Primary Resource

Excerpts from Equal Suffrage: Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Va., to the People of the United States. Also an Account of the Agitation among the Colored People of Virginia for Equal Rights. With an Appendix Concerning the Rights of Colored Witnesses before the State Courts (1865)

In Equal Suffrage: Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Va., to the People of the United States, adopted on June 5, 1865, members of the Colored Monitor Union of Norfolk articulate the many legal disabilities faced by African Americans.

Transcription from Original

Fellow Citizens:

The undersigned have been appointed a committee, by a public meeting of the colored citizens of Norfolk, held June 5th, 1865, in the Catharine Street Baptist Church, Norfolk, Va., to lay before you a few considerations touching the present position of the colored population of the southern States generally, and with reference to their claim for equal suffrage in particular.

We do not come before the people of the United States asking an impossibility; we simply ask that a Christian and enlightened people shall, at once, concede to us the full enjoyment of those privileges of full citizenship, which, not only, are our undoubted right, but are indispensable to that elevation and prosperity of our people, which must be the desire of every patriot.

The legal recognition of these rights of the free colored population, in the past, by State legislation, or even by the Judiciary and Congress of the United States, was, as a matter of course, wholly inconsistent with the existence of slavery; but now, that slavery has been crushed, with the rebellion, sprung from it, on what pretext can disabilities be perpetuated that were imposed only to protect an institution which has now, thank God, passed away forever? It is a common assertion, by our enemies, that "this is a white man's country, settled by white men, its government established by white men, and shall therefore be ruled by white men only." How far are these statements true and the conclusion reasonable? Every school-boy knows that within twelve years of the foundation of the first settlement at Jamestown, our fathers as well as yours were toiling in the plantations on James River, for the sustenance and prosperity of the infant colony. Since then in New England, New York and the middle Atlantic States, our race has borne its part in the development of even the free North, while throughout the sunny South, the millions upon millions of acres, in its countless plantations, laden with precious crops, bear witness to the unrequited industry of our people. Even our enemies and old oppressors, themselves, used to admit, nay, contend for, the urgent necessity of our presence and labor to the national prosperity, for whenever slavery was to be defended, they were always ready to prove that the negro must

— page 2 —

be the laborer in the South, because a white man's constitution could not withstand the climate.

Again, is it true that the government owes its existence entirely to white men? Why, the first blood shed in the Revolutionary war was that of a colored man, Crispus Attucks, while in every engraving of Washington's famous passage of the Delaware, is to be seen, as a prominent feature, the woolly head and dusky face of a colored solider, Prince Whipple; and let the history of those days tell of the numerous but abortive efforts made by a vindictive enemy to incite insurrection among the colored people of the country, and how faithfully they adhered to that country's cause. Who has forgotten Andrew Jackson's famous appeal to the colored "citizens" of Louisiana, and their enthusiastic response, in defence of liberty, for others, which was denied themselves? Then did the peaceful stability of the government of the United States, during the (to all but the colored race) happy years, that preceded the late rebellion, owe nothing for its continuance to the colored people? Fellow citizens, was not the maintenance of that peace and order, and thereby of your prosperity, wholly owing to the submissive patience with which our race endured the galling slavery of which they were the victims, in the faith and assurance that God would yet work out their deliverance? Then what has been the behavior of our people during the past struggle? have we in any way embarrassed the government by unnecessary outbreaks on the one hand, or thwarted it by remissness or slackness in response to its calls for volunteers on the other? Let the fact that, in the short space of nine months, from what was called the contraband camp, at Hampton, near Fortress Monroe, and from other parts of this State alone, over twenty-five thousand colored men have become soldiers in the army of the United States, attest our devotion to our country. Over 200,000 colored men have taken up arms on behalf of the Union, and at Port Hudson, Olustee, Milliken's Bend, Fort Wagner, and in the death-haunted craters of the Petersburg mine, and on a hundred well fought fields, have fully proved their patriotism and possession of all the manly qualities that adorn the soldier.

