Era Video Series | Part Four: Interracial Democracy

Scholars discuss how African Americans and whites initially worked together within Reconstruction governments. Use the video shown here and refer to the teaching guides at Facing History.

Free State of Jones: Election Day

The 2016 film The Free State of Jones featured Black men voting during Reconstruction and the dangers they faced to exercise that hard-won right. See a tense reenactment of this history in the clip here and find out more about the film’s historical accuracy in the Smithsonian article, “The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones’.”

HISTORY: The 15th Amendment, narrated by historian Yohuru Williams

This short clip with Dr. Yohuru Williams summarizes the history of Black voting rights from Reconstruction through the 1990s. It puts the 15th Amendment into the post-Civil War context and its legacy over the next 150 years.

It is February and as Black History Month commences, we draw attention to the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to Constitution of the United States. The third and last of the Reconstruction Amendments, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibits the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude". On February 3rd, 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment effectively gave African American men the right to vote, though it was not until 1965 that legal barriers were banned at the state and local levels.

Ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment occurred as early as March 1st, 1869 in the state of Nevada, and as late as April 8th, 1997 in the state of Tennessee. However, Iowa was the 28th state to ratify on February 3rd, 1870, following Georgia the day before. Because Nebraska and Texas had also ratified by the middle of the month, the timing was pivotal for national legislation and widespread celebrations in black communities and abolitionist societies.

The following articles are drawn from Proquest Historical Newspapers, which informs and inspires classroom teaching and learning.

Fifteenth Amendment

As the American Civil War ended, the federal government was undecided as to how the seceded Confederate states were to return to the Union. President Abraham Lincoln favored a lenient policy and hoped to reunify the country quickly. When John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln in April 1865, the responsibility for reunifying the country passed to Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's former vice-president. Johnson initially favored a much harsher plan. He later changed his mind and favored a more lenient plan. Radical Republicans serving in the United States Congress did not agree with the President's plan. As a condition for re-admittance to the Union, the Congress proposed forcing the former Confederate states to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Fifteenth Amendment stated,

This amendment guaranteed African American men the right to vote under the Constitution. Many Republicans believed that African American men deserved the right to vote. Other members of Congress had an additional motive. They believed that many white Southerners would never support a Republican candidate. Some of these legislators hoped that African American voters would support the political party that had ended slavery. African Americans could provide the Republican Party with a base of support in the former Confederate states.

The United States Congress submitted the Fifteenth Amendment to the states for approval in February 1869. Three-fourths of the states had to approve it.

The Fifteenth Amendment divided Ohioans. Since the Civil War's conclusion, Ohio citizens had debated whether to permit African American men to vote. Members of the Democratic Party, especially former Peace Democrats, generally opposed suffrage for African American men. Most Republicans supported extending the right to vote to African American men. When the United States Congress submitted the Fifteenth Amendment to the states for approval, Democrats controlled the Ohio legislature and refused to ratify the amendment. Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, supported the amendment. In the state elections of 1869, Hayes retained his seat by a slim margin of 7,500 votes. The Republicans did gain a slight majority in both houses of the General Assembly. The legislature ratified the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. The Ohio Senate approved it by a single vote, and the Ohio House ratified it with just a two vote majority.

The Controversial Fifteenth Amendment

The Fifteenth Amendment’s bumpy passage through Congress was nothing compared to the obstacles it would face in the Indiana General Assembly.

The wording of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is short and simple. It reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The Amendment was passed by Congress as part of Reconstruction in 1869, ratified by the necessary three-fourths of the states, and became the law of the land in 1870. But the Fifteenth Amendment did not sail smoothly through that process.

The idea of allowing ex-slaves to vote was a controversial one Southern members of Congress rejected it outright, and those from the North were divided in their support. Even Indiana’s two senators did not agree on the matter ex-governor Oliver P. Morton favored the Amendment, while Thomas A. Hendricks opposed it.

Nevertheless, the Amendment’s passage through Congress was nothing compared to the obstacles it would face in states like Indiana.

The Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, had cleared the Indiana General Assembly within one week in 1865. The Fourteenth Amendment enjoyed a similarly swift passage through the state legislature in 1867. But when the Fifteenth Amendment arrived at the legislature’s door on March 1, 1869, it was labeled a “firebrand” that might delay the body’s consideration of other matters.

