When the District led the way on vot­ing rights

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY EU­GENE PURYEAR AND MATTHEW FRUMIN The writ­ers are D.C.-based com­mu­nity ac­tivists.

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.

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