Such, as everyone knows, have been the relations and attitude of the colored people to the nation in the past, but we believe our present position is by no means so well understood among the loyal masses of the country, otherwise there would be no delay in granting us the express relief which the nature of the case demands. It must not be forgotten that it is the general assumption, in the South, that the effects of the immortal Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln go no further than the emancipation of the negroes then in slavery, and that is only constructively even, that that Proclamation can be said, in any legal sense, to have abolished slavery, and even the late constitutional amendment, if duly ratified, can go no further; neither touch, nor can touch, the slave codes of the various southern States, and the laws respecting free people of color consequent therefrom, which, having been passed before the act of secession, are presumed to have lost none of their vitality, but exist, as a convenient engine for our oppression, until repealed by special acts of the State legislatures. By these laws, in many of the southern States, it

— page 3 —

is still a crime for colored men to learn or be taught to read, and their children are doomed to ignorance; there is no provision for insuring the legality of our marriages; we have no right to hold real estate; the public streets and the exercise of our ordinary occupations are forbidden us unless we can produce passes from our employers, or licenses from certain officials; in some States, the whole free negro population is legally liable to exile from the place of its birth, for no crime but that of color; we have no means of legally making or enforcing contracts of any description; we have no right to testify before the courts in any case in which a white man is one of the parties to the suit; we are taxed without representation, and, in short, so far as legal safeguards of our rights are concerned, we are defenceless before our enemies. While this is our position as regards our legal status, before the State laws, we are still more unfortunately situated as regards our late masters. The people of the North, owing to the greater interest excited by the war, have heard little or nothing, for the past four years, of the blasphemous and horrible theories formerly propounded for the defence and glorification of human slavery, in the press, the pulpit and legislatures of the southern States; but, though they may have forgotten them, let them be assured that these doctrines have by no means faded from the minds of the people of the South; they cling to these delusions still, and only hug them the closer for their recent defeat. Worse than all, they have returned to their homes, with all their old pride and contempt for the negro transformed into bitter hate for the new-made freeman, who aspires to the exercise of his new-found rights, and who has been fighting for the suppression of their rebellion. That this charge is not unfounded, the manner in which it has been recently attempted to enforce the laws above referred to proves. In Richmond, during the three days' sway of the rebel Mayor Mayo, over 800 colored people were arrested, simply for walking the streets without a pass; in the neighboring city of Portsmouth, a Mayor has just been elected, on the avowed platform that this is a white man's government, and our enemies have been heard to boast openly, that soon not a colored man shall be left in the city; in the greater number of counties in this State, county meetings have been held, at which resolutions have been adopted deploring, while accepting, the abolition of slavery, but going on to pledge the planters composing the meeting, to employ no negroes save those as were formerly owned by themselves, without a written recommendation from their late employers, and threatening violence towards those who should do so, thereby keeping us in a state of serfdom, and preventing our free selection of our employers; they have also pledged themselves, in no event, to pay their late adult slaves more than $60 per year for their labor, in the future, out of which, with characteristic generosity, they have decided that we are to find clothes for ourselves and families, and pay our taxes and doctors' bills; in many of the more remote districts individual planters are to be found who still refuse to recognize their negroes as free, forcibly retaining the wives and children of their late escaped slaves; cases have occurred, not far from Richmond itself, in which an attempt to leave the plantation has

— page 4 —

been punished by shooting to death; and finally, there are numbers of cases, known to ourselves, in the immediate vicinity of this city, in which a faithful performance, by colored men, of the duties of labor contracted for, has been met by a contemptuous and violent refusal of the stipulated compensation. These are facts, and yet the men doing these things are, in many cases, loud in their professions of attachment to the restored Union, while committing these outrages on the most faithful friends that Union can ever have. Even well known Union men have often been found among our oppressors; witness the action of the Tennessee legislature in imposing unheard of disabilities upon me, taking away from us, and giving to the County Courts, the right of disposing of our children, by apprenticing them to such occupations as the court, not their parents, may see fit to adopt for them; and in this very city, and under the protection of military law, some of our white friends who have notably distinguished themselves by their efforts in our behalf, have been threatened with arrest by a Union Mayor of this city, for their advocacy of the cause of freedom.

