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African Americans and the Vote

Right to vote" from The Union, 1919

"Right to Vote" from The Union Newspaper, September 20, 1919

A terrible and bloody Civil War freed enslaved Americans. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1868) granted former slaves the rights of citizenship. Sadly, this did not always translate into the right to vote. Black voters were systematically turned away from state polling places. To combat this problem, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. It says:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Yet states still found ways to circumvent the Constitution and prevent blacks from voting. Until the Supreme Court struck it down in 1915, many states used the "grandfather clause" to keep descendents of slaves out of elections. The clause said you could not vote unless your grandfather had voted -- an impossibility for most people whose ancestors were slaves.

Poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud and intimidation all turned African Americans away from the polls. This unfair treatment was debated on the street, in the Congress and in the press. A full fifty years after the Fifteenth Amendment passed, black Americans still found it difficult to vote, especially in the South. A September 20, 1919 newspaper article highlights the position of the National Race Congress, a key player in the battle for suffrage.

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