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Voting Rights For All? 1624-1870

Village Preservation’s curriculum on Black history for middle school students focuses on local, citywide, national, and global themes and movements from pre-European settlement through the 21st century. One of the themes we explore is how voting rights and other civil rights evolved and were won by and for African Americans in our city and elsewhere in the state and country. Today, we look at how voting rights developed from Dutch rule through 1870, when the 15th Amendment was passed during Reconstruction.

Could Black people vote in New Amsterdam?

No, they could not. So who did have the right to vote under Dutch rule in New Amsterdam from 1624-1664? No one, actually. The government was controlled by the Director General of the Dutch West India Company. There were representatives and local councils, but their members were appointed by the Dutch rulers. The people, no matter their race, religion, gender, or social status, had no voice whatsoever in their own government. This was not unusual for the time, and even though some European governments provided limited rights for their citizens or residents, these rights typically did not apply to people living in their overseas colonies.

This is not to say Black people were treated equally. Black people for the most part arrived in the colony as slaves, and slavery was a major driver of the economy.

Could Black people vote in New York under British rule?

The English ruled New York City from 1665-1783. The English were familiar with rights and representative government going back to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, and the formation of Parliament about 50 years later. Parliament evolved over the next 400 years, but by the mid 17th century in England, still only the wealthiest landowners were able to vote. At this time, only about 3% of the British population were able to vote and elect representatives to Parliament.

As an overseas colony, New York had no representation in Parliament. England was a monarchy and the Duke of York was appointed the governor of New York. There were some local councils and assemblies in New York whose members were elected by the Protestant white male landowners, but their power to pass laws was subject to the approval of the governor and the Duke of York. Catholics, Jews, Native Americans, African Americans, and women were not allowed to vote.

And of course the institution of slavery exploded under British rule in New York.

Could Black People Vote in Colonial New York?

The Constitution of the United States of America says all men are created equal, so all white and black men could vote, right? Unfortunately, no. Not even all white men could vote. It depended on the state, but the vote was usually restricted to white males who owned land or paid taxes, with some states further discriminating against Catholics and Jews. About 75% of adult males 21 and over in most colonies qualified as voters, but this was only about 15% of the population. No women, enslaved or free Black people, or Native Americans could vote.

Could Black People Vote in New York in 1827?

Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, groups such as the Manumission Society fought to abolish slavery in New York. In 1827, all forms of slavery in New York State, which had been increasingly restricted since 1799, were abolished. Black men were finally extended some voting rights in New York. Between 1820 and 1840, property qualifications were gradually removed throughout the country, and the right to vote was extended to all white males, regardless of their religion or whether they owned property.

However, the property restriction was not lifted for Black men, and due to strict regulations, just 16 black New Yorkers were actually able to vote in 1827. Over the next 50 years, in referendum after referendum after referendum, in 1846, 1860, and 1869, the white voters of New York continued to restrict the rights of Black men to vote by refusing to eliminate the property qualification for Black voters, a restriction that did not apply to white voters.

Could Black People Vote in New York in 1870?

“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.” -15th Amendment, 1870

The 15th Amendment to the Constitution finally gave all Black men the right to vote. This resulted in a huge amount of Black participation in voting and the election of 22 black men to serve in the U.S. Congress. In New York State, this finally eliminated the unequal property requirements for voting for Black men. Additionally, depending on the state, some Asians and Native Americans were able to vote. It was a high point for Black political involvement in this country.

Of course, this is not the end of the story, and a harsh backlash in the South against these rights being gained resulted in a 75-year period in which no Black people served in congress from the southern states. Until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Black people in the South faced widespread discrimination including poll taxes, literacy tests, and violent and deadly intimidation. And we took another step back in 1882 when the Chinese Exclusion Act stripped away rights previously enjoyed.

But in New York, beginning in 1870, all Black men were allowed to vote. It would be another 50 years for white and Black women to receive the same right.

Click here to read more about Black history in the Village or here to access our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map. Click here to learn more about our curriculum for middle school students.

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