On May 19th, 1870, a group of African Americans got together in Leanordtown in St. Mary’s County to celebrate the passage of the 15th Amendment. These celebrations were occurring throughout the state and country, with one of the largest taking place in Baltimore, where nearly 20,000 African Americans paraded through the streets in celebration of their right to vote (Hammett 1977).
Maryland, and St. Mary’s City in particular, holds an important and unique place in the history of the African American vote. It was in St. Mary’s City, in 1642, that Mathias de Sousa, a man of African and Portuguese descent, served as part of the Legislative Assembly. That, however, was before slavery had taken a firm place as the primary means of labor in the colony. Like de Sousa, who arrived on the Ark as an indentured servant, most bonded labor was in the form of indentured servitude. During the 17th century, the status of Africans gradually changed (Alpert 1970). It was not until 1700 that over 75 percent of Southern Maryland’s labor force was enslaved Africans, and therefore without the vote.
In 1801, as Maryland’s agricultural system began to change, and the amount of free blacks began to climb, another act of disenfranchisement was passed, eliminating the right to vote for free blacks. This carried up to and through the Civil War, until the passage of the 15th Amendment forced Maryland to open the franchise to all men.
Because free and enslaved blacks did not have the right to vote did not mean that they also lacked the ability to be political. Throughout the South, disenfranchised blacks acted politically, through their resistance to bondage, through work slowdowns, running away, or engaging in revolt. Marylanders such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were particularly active, either through participating in the slave trade, or petitioning and speaking to whites and blacks through the abolitionist movement. While not able to vote, blacks were politically active in attempting to gain their freedom.
This was particularly evident during the Civil War. As historian Steven Hahn argues, this marked the moment of the largest slave rebellion in America’s history (Hahn 2003). Leading up to the War, many enslaved blacks used their social networks, built through the markets, through interactions during work, or time at church, to share information about the coming war. They gathered this information by eavesdropping on their masters, or by gaining the ability to read and stealing newspapers. As the growing disunion among the states approached, slaves readied themselves to flea. Once the War began, they escaped to Union lines, forcing the Union Army to change its policies on what to do with escaped slave property, which, according to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, they were required to return to their owners. This political action eventually resulted in the Emancipation Proclamation.
In St. Mary’s and throughout Maryland, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves since it was a Union state. Nonetheless, slaves still ran away or joined the Union Army. These acts of resistance were still political in nature, as they represented their displeasure for the policies that kept them in bondage. Even after the war, however, full rights were not granted to African Americans, despite gaining their freedom from slavery in 1864. In Maryland, suffrage came through Federal mandate, as the Republican party was unable to gain a majority after the Civil War. They became reluctant supporters of black suffrage since the additional votes would give them a political majority in the state. In St. Mary’s County, there was very little support for the right to the vote for African Americans. This is not a surprise, considering the number of former slaveholders and Southern sympathizers who lived in the County. Nonetheless, in 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, giving African Americans the right to vote (Brugger 1996).
For the most part, African Americans in Maryland were uninhibited by many of the Jim Crow laws that plagued Southerners. This is not to say that there were not efforts, and some successes. In 1901, for example, a law was passed that removed party symbols from the ballots, in an effort to curb the ability to vote for those who were illiterate. In Maryland, 47 percent of all registered blacks could not read and write, a stark contrast to the 6 percent of whites. Other attempts, however, were thwarted, thanks to both the strong political action of Maryland African Americans and the Republican Party, who knew that the loss of those votes would result in a transition of power (Brugger 1996). It was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties that voting equality was truly reached throughout the nation. Most importantly, however, the struggle for African American suffrage, and the political action of enslaved and free blacks, runs deep in the history of Maryland, and can be traced through the story of African Americans at St. Mary’s City for centuries.
What does the fight for the African American right to vote mean to you? How has it effected your life or the life of your family? When you cast your vote, do you think about the history behind it? Please share with us in the comment section below!
Alpert, Jonathan L.
1970 The Origin of Slavery in the United States – the Maryland Precedent. The American Journal of Legal History 14(3):189–221.
Brugger, R. J
1996 Maryland, a Middle Temperament: 1634-1980. Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins Univ Press.
2003 A Nation Under Our Feet. Cambridge, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Hammett, Regina Combs
1977 History of St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Ridge, Maryland.