When the District led the way on voting rights
One hundred and fifty years ago this weekend, African American men voted for the first time in the District of Columbia.
As we confront these challenging times, we should be mindful of not just the victories of our modern civil rights movement but also the deep roots of our tragic history of race and the role that ballot access has played in the effort to overcome.
We finally have a museum dedicated to that history in the heart of our nation’s capital. And former president Barack Obama created a national monument to Reconstruction as one of his last acts as president.
But monuments are not enough. As our new president and his advisers shamelessly perpetuate myths of voter fraud calculated to justify efforts to deny access to the suffrage to populations they suspect will not support them, we need determination to move forward. Times change, but, sadly, some patterns endure. And rollback is one pattern.
One hundred and fifty years ago, dog-whistles and otherwise coded language were not the practice. One Democratic candidate for the mayor of Georgetown ran on “The White Man’s Ticket.” The country grappled with whether formerly enslaved African Americans, 1 in 7 of the population, would be truly free or just not slaves in name. While the North ultimately united to cast off slavery, there was no consensus that translated into living together in equality. Indeed, even Lincoln’s first instinct was to try to find a new home for African Americans in another land.
The “Radical Republicans” in Congress made the historic 1867 vote possible. Given Congress’s powers over the District, they set out to make the capital, in Sen. Charles Sumner’s words, “an example for all the land,” a place of true justice and equality. (Today a different Republican Congress has the same power and may also wish to make an example of the District, but for a very different set of reasons.)
In 1866, Congress passed a law authorizing African American men to vote (no women could vote at the time) in the District. President Andrew Johnson fumed in his veto that Congress was trampling the will of the citizens of the District (the white ones, at least) who did not wish to empower their African American neighbors. In January 1867, Congress overrode Johnson’s veto.
The first election under the new law was on Feb. 25, 1867. Republican Charles Welch won the mayoralty of Georgetown with African American votes putting him over the top.
It would be three more years before the 15th Amendment, granting African American men the vote nationwide, would be ratified. And this period, known as Congressional Reconstruction, would bring a series of progressive “firsts” to our nation for which we are beginning to celebrate 150-year anniversaries. But it was not long before the experiment in fairness, opportunity and empowerment began to be challenged.
In 1871, Congress consolidated what were then three separate municipalities — Georgetown, Washington City and Washington County — into a single jurisdiction within the District of Columbia, presided over by a federally appointed governor and powerful Board of Public Works. African American men retained the vote, but its significance was severely diluted — one of the goals of the consolidation. By the mid-1870s, the District lost all meaningful voting rights, and through the Compromise of 1877 the national effort to build a more just order was shelved. It would be nearly 100 years before District residents reclaimed meaningful voting rights on local matters, and the country was plunged into the terrorism of Jim Crow and generations of racial oppression.
The District’s tangible first steps toward justice and equality showed that progress is not inevitable. Retrenchment is all too common. If we are to truly make ourselves into an example for all the land, it will take a concerted, sustained effort.
It is a shame that we must fight for our rights, but it is heartening in the coming era of 150th anniversaries of the first, fragile dramatic breakthroughs, District citizens of every background and District leaders across the spectrum are standing together to insist, at long last, on liberty and justice for all.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast’s take on the Georgetown mayoral election.