The Story of the First Black Voters in DC

With this momentous day finally here, GM wanted to take a break from the immensely stressful reality of what tomorrow might bring and take a look back at another momentous election day from Georgetown’s past: the first time Black men were allowed to vote in DC’s history.

Georgetown was founded by act of the Province of Maryland on May 15, 1751. It was carved out of Frederick County (which itself had only been carved out of Prince Georges County three years earlier). It should come as no surprise that the Corporation of George Town, as it was known, did not extend any voting rights to non-white men (or any women). This continued after 1801, when the city was incorporated into the newly formed District of Columbia.

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, there was little hope of this injustice coming to an end. However, with the rise of radical Republicanism following the Union’s victory in the Civil War, talk of extending the franchise to Black men reached the highest levels. Leaders such as Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner pushed for universal male suffrage as a condition for the Southern state’s readmission to the Union. This effort, sadly, was thwarted by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at the hands of a man enraged at that possibility. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, left the question to the vote of the Southern states themselves, and you will not be surprised how that turned out.

Once the possibility of achieving universal male suffrage across the South was stopped, Sumner and others turned to the District. This was due to the unique amount of power Congress had (and still has) over DC. Congress has ultimate authority over DC’s laws and could extend the vote to Black men by legislation without regard to the will of the white male voting population here.

White leaders in DC were not too keen on that idea. GM will spare you some of the statements they made in reaction to the proposal, but suffice to say they were disgustingly racist. And in order to have a say in the matter, the cities of Washington and Georgetown held a referendum on December 21, 1865 on the question. The referendum’s result would not be binding, since Congress could simply ignore it. But it was thought by the White anti-Black suffrage leaders that the results would dissuade Congress from acting.

The results of the referendum were truly brutal. Washington City voted 6591 to 35 against giving Black men the vote. In Georgetown the result was even more shameful: 712 to 1. That’s not a typo. It was seven hundred twelve to one.

Granted, DC radical Republicans urged their supporters to simply not vote at all, and thus not lend legitimacy to the affair. But that result nonetheless demonstrates what the mindset was of the average white male voter in DC in 1865.

The referendum was nonetheless futile. Congress passed universal male suffrage for DC on December 19, 1866, after months of delay on the part of the Senate to pass a bill that had passed the House easily. President Johnson vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode his veto immediately.

The first election in the District to occur after this change came on February 25, 1867 when Georgetowners elected their mayor and filled the council. Thus the first time a Black man was permitted to vote in the nation’s capital was in Georgetown. This event was depicted by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly the next month, with a surly Andrew Johnson depicted on the left:

The race for mayor was between Henry Addison (of Hyde-Addison fame) and Charles Welch. Addison was the incumbent mayor and represented the conservative establishment. Welch had been the tax collector in Georgetown until 1866, when representatives of Addison’s party on the city council voted to fire him. He apparently declined to actively seek the support of the pro-black suffrage party, but received it nonetheless. This coupled with general discontent with Addison contributed to his narrow victory: 1,019 to 933.

The Evening Star reported on the spirit and import of the occasion:

Very general interest was felt in this election in Georgetown yesterday, it being the occasion of the first exercise of the right of franchise by the colored people of the District. Couple with this feeling of interest as one of apprehension on the part of many that the day would not pass without some regrettable breaches of the peace. These fears happily proved unfounded; the colored voters exercised their new privilege with becoming modesty, and quietly withdrew to their homes after voting, and the white voters most warmly opposed to negro suffrage, evinced a purpose to maintain order and insure a fair trial to the experiment. The result is shown in the election of the candidate of the negro suffrage party for Mayor, Charles D. Welch, and seven out of eleven of the councilmen supported by the same party. It must be conceded by their opponents that the colored voters, whether acting from their own prompting or under judicious advice, voted for and elected good men, men of integrity and capacity. Their action and bearing on yesterday will certainly go far towards dispelling the prejudice against negro suffrage, and if they act always as discreetly and temperately, will doubtless in time do away with it altogether.

While the Star indicates that some were fearing misbehavior from black voters on election day, it turns out that the worst behavior on that front came from those opposed to black suffrage. (yes, yes, yes, GM is still talking about the election of 1867, not today….)

On the night of the election, a group of people who were described as being in league with the “white men’s ticket” were traveling around Georgetown with a brass band and serenading the homes of candidates of that ticket. When the group got near Herring Hill–the black neighborhood in east Georgetown–it made motions to enter the area. The MPD was present and prevented the intrusion based upon the fear that it was designed to start fights. According to the Star, MPD reported that the serenading group had already been through Herring Hill that evening and had thrown stones. The police’s actions almost certainly prevented a further conflagration.

Two years later Congress voted to approve the Fifteen Amendment, which extended universal male suffrage to the entire nation. It was ratified by enough states by March 1870 to become the law of the land.

Of course, the end of Radical Reconstruction seven years later effectively led to the end of black suffrage in the south for nearly another century. And here in Georgetown, as GM has written about before, the rise of Alexander Shepherd–and his self-interested proposal for a presidentially appointed territorial government–led to the end of all suffrage in DC in 1871, just four years after the first black men voted. Many, including Frederick Douglas, believed that this move was driven by a desire to disenfranchise black men once more: better to have no one vote than to allow black men to have their say. In either event, the result was the same.

If you know DC history, you know that DC residents, white and black, remained without a vote at all until the passage of the Twenty-Third Amendment in 1961. This gave DC residents the right to vote in presidential elections for the first time ever. (And was also the first time women ever voted in DC.) Home rule, which gave DC residents the right to elect its own mayor and council didn’t come until 1972.

The right to vote and self-determination in DC is an incredibly precious thing that has been extinguished over and over again throughout the centuries. The only thing that will guarantee it in perpetuity is statehood. And how our fellow citizens across the country vote today might finally deliver us to that broad, sunlit upland.

So take a moment to think about those brave black Georgetowners of our past who proudly voted for the first time 153 years ago. And remember that those groups of troublemakers throwing stones at them are still with us.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Story of the First Black Voters in DC

  1. georgetowncitizen

    A postscript: Henry Addison, the longtime Georgetown mayor who was defeated in 1867 in part due to newly enfranchised black voters, is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery not far from the Corcoran “temple” there.

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