Baltimore celebrated 15th Amendment

Way Back When

Suffrage: In 1870, Congress gave freed slaves the right to vote. This city's celebration was one of the nation's largest.

February 20, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The Civil War had been over for five years. Reconstruction of the war-torn South was proceeding when Congress ratified the 15th Amendment, giving recently freed slaves the right to vote.

The essence of the historic 1870 amendment reads:

"The right of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. ... The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation..."

Despite Maryland's rejecting the new amendment, Baltimore's celebration on May 19, 1870, proved to be one of the nation's largest, with more than 20,000 participants parading through city streets. The day was also marked by a parade of notable speakers, including former Talbot County slave Frederick Douglass, generals and senators, speaking in Monument Square.

"The colored citizens of Baltimore yesterday celebrated in an imposing and hearty manner the ratification of the fifteenth amendment to the constitution of the United States, under which they acquire the same right of suffrage as is possessed by white citizens," reported The Sun.

"The day was one of the brightest of the season, and the entire colored population seemed to have come forth upon the streets and entered into the spirit of the occasion, those not taking part in the grand procession, which was the chief feature, occupying positions on the sidewalks, where the women and children particularly stood in masses for many hours. Large numbers of the white population also were upon the principal streets through which the anticipated pageant was to pass, occupying doors, windows, etc., in order to get a good view of it," reported the newspaper.

The great parade formed on Broadway under the direction of Col. William U. Saunders, who was its chief marshal, along with "a force of nearly three hundred policemen, and the greatest order prevailed."

The Sun described Eastern Avenue as "presenting a lively scene" with the various associations "dressed to a large extent in brilliant colors as they marched with banners, flags and in some cases with bright burnished muskets."

A printing press in a wagon cranked out handbills containing a copy of the Fifteenth Amendment, an advertisement for the Freedman's Savings Bank and a "pledge that every colored vote would be cast for the radical ticket," as the float traveled the parade route.

Brass bands and fraternal orders, including such oddities as the Lumber Inspectors of the Second Ward, paraded along under colorful canvas banners such as the one carried by the Ninth Ward Association. It featured the likeness of William Lloyd Garrison, the famed Boston abolitionist, with the words, "The Voice of the Liberator has at Last been heard."

At 4 p.m., five hours after it had started, the grand procession came to a halt at Monument Square, where, after their original wooden platform crashed to the ground, the day's speakers gathered on the balcony of the nearby Gilmor House.

Isaac Myers, presiding over the meeting in the jammed square, said he felt "proud to have the honor of presiding over the greatest, grandest and most important gathering of colored men in Maryland or in the whole country," reported The Sun.

A letter was read from Garrison, who was unable to attend.

"In this hour of jubilation I will not pause to give you any counsel as to your future course," wrote Garrison.

"I have no misgivings on that score. You have been the most behaved people in the past under the most terrible provocations and why should any doubt as to your behavior hereafter under all favorable conditions of freedom and equality. I believe you are destined to rise high in the scale of civilization and to take a prominent part in our national affairs."

Then Frederick Douglass rose to speak.

"Mr. Douglass said he had often appeared before the American people as a slave and sometimes as a fugitive slave, but always as an advocate for the slave," reported The Sun.

"To him this day was the day of all days. He was permitted to appear before them in the more dignified, the more elevated character of an American citizen."

Douglass recalled his Eastern Shore days growing up as a slave and "always looked forward with yearning to the time when Maryland should not contain a slave."

chk this quote: He said: "While we are in a country which, while the Negro hating element sits in the jury box the Negro is not protected. We want a jury box for ourselves and our fellow-white citizens, for no one is hurt by justice."

After carefully explaining the purpose of the Fifteenth Amendment, Douglass said, "Hereafter, the black man will have no excuse, as formerly, for ignorance or poverty or destitution. ... We must stand up and be responsible to our fellow-citizens as independent men. We are to instruct ourselves as to men and measures and take nobody or thing on trust."

Postscript: It wasn't until more than 100 years later, in 1973, that the Maryland State Senate finally got around to ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment. The vote was 38-0.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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