Fellow citizens, the performance of a simple act of justice on your part will reverse all this; we ask for no expensive aid from military forces, stationed throughout the South, overbrearing State action, and rendering our government republican only in name; give us the suffrage, and you may rely upon us to secure justice for ourselves, and all Union men, and to keep the State forever in the Union.

While we urge you to this act of simple justice to ourselves, there are many reasons why you should concede us this right in your own interest. It cannot be that you contemplate with satisfaction a prolonged military occupation of the southern States, and yet, without the existence of a larger loyal constituency than, at present, exists in these States, a military occupation will be absolutely necessary, to protect the white Union men of the South, as well as ourselves, and if not absolutely to keep the States in the Union, it will be necessary to prevent treasonable legislation. Even as we write, the news comes that, acting under the advice of Governor Pierpont, the legislature of this State has restored to thousands of white voters, who were but recently in arms against the national authority, the right of franchise of which they were deprived, for their crime of treason, by the constitution under which that legislature sits, and it is now proposed to call a convention for the repeal of those sections of the new constitution, forbidding the assumption of any portion of the rebel State debt, and at the municipal election which took place in Norfolk on the 24th inst., a Mayor and Council supposed to favor the payment of more than $100,000 of bonds issued by the City Council during the rebel occupation, for the payment of the expenses of rebel enlistment and the support of the families of rebel soldiers, was elected by a large majority over a loyal ticket opposed to such assumption of rebel debt. Ask yourselves if it is reasonable to expect that senators and representatives from southern constituencies, lately in unanimous rebellion, will be willing to vote taxes required to pay the interest on the debt incurred in crushing that rebellion.

You have not unreasonably complained of the operation of that clause

— page 5 —

of the Constitution which has hitherto permitted the slavocracy of the South to wield the political influence which would be represented by a white population equal to three fifths of the whole negro population; but slavery is now abolished, and henceforth the representation will be in proportion to the enumeration of the whole population of the South, including people of color, and it is worth your consideration if it is desirable or politic that the fomenters of this rebellion against the Union, which has been crushed at the expense of so much blood and treasure, should find themselves, after defeat, more powerful than ever, their political influence enhanced by the additional voting power of the other two fifths of the colored population, by which means four Southern votes will balance in the Congressional and Presidential elections at least seven Northern ones. The honor of your country should be dear to you, as it is, but is that honor advanced, in the eyes of the Christian world, when America alone, of all Christian nations, sustains an unjust distinction against four millions and a half of her most loyal people, on the senseless ground of a difference in color? You are anxious that the attention of every man, of every State legislature, and of Congress, should be exclusively directed to redressing the injuries sustained by the country in the late contest; are these objects more likely to be effected amid the political distractions of an embarrassing negro agitation? You are, above all, desirous that no future intestine wars should mar the prosperity and destroy the happiness of the country; will your perfect security from such evils be promoted by the existence of a colored population of four millions and a half, placed, by your enactments, outside the pale of the Constitution, discontented by oppression, with an army of 200,000 colored soldiers, whom you have drilled, disciplined, and armed, but whose attachment to the State you have failed to secure by refusing them citizenship? You are further anxious that your government should be an example to the world of true Republican institutions; but how can you avoid the charge of inconsistency if you leave one eighth of the population of the whole country without any political rights, while bestowing these rights on every immigrant who comes to these shores, perhaps from a despotism, under which he could never exercise the least political right, and had no means of forming any conception of their proper use?

We have now shown you, to the best of our ability, the necessity of the recognition of the right of suffrage for our own protection, and have suggested a few of the reasons why it is expedient you should grant us that right; but while we stand before you, pleading with you, for our fellows, on the grounds of humanity and political expediency, we would not have you forget that our case also stands on the basis of constitutional right. No sane person will for a moment contend that color or birth are recognized by the Constitution of the United States as any bar to the acquisition or enjoyment of citizenship. Further, the Congress of the Confederation expressly refused in June, 1778, to permit the insertion of the word "white" in the fourth article of Confederation, guaranteeing to the "free inhabitants" of each State, the privileges and immunities of citizens, in all the States. Free people of color were recognized voters in every State but South Carolina, at the time of the formation of the Constitution of the United States, and therefore clearly formed part of the "people" of the Uni-