The first argument occurred over when to set the matter for a vote. At the request of Governor Conrad Baker, and over the strong objection of Democrats, a vote was scheduled for the fourth of March. That day, rather than vote on ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment, “seventeen Senators, and thirty-seven Representatives, all Democrats, resigned.” There was no quorum, and all activity at the General Assembly ground to a halt.

Governor Baker ordered a special election to be held on March 23rd. Most of the legislators who had resigned won their seats back. The governor ordered the General Assembly to get back to work on April 8, 1869. The Republican members reported to the State House, but their Democratic counterparts did not, out of fear that the Fifteenth Amendment would be called up for a vote. A few days later, though, the Democrats appeared, and the two sides agreed upon a date in May for considering the Amendment.

The day before that vote, ten Democratic senators, and forty-one Democratic representatives, announced their resignations. The Democrats believed this left the legislature without a quorum, but the Republicans were not so sure. In the Senate, some of the men who had resigned were still physically present in the chamber, so the Republicans considered them to be present but not voting. In other words, Republicans believed their attendance at the session gave the body the quorum it needed to bring the Fifteenth Amendment up for a vote, at which it passed.

The Amendment then went to the House, where it passed despite disagreement over whether there were enough members present to constitute a quorum in that chamber.

So, was the Fifteenth Amendment legally ratified by the state of Indiana?

Public opinion was hotly divided at the time. The question has long since faded away. But the question of whether members of one party can walk out of the General Assembly if they object to the business at hand remains topical.

A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.

Source Article: William Christian Gerichs, “The Ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in Indiana,” Indiana Magazine of History 9, no. 3 (Sept. 1913): 131-166.

Black Abolitionists and the Fifteenth Amendment

Henry Highland Garnet, c. 1881

National Portrait Gallery

It is often asked when and where will the demands of the reformers of this and coming ages end? It is a fair question, and I will answer.

When all unjust and heavy burdens shall be removed from every man in the land. When all invidious and proscriptive distinctions shall be blotted out from our laws, whether they be constitutional, statute or municipal laws. When emancipation shall be followed by enfranchisement, and all men holding allegiance to the government shall enjoy every right of American citizenship.

-Henry Highland Garnet, “Let the Monster Perish” (1865)

African Americans assumed prominent roles in the transatlantic struggle to abolish slavery between the 1820s and the Civil War. Some three hundred black abolitionists were regularly involved in the movement as speakers, writers, managers of anti-slavery offices, and in other very visible ways, while thousands more labored behind the scenes, including the work of the Underground Railroad. They heightened the credibility of the cause and broadened its agenda, shaping the struggle into America’s first civil rights movement.

Even as they fought for an end to bondage in the South, many black abolitionists lobbied state legislatures in the 1840s and 1850s for equal African American access to the ballot box. Racial spokesmen such as Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, Amos G. Beman, Charles Lenox Remond, Martin R. Delany, and George T. Downing pushed for black suffrage or battled efforts for disfranchisement in states like New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Ohio, and Michigan.

When slavery ended in 1865, many white activists viewed their work as done and called to disband the American Anti-Slavery Society and similar abolitionist organizations. Black abolitionists, however, viewed slavery as part of a continuum of racial oppression – one component of a larger struggle. They protested that important work remained to be accomplished to make freedom real, including the achievement of full civil rights and the vote. Douglass argued that “slavery is not done until the black man has the ballot.” Garnet charged that “the battle has just begun in which the fate of the black race is to be decided.”

So, black abolitionists continued their fight for the vote. Many who had pressed for black suffrage before the Civil War redoubled their efforts as the nation moved into the Reconstruction years. When the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, abolitionists – black and white – hailed it as “a triumphant conclusion to four decades of agitation on behalf of the slave,” as historian Eric Foner observed in in his magisterial volume Reconstruction (1988).

Black Abolitionist Digital Archive This story is one of many to be discovered in the collections of the Black Abolitionist Archive at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Between 1976 and 1992, the Black Abolitionist Papers Project, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, documented the work of the black abolitionists. This included an international search for sources that included thousands of letters, speeches, newspaper editorials, essays, sermons, and a variety of other materials. This collection was donated to the University of Detroit Mercy in 1998 and housed in a permanent archive.

