In 2016 for my Black History 365 series, I explore the obvious and not so obvious parts of American history that those called Black have taken part in. The things that we (Black people) have done other than be stolen from our homeland and made forced labor in a land foreign to us. I’m going to start this series by looking up the first time someone African-American did something and broke the color barrier in that activity or field. I’ll be starting with Wikipedia and working my way out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_African-American_firsts
I will be learning a lot of this as I go since I am a product of the standardized Euro/Anglo/Caucasian leaning public school system. I hope you enjoy learning with me. I’ll be going down the list chronologically as it appears in the Wikipedia article.
If you have any other sources or additional information for this topic, please share in the comments. I also welcome any and all comments and discussion. Thanks for reading!
1870: First African American to vote in an election under the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, granting voting rights regardless of race: Thomas Mundy Peterson
Thomas Mundy Peterson (October 6, 1824 – February 4, 1904) of Perth Amboy, New Jersey was the first African-American to vote in an election under the just-enacted provisions of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution. His vote was cast on March 31, 1870.
He was born in Metuchen, New Jersey. His father, also named Thomas, worked for the Mundy family. It is unclear if he was a slave of the family or not. His mother, Lucy Green, was a slave of Hugh Newell (1744-1816) of Freehold Township, New Jersey. She was manumitted at age 21 by Newell’s will.
He was a school custodian and general handyman in Perth Amboy. Active in the Republican Party, he became the city’s first African-American to hold elected office, on the Middlesex County Commission. He was also the city’s first “colored” person to serve on a jury.
Peterson voted in a local election held in Perth Amboy, NJ over the town’s charter. Some citizens wanted to revise the existing charter while others wished to abandon the charter altogether in favor of a township form of government. Peterson cast his ballot in favor of revising the existing charter. This side won 230 to 63. Peterson was afterward appointed to be a member of the committee of seven that made the revisions. Historical records as to his contribution to revisions in the form of minutes, writing, or other records are still wanting.
To honor Thomas Mundy Peterson as the first African-American voter after the passage of the 15th Amendment, the citizens of Perth Amboy raised $70 (over $1,000 in 2010 dollars) to award him with a gold medallion. The full medallion consists of a gold bar from which a two inch diameter medallion was hung. The hanging medallion featured a profile bust of a clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln. It was presented to Thomas Mundy Peterson on Memorial Day, which was then called Decoration Day, May 30, 1884. He is said to have loved the medal and never considered himself properly dressed without it affixed to his left breast. Later in life financial instability forced Peterson to sometimes pawn the medallion. It is currently housed at the historically African-American Xavier University of Louisiana.
This is a very meaningful first for me. There are things we 21st century Americans take for granted. Voting is definitely one of them. I know Audrey Lorde said that we can’t bring down the oppressors with their own tools, but if we remain effectively silent and refuse to participate then the oppressors truly do have ALL the power instead of just a good portion of it. Voting by itself is not enough of course, but it is definitely a part of the multi-pronged approach to increasing the fairness in our society.