— page 6 —

ted States, who in the language of the preamble to the Constitution "ordained and established" that Constitution. It follows, then, that they are entitled to a full participation in all benefits that Constitution was ordained to confer, and, among others, to that inestimable blessing of a "republican form of government," guaranteed to the people of each State, by Sec. 4th, Art. IV, of the Constitution. Further, from time immemorial, before the Constitution was established, and, since its establishment, in accordance with its spirit and express provisions, our people have enjoyed all the rights of citizens, including that of suffrage, in many of the northern States; but if their right to vote is refused in other States, what becomes of their rights under Sec. 2d, Art. IV, of the Constitution, which guarantees to them as citizens of such a State "all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States" if the constitutional supremacy of that provision to be impregnable, as stated in the words of counsel, in the report of the case which forms Appendix "B" to this address, that all the State laws imposing disabilities upon colored people on the ground of color, "being but a creation of slavery, and passed for its maintenance and perpetuation, are part and parcel of the system and must follow its fate." If we turn to the State Constitutions and Bills of Rights, our case is still stronger. The constitution of Georgia now only prescribes as the qualification that a voter must be "a citizen and inhabitant"; and while in the constitutions of other of the Southern States is found the word "white," when describing the necessary qualification for the right of suffrage, yet, on the other hand, in most instances, their bills of rights claim the exercise of suffrage as the natural and legal right of every freeman, in the most unqualified manner. For instance, in Delaware, the Bill of Rights declares that "every freeman having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with and attachment to the community, hath the right of suffrage." The Bill of Rights of the State of Virginia, adopted in 1776, and since prefacing and forming part of every Constitution of Virginia, declares also in Section 6th, "that all elections ought to be free, and that all men having sufficient evidence of common interest with, and attachment to the community, have the right of suffrage, and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses, without their own consent, or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not in like manner assented for the public good"; and yet, in defiance of this provision the present constitution goes on to confine the right of voting to white men exclusively.

It is hardly necessary here to refute any of the slanders with which our enemies seek to prove our unfitness for the exercise of the right of suffrage. It is true, that many of our people are ignorant, but for that these very men are responsible, and decency should prevent their use of such an argument. But if our people are ignorant, no people were ever more orderly and obedient to the laws; and no people ever displayed greater earnestness in the acquisition of knowledge. Among no other people could such a revolution have taken place without scenes of license and bloodshed; but in this

— page 7 —

case, and we say it advisedly, full information of the facts will show that no single disturbance, however slight, has occurred which has not resulted from the unprovoked aggression of white people, and, if any one doubts how fast the ignorance, which has hitherto cursed our people, is disappearing, 'mid the light of freedom, let him visit the colored schools of this city and neighborhood, in which between two and three thousand pupils are being taught, while, in the evening, in colored schools may be seen, after the labors of the day, hundreds of our adult population from budding manhood to hoary age, toiling, with intensest eagerness, to acquire the invaluable arts of reading and writing, and the rudimentary branches of knowledge. One other objection only will we notice; it is that our people are lazy and idle; and, in support of this allegation, the objectors refer to the crowds of colored people subsisting on Government rations, and flocking into the towns. To the first statement we reply that we are poor, and that thousands of our young and able-bodied men, having been enlisted in the army to fight the battles of their country, it is but reasonable that that country should contribute something to the support of those whose natural protectors that country has taken away. With reference to the crowds collected round the military posts and in the cities, we say that though some may have come there under misapprehensions as to the nature of the freedom they have just received, yet this is not the case with the majority; the colored man knows that freedom means freedom to labor, and to enjoy its fruits, and in that respect evinces at least an equal appreciation of his new position with his late owners; if he is not to be found laboring for these late owners, it is because he cannot trust them, and feels safe, in his new-found freedom, nowhere out of the immediate presence of the national forces; if the planters want his labor (and they do,), fair wages and fair treatment will not fail to secure it.