The archive contains a wealth of materials that document the lives and work of the black abolitionists, including some 14,000 documents by the black abolitionists themselves a sizeable microfilm collection of black and antislavery newspapers of the era an extensive clippings file of contemporary biographical information on the black abolitionists a library of scholarly books, articles, and dissertations on the black abolitionists and other relevant sources. Roughly two thousand of these documents – mainly speeches and editorials – can be accessed online in a digital Black Abolitionist Archive.

The late historian James Horton called it “the most extensive primary source collection on antebellum black activism.”

Roy E. Finkenbine is Professor of History and Director of the Black Abolitionist Archive at the University of Detroit Mercy.

"Right of Suffrage," Colored American, 16 December 1837.

Black Abolitionist Digital Archive

We think it not amiss to call the attention of our brethren and friends once more to this subject. It is too important to be forgotten or neglected by any citizen, and more especially by a public journalist. Without the right of suffrage, we are, and must remain, a nonentity in the State and National governments-socially and civilly lowered downtown brute level. We are not willing, as one, and we hope our brethren in mass are equally unwilling to sustain such a relation and remain such a condition. Nor do we think our political proscribers can possibly be content and happy, while in the practice of cruel and impolitic proscription.

New-York has nothing to gain by oppressing and degrading her colored population. It is not contrary to her professions, and destructive to her character as a state. We believe, all that is necessary to the universal enfranchisement of colored citizens, is the presentation of the unanimous and respectful prayer of our people on the subject. These petitions should be prepared without delay, and the general signature obtained. This cannot be done effectually, without the prompt and spirited attention of our young men. They are the persons most benefitted, and they should not remiss in the work. Time and money are both wanted, in carrying into operation the necessary legal measures.

The young men of New-York must talk less and DO MORE, or the subject of their political rights will never be properly presented before our State Legislature. They must give their money freely, for the publication of petitions, the obtaining of signatures, and the sending of suitable agents, if they ever expect to be free and privileged citizens in this Commonwealth. The practice of meeting and spending hours in idle speechifying, without contributing the necessary funds, must give place, and that immediately, to more efficient doings, or the subject will be a hopeless one, at least for years to cie. Every colored citizen should, without delay, contribute his dollar, to raise a fund of sacred to the cause of human rights, and to be spent by the Committee on the right of suffrage, in carrying into operation their plans.

We take the liberty of naming Thomas L. Jennings, to whom we will pay over on dollar on Tuesday, the 19 th inst., to be handed over by him to the committee, as their operation may require it. We do this from the necessity of the case, and we invite every colored man in New-York to do the same.

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments gave constitutional status to emancipation&rsquos promise. The Fifteenth Amendment provided suffrage for black men, declaring that &ldquothe right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.&rdquo

Although ratified in 1870, the promise of the Fifteenth Amendment was not fully realized in our country until almost a century later. African Americans were deterred from exercising their right to vote through measures such as poll taxes and literacy tests. It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the majority of African Americans in the South were finally able to vote.

In this lithograph, &ldquoThe Fifteenth Amendment Celebrated May 19th 1870,&rdquo the legislation takes symbolic form. The artist depicts African Americans&rsquo hopes arising from the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment: scenes of education, family life, jobs, and the vote. Among the collage of images are portraits of abolitionist heroes Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln.

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Our Collection: 170 Central Park West New York, NY 10024 Located on the lower level of the New-York Historical Society

Amdt15.1 Fifteenth Amendment: Historical Background

The final decision of Congress not to include anything relating to the right to vote in the Fourteenth Amendment, aside from the provisions of section 2, 1 Footnote
See discussion under Apportionment of Representation, supra. Of course, the Equal Protection Clause has been extensively used by the Court to protect the right to vote. See Fundamental Interests: The Political Process, supra. left the issue of Black suffrage solely with the states, and Northern states were generally as loath as Southern to grant the ballot to African Americans, both the newly freed and those who had never been slaves. 2 Footnote
W. Gillette , The Right to Vote: Politics and the Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment 25-28 (1965) . But, in the second session of the 39th Congress, the right to vote was extended to African Americans by statute in the District of Columbia and the territories, and the seceded states as a condition of readmission had to guarantee Black suffrage. 3 Footnote
Id. at 29-31 ch. 6, 14 Stat. 375 (1866) (District of Columbia) ch. 15, 14 Stat. 379 (1867) (territories) ch. 36, 14 Stat. 391 (1867) (admission of Nebraska to statehood upon condition of guaranteeing against racial qualifications in voting) ch. 153, 14 Stat. 428 (1867) (First Reconstruction Act). Following the election of President Grant, the lame duck third session of the Fortieth Congress sent the proposed Fifteenth Amendment to the states for ratification. The struggle was intense because Congress was divided into roughly three factions: those who opposed any federal constitutional guarantee of Black suffrage, those who wanted to go beyond a limited guarantee and enact universal male suffrage, including abolition of all educational and property-holding tests, and those who wanted or who were willing to settle for an amendment merely proscribing racial qualifications in determining who could vote under any other standards the states wished to have. 4 Footnote
Gillette, supra, at 46-78. The congressional debate is conveniently collected in 1 B. Schwartz , Statutory History of the United States: Civil Rights 372 (1971) . The latter group ultimately prevailed.

