By Ramin Ganeshram and Elizabeth Normen
As we prepare for the 2020 election and celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage it’s time to reexamine the state’s record on voting rights and to appreciate what women suffragists gleaned from the struggle for black suffrage. It’s a reminder that our right to vote can’t be taken for granted. By voting on election day, we honor those who fought for the right.
When the State of Connecticut prepared to adopt its first constitution in 1818, debates held on the floor of the state house considered whether people of color and women deserved suffrage. Those in favor were a small minority and were quickly voted down. African Americans would wait 51 years for the right to vote in this state, and women another 102.
Historically speaking, universal suffrage—the right of all citizens to vote—is a very modern concept. At Connecticut’s founding, only male property owners qualified to vote. But there was no race qualification, so in 1799 Jack John, who had been freed from slavery in 1782 and came to own 26 acres of land in Wallingford, was added to the voter rolls in that town. Four years later, Toby Birdseye, who had been freed from slavery in 1798 and owned land and a portion of a sawmill in Wallingford, was added to the voter rolls, too. Both men were registered to vote by the leaders of Wallingford, including their former owners who would have vouched for their good standing in the community.
But Wallingford’s actions soon drew the ire of Connecticut’s ruling Federalists who accused the town of registering to vote 15 white men who did not meet the property requirement. They also accused the town of improperly registering Birdseye, but to do so they resorted to a racially-charged character attack since he clearly met the property requirement. No record exists of the general assembly’s debate, but in 1814 the assembly inserted the word “white” into the qualifications for voting. As the late Trinity College history professor Jack Chatfield noted in his introduction to volume 17 of the Public Records of the State of Connecticut, in that moment, “In a state buffeted by fierce political controversies, a consensual white supremacy led to a re-definition of the republican civic community.”
Connecticut’s black citizens did not let this pass. Over the next 50 years, they petitioned the state legislature 26 times for their full rights as citizens, citing the rhetoric Patriots had used in their fight for freedom from the tyranny of England in the American Revolution. Their persistence would prove to be a handbook for women’s suffragists—including overlooked women suffragists of color.
In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, an amendment to the state constitution was proposed. Governor William Buckingham said to the general assembly, “We are now battling for the inalienable rights of man, without regard to race or color. In this struggle the colored man, hitherto degraded and oppressed, have, in every section of the country, been on the side of the government, and are now in our armies by thousands fighting for freedom under the protection of law. Let us inspire the colored man … by granting him the boon so long withheld.”
Unconvinced, the opposition challenged the very concept of black citizenship. They were rebuffed when the Connecticut Supreme Court declared unequivocally that “a free colored person born in this State is a ‘citizen’ of this State, and of the United States.” The assembly begrudgingly voted in favor of the amendment but a public referendum in October 1864 failed by a substantial margin.
In 1870 the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, stating that no man could be denied the right to vote based on race or previous condition of servitude. After six years of bitter and protracted debate, Connecticut finally amended the state constitution accordingly.
This Black History Month, we recognize the men and women who have fought tirelessly over more than two centuries for black suffrage. We ask you to honor them by exercising your hard-won right to vote on election day.
VOTING LESSON PLAN
High school students can learn about the state’s history of granting suffrage to women and people of color with a free lesson plan, “Why Should I Vote?,” available at ctexplored.org/history-of-voting-toolkit-high-school/.
Ramin Ganeshram is executive director of Westport Museum for History & Culture. Elizabeth Normen is publisher of Connecticut Explored, the magazine of Connecticut history.