In conclusion, we wish to advise our colored brethren of the State and nation, that the settlement of this question is to a great extent dependent on them, and that supineness on their part will do as much to delay if not defeat the full recognition of their rights as the open opposition of avowed enemies. Then be up and active, and everywhere let associations be formed having for their

— page 8 —

object the agitation, discussion and enforcement of your claims to equality before the law, and equal rights of suffrage. Your opponents are active; be prepared, and organize to resist their efforts. We would further advise that all political associations of colored men, formed within the limits of the State of Virginia, should communicate the fact of their existence, with the names and post office addresses of their officers, to Joseph T. Wilson, Norfolk, Va., in order that communication and friendly cooperation may be kept up between the different organizations, and facilities afforded for common and united State action, should occasion require it.

Second— Everywhere in Virginia, and doubtless in all other States, your late owners are forming Labor Associations, for the purpose of fixing and maintaining, without the least reference to your wishes or wants, the prices to be paid for your labor; and we say to you, "Go and do likewise." Let labor Associations be at once formed among the colored people throughout the length and breadth of the United States, having for their object the protection of the colored laborer, by regulating fairly the price of labor; by affording facilities for obtaining employment by a system of registration, and last, though by no means least, by undertaking, on behalf of the colored laborer, to enforce legally the fulfilment of all contracts made with him. To insure uniformity of action in this matter, throughout this State, it is desirable that a means of communication be afforded the different associations, and, for this purpose, Mr. Wm. Keeling, of No. 96 Church street, Norfolk, Va., a member of this committee, will receive all communications giving information of such associations formed within the limits of this State.

Third— The surest guarantee for the independence and ultimate elevation of the colored people will be found in their becoming the owners of the soil on which they live and labor. To this end, let them form Land Associations, in which, by the regular payment of small instalments, a fund may be created for the purchase at all land sales, of land on behalf of any investing member, in the name of the Association, the Association holding a mortgage on the land until, by the continued payment of a regular subscription, the sum advanced by the Association and the interest upon it are paid off, when the occupier gets a clear title. Communications from all such Associations in this State, with a view to the formation of a Union of the Virginian Colored Land Associations, will be gladly received by Mr. Geo. W. Cooke, No. 21 Fox Lane, Norfolk, Va.

Any of our white friends in this State, favorable to the views set forth in this address, would do us a great benefit by signing the pledge forming the cover of this pamphlet and forwarding it with their names and addresses to either of the Recording Secretaries of the Democratic Republican Association, described in Appendix "A," Messrs. C. E. Johnson, or T. L. R. Baker, both of Norfolk.

In concluding this address, we would now make a last appeal to our fellow-citizens of all classes throughout the nation. Every Christian and humane man must feel that our demands are just; we have shown you that their concession is, for us, necessary, and for you expedient. We are Americans, we know no other country, we love the land of our birth and our fathers, we thank God for the glorious prospect before our country, and we believe that if we do but obey His laws He will yet enthrone her high o'er all the nations of the earth, in glory, wealth, and happiness; but this exalted state can never be reached if injustice, ingratitude, and oppression of the helpless, mark the national conduct, treasuring up, as in the past, God's wrath and your misery for a day of reckoning; as the path of justice alone is ever the safe and pleasant way, and the words of Eternal Wisdom have declared that the throne (or nation) shall be established only by righteousness and upholden by mercy. With these reflections we leave our case in the hands of God, and to the consideration of our countrymen.

Signed, on behalf of the colored people of Norfolk and vicinity, June 26th, 1865.
Dr. THOMAS BAYNE, Norfolk, Chairman of Committee.
JNO. M. BROWN, Pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Bute Street, Norfolk, Va.

— page 9 —


THOMAS HENSON, Pastor of the Catharine Street Baptist Church, Norfolk, Va.
WM. KEELING, 96 Church street, Norfolk, Va.
GEO. W. COOKE, 21 Fox Lane, Norfolk, Va.
JOSEPH T. WILSON, 26 Hawk street, Norfolk, Va.
THOS. F. PAIGE, Jr., 27 Hawk street, Norfolk, Va.
H. HIGHLAND GARNET, Pastor 15th St. Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., Honorary Member.