The 15th Amendment

States determine who can vote, for the most part, under the original Constitution of the United States. According to Article 1, Section 2, whoever can vote for the “most numerous branch of state legislatures” could vote for members of the House of Representatives. States decide who is eligible for those most numerous branches. States could, if they chose, impose voting restrictions based on property, race, sex, age and other characteristics. Soon after the Civil War, it became a question whether or not states and especially Southern states would continue to have the freedom to restrict the vote. President Abraham Lincoln seemed to imply that he favored granting of the vote to blacks in his Last Public Address, but he stopped short of requiring such a provision in state constitutions. President Andrew Johnson opposed requiring that restored Southern governments give the vote to blacks.

The Republican sweep of the 1866 election gave momentum to the idea of extending the vote. From early 1867, Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA) favored extending the franchise to blacks and disenfranchising former rebels. Senator Charles Sumner favored much the same scheme. The invigorated Republican Congress took action where it could under the Constitution – in the nation’s capital and in the territories. In January 1867, a bill enfranchising blacks in the District of Columbia passed over Johnson’s veto. In short order, Congress extended the vote to all men in the territories. Military rule under the Reconstruction Acts (Document 17) was coming to an end in the South as President Grant took office in 1869. No longer would the military direct the politics of the South, and no longer would it provide protection for blacks. Republicans therefore approved the 15th amendment in February 1869, partly as a means to empower blacks to protect themselves with the vote.

Source: Statutes at Large, Fortieth Congress, Third Session, February 27, 1869, p. 346. https://goo.gl/zSQZPZ.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Study Questions

A. How does the 15 th Amendment change relations between the national and state governments? How might Congress use its law-making powers to enforce the provisions of the 15 th Amendment? How is the approach in the 15 th Amendment different from granting the national government the power to insist upon uniform voting requirements in the states? How might states circumvent the 15 th Amendment in an attempt to prevent us from voting?

B. How does the 15 th Amendment compare to the 14 th Amendment on the issue of protecting rights? In what ways does the 15 th Amendment enforce itself? In what ways does it require Congressional action for its enforcement? What hopes did Republicans hang on granting the vote to blacks nationwide (See One Man Power vs. Congress and Thaddeus Stevens Speech on Reconstruction)? Why did President Johnson want to keep the question of the vote at the state level (See Johnson’s First Annual Address)? Who had the stronger argument – the Republicans, or President Johnson? Why? What long-term implications would the 15 th Amendment have for the nature of the national government?


1 Quoted in Maurine Christopher, Black Americans in Congress (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976): 9. Revels seems to attribute this quote to Massachusetts journalist Wendell Phillips. See also “Autobiography of Hiram Revels,” Carter G. Woodson Collection of Negro Papers and Related Documents, box 11, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. U.S. Senators were elected by state legislatures until 1913, when the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment required their direct election. In 1861 both Mississippi Senators resigned from Congress after their state seceded from the Union. After the Civil War the Northern victors were quick to elevate Revels’s place in the chamber, pointing out that he now represented the state that once elected Confederate president Jefferson Davis they played their message so well that contemporary newspapers and many historians mistakenly place Revels in Davis’s former seat. Revels instead held the seat formerly occupied by Senator Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi. See, for example, Congressional Globe, Senate, 41st Cong., 2nd sess. (23 February 1870): 1513 Gath, “Washington,” 17 March 1870, Chicago Tribune: 2 Christopher, Black Americans in Congress: 5–6 Stephen Middleton, ed., Black Congressmen During Reconstruction: A Documentary Sourcebook (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002): 320.

2 “The Negro United States Senator,” 3 March 1870, Atlanta Constitution: 3.

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